A specific plan to change economics textbooks
By Tim Thornton
[Tim Thornton is in the Economic Theory and Education Program, Global Development and Environment Institute, Tufts University]
Abstract: In this brief article a particular plan to change economics textbooks is put forward. It is assumed that the reader has at least some affinity with the view that the economics curriculum is in need of reform. For example, they might wish to see greater pluralism, more interdisciplinarity, or increased incorporation of recent advances in economic thought. The structure of the analysis is as follows. First, it is argued that textbooks are one of the most important factors in how the discipline of economics reproduces itself. Second, the difficulties of changing textbooks are examined. This section includes scrutiny of recent analysis that concludes that whilst economics textbooks should change, they don’t change and won’t change. Section three outlines the ‘minimum ask’ campaign, a global collective push that involves both academics and students. The campaign is ambitious in some respects, yet is essentially modest in that it asks very little of any particular participant.
- The importance of economics textbooks
Economics textbooks are central to how the discipline of economics reproduces itself and how it convinces society of the legitimacy of its conclusions. Whilst writing a textbook does not have the glamour or esteem of producing highly cited research, it is perhaps at least as important. As Paul Samuelson, the father of the modern economics textbook remarked,“I don’t care who writes a nation’s laws – or crafts its advanced treatises – as long as I can write its textbooks” (Samuelson cited in Skousen 1997, p. 150). Relatedly, Lamm (1993) points out that the yearly sales of the leading economics textbooks dwarf the lifetime sales of many of the ground breaking books in economics such as Keynes’ General Theory. Furthermore, King (1995) argues that the inability of the first generation of Post Keynesians to produce a satisfactory textbook was a critical factor in allowing neoclassical-synthesis Keynesianism to become dominant.
Clearly, textbooks matter. Indeed, it is quite hard to imagine how there will be major change in economics until there are major changes in economics textbooks. However, we can frame this same point in more positive terms by saying it is quite easy to imagine how changing the textbooks used in economics could precipitate major change in economics. What then are the prospects of change?
- The difficulties of changing textbooks
Usurping the currently dominant economics texts has proven to be difficult thus far and it appears unlikely that the problem will resolve itself. Why is this? As Colander (2015) points out, the content and presentation of the standard textbook has become intricately connected to the existing institutional structure within economics departments and that economists at the ground level face significant incentives to persist with existing textbooks. This is so even when an economist might know that these textbooks are problematic. Indeed, economic textbook authors knowingly include content they know to be problematic for fear of their book being seen as too different and thus not selling in sufficient quantities (Colander 2004). In summary, there is ongoing supply and demand for a product that is recognised as being faulty:
Economists … consistently choose textbooks that teach material that they know is false and/or completely out of date…there’s still this incredible tension in what we teach. I am so displeased at the way undergraduate and even graduate economics is taught…If this were physics or astronomy, when they get new ideas at the forefront they immediately teach them, but in economics they teach the stuff that even thirty years ago people did not believe…So I think there is a real tension and that there will be one for a long time (Gintis 2004 pp.92-93).
One response to this situation is to conclude that whilst economics textbooks should change, they don’t and won’t, change (Colander 2015). Such an essentially defeatist stance is unwarranted. Indeed, given that beliefs about social systems are working parts of those systems (Stretton 1999), it may be actively unhelpful to argue that, barring ‘the stars aligning just right’, things cannot change. As Nelson Mandela once remarked in relation to a far more substantial challenge ‘it always seems impossible until it is done’. How then could it be done?
A plan of action: ‘the minimum ask’
For several decades there have been rising calls for the reform of economics and in particular, economics teaching. Furthermore, there has been a proliferation of student and academic organisations and entities to promote change within economics. A short (but far from complete) list includes:
- The World Economics Association
- Rethinking Economics
- The Institute for New Economic Thinking
- The International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics
- The Association of Heterodox Economics
- The International Confederation of Associations for Pluralism in Economics
- The Union for Radical Political Economists
Such organisations do highly valuable work. However, there has yet to be any joint project or campaign to get these types of reform-orientated organisations working together to achieve a specific end via specific means. In other words, true coordination on specific tasks has not yet occurred. Here then is an opportunity to start a new phase of more collectively organised and tightly focused efforts at change. If successful the approach could potentially be replicated to achieve other improvements in teaching, research and policy.
The campaign advocated here is, in its essence, simple: mobilise as many reform-minded students and academics as possible to approach their own university and request that they consider an alternative (and superior) textbook. The campaign is called ‘The Minimum Ask.’ The title captures the fact that what is being asked is the very minimum that can be asked of economics departments given there has been sustained criticism of what is taught. The title of ‘The Minimum Ask’ also captures that what is being asked of participants in the campaign is very minimal: choosing and then suggesting a particular textbook. Let us now consider the specific details of the campaign.
