The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

The remarkable uniformity across undergraduate economics programmes (Reimann, 2004) does not reflect the state of contemporary economics. Becker (2004) has bemoaned the way that the undergraduate curriculum has failed to keep pace with developments in economic theory. Authors who have been awarded Nobel prizes for their insights are being ignored. One possible explanation is pragmatic inertia. Undergraduate textbooks have fostered a false sense of an agreed body of knowledge (Ormerod, 2003) whilst lecturers' sunk capital in teaching materials and the opportunity cost (in terms of time for research) of changing teaching generates a conservative attitude towards the curriculum. Students and the future health of the discipline are the losers from this unhappy conjunction. One outcome is a fall in the number of students wanting to study the subject (Knoedler and Underwood, 2003). A survey of students conducted by the Economics Network of the Higher Education Academy in the UK gathered elicited responses from students; examples are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Undergraduate students who want a more heterodox experience

  • 'The basic problem is that the vast majority of economics in [the course] is orthodox/mainstream. Students aren't offered alternative approaches developed by Post-Keynesians, institutionalists and Marxists. But the problem seems to be the same elsewhere: 95 per cent of the economics taught in higher education institutions is mainstream.'
  • 'More of historical account of the development ideas I believe would be beneficial to understanding why we believe the ideas we do today, what was wrong (why they failed/are no longer used) with ideas of yesterday, e.g. going from the Gold Standard to Keynesianism to Thatcherism to today.'
  • 'I would like to see more empirical evidence used in lectures to support or maybe contradict the economic models. This would help relate what can be some very abstract ideas to the real world. The few times this has happened I have found it very interesting.'
  • 'More focus on non-orthodox economics rather than just neo-classical to give a broader perspective.'

Even within the economics 'mainstream', a view is emerging that the content of economics teaching is unrepresentative of the subject, robbing it of dynamism and making it less attractive. Becker (2004) noted criticisms of mainstream economics, from academics and from students citing Keen (2000) and the Post-Autistic Economics Movement originating in France. Keen's critique was aimed at the foundational theoretical concepts of textbook economics. The French students' complaints were that economics was far too abstract, unrealistic and irrelevant. In some ways, these criticisms echo Ormerod's (2003) view that economics pays insufficient heed to empirical evidence or the economic history of actually existing economic institutions.

In the light of this critique this chapter examines the rationale and scope for teaching heterodox economics. We continue with a working definition of heterodox economics, a summary of the arguments for teaching heterodox economics and an introduction to strategies for teaching.