Current situation >> Summary
How are economists made?
Economists learn to think in numbers, not in structures: 98% of methods courses are quantitative or mathematical.
One theoretical perspective has a monopoly: 86% of all theory is from the neoclassical approach.
The real world economy is hardly explained: 75% of courses are purely theory.
How are economists made? That is the basic question of Thinking like an Economist?, the report on which part of this website is based. The report evaluates to what extent Dutch economics curricula prepare future economists for the leading role they are going to play in society. Like this website, it is a product of Rethinking Economics NL. See also the thinking behind this report, the data gathering methodology, and the resulting profiles of each Dutch economics BSc program. The theoretical background of the study may also be interesting. Or go straight to our recommendations.
"Certainly, the theories and methods that are taught to us are applicable to many parts of the economic system. But they neglect the social and political foundations of markets. They deny any other economic logic or motivation than gain-seeking. They say nothing about the structure of the Dutch economy, about relationships between and within companies, about systemic risks, power, well-being, global value chains, human relations, history, automation, civil society, current institutions, cooperation and the ecological and cultural embeddedness of economy.
In short: the near-monopoly of neoclassical theory and quantitative methods imparts on us a fixated framing of what the economy is about. This may be productive for many academic pursuits; it is not productive in the making of professional economists."
Data and methodology
The data for this report comes from a detailed analysis of 325 course outlines. That is, all BSc courses currently offered by the nine Dutch economics programmes.
This data allows us to analyse and compare the bachelor programs in Economics from every Dutch university on the following aspects: research methods, theoretical economic approaches, multi- and interdisciplinarity, real world economics, tools for critical thinking and didactic methods. With this research, we aim to provide a solid factual basis, to facilitate the growing discussion regarding the way we teach our future economists.
The report finds that Dutch economics education is dominated by the study of market mechanisms among rational, utility-maximizing actors. These markets are implicitly presumed to make up the entire economic system, as all social organization is assumed to take the form of (imperfect) market mechanisms. This axiom stems from the dominance of the neoclassical approach in economics programmes, which takes up 86% of all theory course time. No other approach receives more than 4% of the theoretical teaching time, and they are generally presented as optional extras.
What is more, students are trained within a framework that aims to capture objects of study only in terms of numbers, which is profoundly problematic. 97% of the course time spent on methods focuses on quantitative research skills or even pure mathematics. That means that the institutional, social, political and cultural dimensions, which deeply shape economic structures, are systematically overlooked in curricula, since it is often hard, if not impossible, to capture these in quantitative terms. Only 3% of the time is spent on qualitative methods like interviewing, qualitative field research, focus groups or the design of qualitative surveys. Thus, students are effectively blinded to any and all aspects of the economy which cannot be expressed in numbers.
In addition to that, Dutch economics curricula generally teach in a way that makes us prone to see the theory as the real world, rather than as an abstraction of it. Even though research shows a large consensus among economists that professional economists should have on-the-ground knowledge of economic processes, Dutch curricula do not prepare us for this. 75% of all courses stay completely within the world of abstract theory and methods, spending time neither on economic sectors, nor on economic history, nor on economic problems. This also means we do not learn where the theoretical models deviate from reality. Reality often does not obey theoretical models, and the best way to realize this is to take a look at the real world. But as students, we spend little time learning about the actual economy. Hence, we do not learn what these models omit or misrepresent.
As for the development of a critical mind-set, most curricula do pay considerable attention to topics as ethics, economic methodology and philosophy of science. However, such courses teach critical thinking in the abstract. We would argue that the near monopoly of the neoclassical approach undermines the possibility of developing a critical mind, because it doesn’t give students the opportunity to develop independent judgements about which approaches are most useful in particular circumstances. All in all, the extent to which economics students develop a critical mind seems insufficient.
If no alternative approach receives serious treatment, it is hard to think outside a framework of neoclassical axioms. In fact, the combination of limited attention for the real world economy and continued exposure to a single analytical approach can easily lead students to see discrepancies between the world and the models as aberrations in the world, not in the model. It threatens to make economics programmes prescriptive, rather than descriptive, in their very core. For example, if we find markets that are not working, we may tend to conclude that we need more perfect markets, rather than looking for approaches that involve alternative forms of social organization. Thus, critical thinking as directly applied to the subject matter is not facilitated; it remains an abstract notion.
The ability to think critically is also shaped by the didactic methods that are used in a program. Increasingly, our exams consist of multiple-choice questions, which are quicker to grade. In teaching materials, textbooks dominate; beautifully constructed crystal palaces of theory, from which every notion of disagreement, doubt or ambiguity has been scrubbed. But an academic education is not just about learning by heart; it is about learning to think, to probe, to argue and to reflect. In fact, it matters very much whether we as students write essays or answer multiple-choice questions. It makes a large difference whether we have to successfully reproduce mathematical equations, or have to defend the position taken in a debate. Over time, such teaching practices hollow out the academic character of our economics programs.