What textbook(s) to advocate?
Participating individuals are free choose the text they themselves think is best. Given that a central objective of the campaign is to promote pluralism in economics this approach makes sense. However, to alert participants to some of the more obvious options, participating organizations are encouraged to draw up their own short-list of textbooks for their members to choose from. There are several organisations that have already produced lists of alternative introductory textbooks. These textbooks range from the reformist to the revolutionary:
- The World Economic Association’s Textbook List
- The Heterodox Economic Directory’s Textbook List
- The Union for Radical Political Economists Textbook List
There are doubtless other lists and participants may already have determined what the text (or list texts) they want to suggest to their own university.
How to make the approach?
Participants can approach the relevant introductory economics teacher in any way they feel comfortable. This could take the modest and minimal form of simply spending two minutes to send a brief email to the relevant academic with a link to a particular textbook or textbooks. The approach could also take the form of a phone call or a direct meeting. One might make the approach individually or in collaboration with others. One may simply float the idea or one may engage more concerted process of discussion and persuasion. If the decision on textbooks is taken at the department level it might involve writing a memo, attending a meeting or submitting an agenda item. Participants should do whatever they think makes best sense for them in their particular context.
Making a considered and professional textbook suggestion to an academic should not normally have any risks associated with it. However, it pays to be careful and canny when seeking reform. Students who are already stuck with a particular set text in a particular semester can obviously afford to wait till the end of semester when they have their end of semester results before making the approach. They may also wish to make the suggestion as a group rather than as single individuals. Similarly, fixed term staff and contract staff may wish to think about when, how, with whom and to whom they make their suggestions.
Monitoring and Evaluation
Monitoring and evaluation is desirable, for if the campaign is successful, and everybody knows it is successful, it would create a strong momentum for further collective actions of this type (for example, changing intermediate or postgraduate textbooks or changing institutional structures around journal rankings). Momentum is obviously critical so the most vulnerable stage for the whole initiative is the launch of the plan (i.e. right now), so if you are in any sympathetic to the cause please get on board. The more people that get on board, the more likely it is that others will then get on board.
To let the world know that people are getting on board, participants are encouraged to fill in a brief form at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/VN3338Y in order to report back on what the response was to their suggestion. Participants can fill out as much or as little of the form as they wish. They are not asked to reveal their own identity or the name of their university. The progress of the campaign can be monitored at http://home.exetel.com.au/minimumask
If you have any questions or advice you would like to offer in regards to this campaign please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org What are the prospects for success? Don’t know. Let us see what can be done.
Disclosure: Tim Thornton is not currently himself a textbook author, but he has friendships and affiliations with several textbook authors, including his colleagues at the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University. The idea of a ‘minimum ask’ campaign was conceived in his PhD thesis (Thornton 2013) and developed in a book based on this PhD (Thornton 2017)
Colander, D (2015) ‘Why Economics Textbooks Should, but Don’t, and Won’t, Change,’ European Journal of Economics and Economic Policies: Intervention, vol. 12, issue. 2, pp. 229-35.
Colander, D C (2004) ‘Caveat Lector: Living with the 15 Per Cent Rule’, Australasian Journal of Economics Education, vol. 1, issue. 1.
Gintis, H (2004) ‘Herbit Gintis’, in D C Colander, J B Rosser & R P F Holt (eds), The Changing Face of Economics: Conversations with Cutting Edge Economists, Place Pubished, University of Michigan Press, pp. 77-106.
King, J E 1995, The First Post Keynesian: Joan Robinson’s Essays in the Theory of Employment (1937), Discussion Paper, School of Economics and Commerce, La Trobe University, Bundoora.
Lamm, D S (1993) ‘Economics and the Common Reader’, in D Colander & A W Coates (eds), The Spread of Economic Ideas, Place Pubished, Cambridge University Press, pp. 95-106.
Skousen, M (1997) ‘The Perseverance of Paul Samuelson’s Economics’, The Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 11, issue. 2, pp. 137-52.
Stretton, H (1999) Economics: A New Introduction, Sydney, UNSW Press.
Thornton, T B (2013) ‘The Possibility of a Pluralist Economics Curriculum in Australian Universities: Historical Forces and Contemporary Strategies’, PhD thesis, La Trobe University.
—— (2017) From Economics to Political Economy: The Promise, Problems and Solutions of Pluralist Economics, London, Routledge.
From: pp.7-9 of WEA Commentaries 8(5), December 2018