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3. Teaching a heterodox module

3.1 Summary

As discussed above, exactly what comprises a heterodox module will depend on its level and the approach of the instructor. There are essentially three alternatives in constructing a heterodox module. One way is to try to teach a single heterodox approach, such as Post-Keynesianism or Marxism. In that case, considerable depth would be achieved. Most heterodox modules, such as those found via the Heterodox Economics Directory are of this type, as are many of the examples discussed in the curriculum booklet. In each case, consistent with heterodox principles, the module would begin with a discussion of the tradition’s methodology, and its place in the history of economic thought. Thereafter, the topics covered will depend on the perspective being considered. Different heterodox schools have had different concerns and thus their literatures are skewed towards those issues. Space precludes a full discussion of all of these options here. However, reasonable guides to content can be based on treatments of the approaches in any texts dedicated to them, history of economic thought texts and recent editions of journals devoted to the tradition.

The second way to teach a heterodox module is to draw on the diversity of heterodox perspectives. One way is to anticipate the contending perspectives approach discussed below and teach a series of topics, in each case considering a variety of heterodox perspectives. So, on successive topics of, say, methodology, the individual, firms and competition, the aggregate economy, the role of government and income distribution, one would consider the work of each of the heterodox perspectives chosen on those topics. In that way, the benefits of teaching heterodox material are achieved, as are the advantages of teaching multiple contending perspectives.

A third way is to attempt to teach a fairly unified heterodox perspective, not based around one perspective, but by combining elements of different heterodox traditions. The main benefit of this is that one chooses the heterodox school that deals best with specific topics. For example, if one wanted to deal with the question of money, one could examine a range of heterodox perspectives on it (for example, Lautzenheiser and Yasar (2005) discuss teaching money in Marx) but it may be equally useful to consider Keynes’ work, which is arguably the most important contribution available. One might also discuss the issue of ‘macroeconomics’ and use that as a reason to discuss the contribution of Keynes to economics.

Alternatively, one could use Keynes to talk about uncertainty, or even, at the introductory level, about markets. The Keynesian beauty contest, in which stock markets are compared to a particular type of newspaper competition, in which entrants are asked to pick the beauty contestant whom they think others will choose, is a good example. That story is a good one: it encourages examination of the notions of the market, its efficiency, its outcomes and the market as an institution, rather than as a quasi-natural phenomenon.

Similarly, one might focus institutionalism on consumer theory, Post-Keynesianism on distribution, and Austrian Economics on competition (and policy). There is also a rich heterodox literature on production. Smith on the division of labour, Marx on exploitation, Bowles and Gintis (1985) on work organisation, and Spencer (2009) on the nature of work are all excellent sources for discussing actual production processes. It is this third approach which will be discussed here. A more detailed example appears in the accompanying publication “Pluralism in the economics curriculum”.

3.2 Evaluation of the heterodox module approach

When one is trying to present a summary of heterodox microeconomic concepts, drawing on extensive literatures, not everything can be included. In terms of omission, the list of heterodox concepts not covered would be potentially long but the module can attempt to provide an overview and introduction. It can also build cognitive capacities, such as the ability to think about an issue from different angles. This anticipates the contending perspectives approach discussed in section 4. Obviously, such a module is very different from standard introductions. Some tutors may be concerned that a heterodox module deviates too far from the Economics Benchmarking Statement and that concern is examined in Figure 5.

Figure 5: Heterodox modules in relation to the Economics Benchmarking Statement

In some significant ways, the heterodox module differs from the description of Economics in the Benchmarking Statement. Concepts identified as core theory may be omitted or even rejected. Interestingly, the new statement (QAA, 2015) removes references to scarcity: hence one of the key differences between it and a heterodox approach has gone. Indeed, some core concerns of heterodox economics have been incorporated: for instance the central role of finance, critical thinking, and sustainability. Crucially, several pluralist terms have been added, for instance that teaching should create “understanding of alternative approaches to the analysis of economic phenomena” and that “explanations may be contested”.

Several of the other core concepts listed there might be de-emphasised, neglected, questioned, rejected or even omitted in a heterodox module (see Table 2 in Section 2 of the curriculum booklet). However, their omission makes way for new concepts. Thus, side B of Table 1 below is easily converted from a set of principles into learning outcomes. In addition, though – and this theme should be clear throughout this chapter – learning outcomes are achieved in terms of student capacities and skills. Significantly, many of these are consistent with the Economics Benchmarks: abstraction, induction, deduction, analysis, quantification, design and framing – the identification of important variables – are all achievable in a heterodox module. Clearly, some of the conclusions reached about those skills – for example on the appropriate use of mathematical models – may be different from a heterodox viewpoint. However, in addition, skills of criticality, comparison and concrete, realistic thought may also be developed.

The above concerns also apply in different ways to the orthodox-plus and contending perspectives approaches. In both, the emphasis will be slightly different to a standard module and potentially some standard material will be omitted or less time will be given to it. However, equally, the development of critical and comparative skills will be enhanced to compensate, as in the case of the heterodox module.

The benefits of teaching a heterodox module are to some extent very similar to those of teaching heterodox material per se:

  • The heterodox module structures laid out above offer opportunities to discuss methodological and historical questions.
  • They confront students with different ways of thinking of the world and about economics.
  • Students may consequently understand the orthodox material better, because they have been forced to question it, to examine objections to it, and to consider an alternative.

Additionally, teaching an entire module of heterodox material allows more depth and breadth of material to be achieved, and thus the benefits of teaching that material are amplified. Further:

  • The benefits of studying heterodox material are achieved at a programme level. For example, students have space to confront ‘normative’ questions usually confined to policy analysis or philosophy. Indeed, that is a feature of the heterodox approach.
  • Students are invited to question whether the heterodox approach is superior or inferior to – or perhaps just different from – the orthodox material they have been learning.
  • They have the opportunity to study an entire system of thought and attempt to employ it.
  • If heterodox theory is more realistic than orthodox, then students develop a useful applicable toolkit of concepts which cannot feasibly be learned in a brief one- or two-week treatment.