In short, Dutch economics education is dominated by the study of independent, rational, utility-maximizing actors in contexts of scarcity. We study how actors maximise in contexts of scarcity, which is implicitly presumed to define what economics is about, in quantitative terms only. And since we are taught little about the actual economy, we do not learn when models deviate from reality, nor what these models omit or misrepresent. Finally, we hardly learn to question these teachings through applied critical thinking.
Why is this a problem, for all of us?
This is a societal problem. An economics programme that revolves around how agents maximise utility in contexts of scarcity, may be fitting for future academic researchers. But academics are a splinter group: less than 3% of the graduates from economics bachelor programs will go into academia. Around 97% of the economics graduates will go on to play key societal roles as journalists, policy makers, corporate managers or civil servants. This group is expected to understand the complexity, multiplicity and messiness of the real world, and should be able to use a theory only as a means in order to better understand that reality. Yet, our results show that Dutch economics curricula generally fall short at this point. The programs, as they stand, do not serve 97% of their students. Nor do they serve our society, with economists who are ready to face the economic challenges of the 21st century.
Certainly, the theories and methods that are taught to us are applicable to many parts of the economic system. But they neglect the social and political foundations of markets. They deny any other economic logic or motivation than gain-seeking. They say nothing about the structure of the Dutch economy, about relationships between and within companies, about systemic risks, power, well-being, global value chains, human relations, history, automation, civil society, current institutions, cooperation and the ecological and cultural embeddedness of economy. In short: the near-monopoly of neoclassical theory and quantitative methods imparts on us a fixated framing of what the economy is about. This may be productive for many academic pursuits; it is not productive in the making of professional economists.
Where do we go from here?
Clearly, our economics education needs rethinking. Many have put forward suggestions and blueprints for this, including agencies like the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) and the International Confederation of Associations for Pluralism in Economics (ICAPE). On this website, we provide an overview of such proposals, and offer our own suggestions for redesigning economics curricula, and offer recommendations for action on the part of students, academics, faculty leadership and government.
Although steps forward from this situation are necessary and urgent, they will not occur automatically. One deeper cause of the theoretical monism in our programs is a historical shift in the discipline of economics. For most of the centuries following Adam Smith’s work, economics was a broad science. But sometime after World War II, this started to change. Thinkers who could provide a contrast to the neoclassical worldview were slowly pushed out of the faculties. Some found refuge in neighbouring disciplines, as business studies, sociology, political science or human geography. But we, economics students, hardly get the chance to benefit from their insights, as the economics programs contain little multidisciplinarity.
This has not happened overnight, and it cannot be remedied overnight. It will take time to bring back pluralism to our faculties. But it is a necessary step. We must either re-create pluralist economics faculties, or ask staff from other disciplines to step in and help teach our future economists.
This history, however, does not fully explain the lack of critical thinking in our programs, or the limited contact with the real economy. Knowing our own teachers, we are sure that these problems are not caused by unwillingness on the part of faculty to teach students broad, critical and real world economic thinking. Instead, problem causes seem to be a lack of allocated time for teaching, a high student/teacher ratio, skewed evaluation systems which undervalue teaching and overvalue journal publications, and a lack of suitable teaching materials for anything outside that narrow mainstream. This means that, with this report, we do not mean to attack our professors.
Still, although not caused by any foul intent, the lapses in our education do present a serious social problem. Clear-sighted economic thinking forms a critical part of our society’s infrastructure. Without thoroughly trained yet open-minded economists, whether working as politicians, business leaders, journalists or civil servants, we are collectively unable to identify and remedy the economic roots of so many societal problems. Without them, we are unable to build and maintain the strong and healthy basis of material provisions which our society needs to flourish. Therefore, we ask our professors to stand together with us in confronting these challenges.
Hopefully, other students will be able to use this research to critically assess what we are taught, to read independently, get organized in a local Rethinking Economics group, and discuss with their professors how their programs can be improved. We are happy to help with that.
We hope academic economists will not feel attacked by this report. That is not our intent. We know how hard you work, and we want to work with you to make these programs better. Making economics better is our motivation to build this website, do this research and organize in general. We also present some further suggestions for action on the part of students, faculty, deans and program directors, and government actors to improve the situation.
Climate change, ageing, inequality, migration; these are the issues that will determine the future of our society. The economy plays in central role in them. This means that thorough, broad economics programs are one of the best ways to invest in the future of our society. Let’s build such programs, together. (discussion platform)