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Pluralist economics at Willamette University

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At Willamette, the overarching goal of the economics curriculum is to prepare students for independent, critical inquiry into economic issues.  To achieve this goal we are 1) reorienting our curriculum to begin with economic issues that motivate questions, 2) incorporating the history of economic thought in a systematic way and 3) committing to explicit pluralism. As a discipline, economics is unusual in the sense that it is dominated by an orthodox perspective. Most economics programs, including our current curriculum, focus almost exclusively on developing neoclassical economic theory, despite the fact that other schools of thought exist and continue to develop (Barone, 1991).  This creates a false impression of homogeneity in economic analysis.  By contrast, pluralism “embeds the principle of controversy in the definition of economic theory” (Freeman, 2009).

We recognize three compelling arguments about the virtues of a pluralist curriculum. First, it will result in improved recognition of economic theory as argument.  Confronted with competing explanations for the same phenomenon, students will be invited to investigate what leads to different conclusions.  This should help them see economic theory as argument by emphasizing the way that different values, different assumptions and, importantly, even different questions deemed to be important, lead to different conclusions.  This should also help students formulate their own economic questions and seek answers, as opposed to learning some given (neoclassical) theories and finding appropriate examples to apply them. Second, we expect it to result in improved understanding of economic arguments.  Even if we all believed that neoclassical theories were superior to other economic analyses in every way, variation learning theory suggests that offering a contrast would help students understand neoclassical arguments better.  In addition, because the neoclassical school is not the only contributor to public discussion, particularly in policy circles, exposing students to a broader range of economic theory will better prepare them to engage the public discourse after they graduate.  Finally, we expect pluralism to strengthen critical thinking.  Again, confronted with competing explanations for the same phenomenon, students will be invited “to identify, select, adapt, and critically interrogate the range of theories relevant to each concrete problem” (Freeman, 2009).  Thus, they will naturally be encouraged to move beyond mastery and application of theory to the exercise of judgment in determining which explanation is most compelling. Teaching a pluralist curriculum also helps streamline the component of history of thought, as different theories emerge out of different contexts and aim to solve the most urging problems of the time. Teaching only neoclassical economics may give students the impression that economics theories are a-historical, whereas exposing them to different theories help them see the way in which each theory is historically conditioned and embodies particular ethical precepts. 

Barone, Charles.  1991.  “Contending Perspectives: Curricular Reform in Economics,” The Journal of Economic Education.  Vol.  22, No.  1 (Winter, 1991), pp.  15-26.

Freeman, Alan.  2009.  “The Economists of Tomorrow: the Case for a Pluralist Subject Benchmark Statement for Economics,”  International Review of Economics Education.  Vol.  8, No.  2.

[Ed. note: There is also a position advertised as follows with more details on p.7 of the Newsletter. “The Willamette University Economics Department invites applications for a tenure track position at the assistant or associate level beginning Fall 2014. Priority will be given to files completed by December 1.  We will be interviewing at the January 3-5 ASSA meetings.”]

From: p.7 of World Economics Association Newsletter 3(5), October 2013


Download WEA commentaries Volume 3, Issue No. 5, October 2013 ›

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