Monday, April 14, 2008

Economics at Notre Dame: An Open Letter

As quoted from the mission statement of The University of Notre Dame:

“The University is dedicated to the pursuit and sharing of truth for its own sake. As a Catholic university, one of its distinctive goals is to provide a forum where, through free inquiry and open discussion, the various lines of Catholic thought may intersect with all the forms of knowledge found in the arts, sciences, professions, and every other area of human scholarship and creativity. The intellectual interchange essential to a university requires, and is enriched by, the presence and voices of diverse scholars and students…The University is committed to constructive and critical engagement with the whole of human culture.”

As members of the University of Notre Dame, we have a special obligation to engage our learning, our teaching, and our world with integrity. Additionally, students deserve an education that explores the “full range of ideas.” Therefore, the University, if it hopes to fulfill its mission, must teach its students to think critically and provide opportunities for students to intellectually engage their discipline. It is our contention that the current situation of economics at Notre Dame often stifles debate, impedes student learning, and undermines the Catholic character of our University.

At Notre Dame, economics is divided into two separate departments: “The Department of Economics and Econometrics, which is a neoclassical economics department committed to rigorous theoretical and quantitative analysis in teaching and research,” and The Department of Economics and Policy studies, which is committed to “issues relating to socioeconomic justice and ethics,” “openness to alternative methodological approaches,” and the “roles of history and institutions” in the “broader political economy.” It is our fear that, in pursuit of higher department rankings, Notre Dame will sacrifice the latter department in favor of the former.

In other words, we oppose a situation in which neoclassical economic theory is taught to the exclusion of other theories. This tendency is already apparent in the one-sidedness of economics majors at our University. The required courses – introductory/intermediate microeconomics and macroeconomics, statistics, and econometrics – are all typically taught using only mainstream theory. It is alarming that a student could easily graduate from Notre Dame with a degree in Economics, having never questioned the basic assumptions of or been presented with plausible alternatives to neoclassical economics.

Neoclassical economic theory, because of its dominance in the academy, has become widely known as “mainstream” economics. Currently, introductory and intermediate micro and macro theory courses teach mainstream economics from an ahistorical perspective. These courses foster a narrow and incomplete view of economics, because they exclude teaching about the social and historical forces that shape economic theory and avoid sincerely questioning the underlying assumptions vital to the models. Furthermore, most professors present only neoclassical models to their students. This exclusive presentation implies that neoclassical theory itself is “economics.” This system of education, insulated from critical dissent, produces the next generation of economists with a fixed toolkit of models and prescriptions that assume an unchanging economic reality. As a result, students fail to contextualize neoclassical theory in the broader discourse of the social sciences.

In addition, mainstream economics is often presented as analogous to a natural science, such that economic laws are attributed the same character of universality as the laws of physics. As such, many faculty members teach mainstream neoclassical theory as a series of straight-forward mathematical concepts. This causes students to believe that economics is merely a matter of fine-tuning a particular model and thus void of ethical implications. Many faculty promote this inaccurate notion in their courses by arguing that mainstream economics furthers a “positive analysis” of the world, a value-neutral agenda of “efficiency” in the process of allocating scarce resources. They argue that their economic models do not contain or render value judgments. However, this perspective ignores the reality that neoclassical theory’s starting assumptions and supporting logic carry an embedded ethics and have serious social implications. This misrepresentation of a value-laden theory seriously misleads students and inhibits their ability to morally engage current trends. Today’s simultaneously increasing wealth and growing inequality affirm a desperate need for models critical of the mainstream.

To prevent this tendency toward a one-sided education, some economics students take courses where heterodox theories are introduced. These students are empowered to think about and critically engage both neoclassical models and alternative approaches. Unfortunately, the number of these courses at Notre Dame has dwindled in recent years. The deeper understanding afforded by these courses reveals that the current stunted education in economics is one of mostly memorization and unchallenging acceptance rather than a critical examination of assumptions, logic, and implications. With a more sophisticated teaching of economics, which includes a plurality of ideas, students better learn mainstream neoclassical theory and, in the process, are exposed to a variety of instructive alternatives.

In conclusion, the preponderance of economics courses which exclusively teach neoclassical theory impedes students from entering into the kind of flourishing intellectual life that is supposed to be fostered here at Notre Dame. This represents a failure to provide Notre Dame’s economics students with a truly liberal education. Therefore, we recommend the implementation of required courses for majors in both political economy and economic history. We also recommend that economics faculty strive to contextualize mainstream neoclassical economics within its historical development, thus placing it in the broader discourse of diverse economic thought. We further ask all professors who include economics content in their courses to present economics not as a set of hard-and-fast models befitting a natural science, but, more appropriately, as an evolving and dynamic social science.

As firm believers in the mission of the University and our ability to fulfill it, we hope that this letter begins a dialogue for change. The University of Notre Dame should reconsider its current teaching of economics, affirm the courses that currently offer heterodox approaches, and create more opportunities for challenging intellectual engagement if it hopes to provide its students with the truly premiere education it espouses.

The Petition

Sign the petition here: