Economics Education

frequently asked questions


What is this research about?
What do young people learn who study economics in the Netherlands? And what do we not learn? In what ways do we learn to see the world, what do we learn in terms of theory and how much do we learn about the real economy? Are we being trained with a single set of right answers, or do we learn to look at the world in a critical way?

Why did you guys do this research?
Since economists play such a central role in our society, it is vital that we educate them well. This has caused a lot of debate in recent years, about the quality and content of our economics teaching.

But that debate is often based on anecdotes and personal experiences, rather than a broadly shared basis of facts. This causes a lot of miscommunication. By creating systematic and statistical data on the content and teaching methods of Dutch economics programs, we hope to bring this debate to a higher level. And by providing a wide range of teaching, reading and other materials, we hope to give both students and academics more tools to expand their ideas about economics.

Isn't that ironic, a purely quantitative piece of research arguing that qualitative research is also important?
Definitely. And it's not only ironic, it also limits the depth of this research. Qualitative extensions are thus very welcome.

Is this research reliable?
There's no such thing as 100% scientific reliability. But as far as we know this is the most rigorous and detailed attempt to map the content of economics programs so far, both in the Netherlands and worldwide. For more information on the methodology see data origins and treatment and research methodology and statistical approach.

Are course guides a reliable source?
Course guides do not form a perfect description of what happens in courses. On the one hand, this could mean that some results are biased downwards, when the course includes features that are not reflected in the course outline. Although this is certainly the case for some courses, from our personal experiences as economics students we think that the opposite, an overestimation, occurs more frequently. These personal observations align with the expectations one would have, as course outlines often serve to represent the course as ideally as possible, in the perspective of accreditation commissions, deans, executive boards, other faculty members and (potential) students.

In order to minimize this problem, we asked students from each Bachelor program to check how their courses were scored on each indicator. This also helped improve the reliability of the distinctions between “briefly treated”, “extensively treated” and “entire course”, as this was sometimes difficult to see because of the lack of description within course outlines. A related issue is the weighing of the categories in the Likert scale, in which it is difficult to do justice to detailed degrees of difference between courses. However, we see no reason to expect this to bias the results in any specific direction.

Who has done and paid for this research and website?
The research was done by volunteers of Rethinking Economics, and the website was built using funding (labour time, hosting, promotion, etc.) of the foundations Our New Economy, Cardano Education and Triodos Foundation.

I don't agree with your statistics/conclusions.
This research project was the first of its kind, as far as we know, so the method could certainly be much improved. Feedback is always welcome! You can message us through the About page. We are planning to repeat this research in the coming years, to track progress in the composition of our economics programs. Alternatively, if you disagree with us AND feel the whole world should know, write in the newspaper, on MeJudice, ESB, or elsewhere, to point out the errors in our work. We are happy to discuss, because we simply feel that this is a very important topic, and we don't think we have a monopoloy on the truth.

What do you hope to achieve with this project?
We volunteer for Rethinking Economics because we think our society needs better economic thinking. Collectively, we are faced with huge challenges such as climate change, an instable financial system, and social polarization. In many of these, the economy plays a central role. So we need to get better perspectives on it, to grasp it.

This website therefore sets out what we are learning in the current programs, provides suggestions for how to expand our economic thinking, and facilitates the debate on how to best educate economists.

Do you really feel that all theories are created equal? And do you also want to teach unscientific ideas?
Nope. As George Box noted, "All models are wrong, but some are useful.". The point of a theory is not to exactly mimic the world, but to model certain fundamental aspects of it in a simplified and understandable way. This means that theories filter many things out, in order to see one or two things very clearly. That means that to understand something as complex as our economic system, you will need several theories, to see several dimensions of it very clearly. Think of the 3D-glasses which you used to get in the cinema. One side filters only blue light, the other eye filters only red light. Together, they form a 3D picture.

For those who know the debate surrounding "heterodox" (meaning non-orthodox, non-mainstream) theories: the boundary between heterodox and orthodox has been drawn and re-drawn many times, and we do not intend to contribute to that debate. Every economic approach, including the current orthodoxy (neoclassical economics) is regularly denounced as "unscientific". We prefer to ask: does this approach provide insight in how certain aspects of the economy work? If that is the case, we want to hear it. Whether it's (intellectually related to) Smith, Marx, Hayek, Veblen, Schumpeter, Keynes or Friedman.

What do you mean by neoclassical economics?
We describe neoclassical economics as: Human beings are rational and selfish, as their decisions are solely motivated by expected utility maximization based on their given and stable preferences. Mathematically deduced from these assumptions about individuals, an analysis of markets arises. These markets work mainly through price mechanisms; their efficiency as well as their potential failures are analysed.

See Classification of economic approaches for descriptions and key figures for each approach and neoclassical sub-branch.

Is neoliberalism the same as neoclassical economics?
No. But there is a link between the two. The Chicago school of economics is an important branch of both neoliberalism and neoclassical economics. There are however also neoclassical economists who are against neoliberalism, such as neo-Keysesian economists. And there are also neoliberals, such as Austrian economists, that don't view the world in a neoclassical manner.

So what do you guy think economics education should be like? You can't do everything so you have to choose.
Indeed. We would choose to focus on trying to understand the economic system and its challenges. In order to do this, we argue students should be taught a suitable toolkit of research methods, a diverse theoretical approach, real world economics and critical thinking. See Recommendations for more information on how we think we can create a better economics education.

What are all those approaches you constantly talk about? And what good could they possibly do?
Academic approaches are just like glasses. Every glasses has its strength and focus. Every approach places a particular emphasis on one aspect of the economy and try to always make this clear. Neoclassical economics, for example, focuses on market mechanisms. This is very useful, but when you would like to understand how markets are embedded within society Original institutional economics might for example be of more help. A broad understanding of the economy with its different aspects, is thus only possible when multiple approaches are combined.

How old is Rethinking Economics?
As old as the discipline of economics. Since the beginning there is discussion about what the discipline should be about. Veblen, for example, famously critized the current state of the discipline more than 100 years ago. But as neoclassical economics became more dominant, the protest against it began to grow as well (for an extensive history on this protest see A History of Heterodox Economics by Frederic Lee. Since the 90s and especially the financial crisis of 2008 the movement grew enormously and that is also when the name Rethinking Economics came into existence. For more information on the history of the international movement see International-debate.

Is Rethinking Economics a political movement?
No. Rethinking Economics does not support any political programs and positions. In other words, it does not promote one vision for how the economy should be organized. Rethinking Economics does however acknowledge that economics cannot be purely scientific, stripped of any normative considerations. This makes pluralism all the more important. Because when only one theoretical approach is taken seriously, the idea of one-size-fits-all becomes prevalent. Only when students are taught different approaches, they will be able to critically assess which one is most relevant for the specific problem they are dealing with.

How many Rethinking groups are there?
There are more than 70 groups around the world. See this map for a overview of all Rethinking Economics groups and see ISIPE for all the other groups that fight for pluralism in economics.

What do Rethinkers do?
We organise events, do research, campaign, debate, write articles and do many more things. See the website of Rethinking Economics NL to get a more detailed picture of what Rethinkers do.

How can I become a Rethinker?
Get into contact with a group nearby or go to the international website to get in contact with Rethinkers.

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