Letter to the editor - The purpose of economics

Sir,

Diane Coyle and Simon Wren-Lewis (Newsletter, April 2015) make a short but important contribution to the debate on economics teaching. They claim that most economics departments aim to create critical-thinking, autonomous problem solvers; but given the largely vocational nature of the discipline, the current emphasis on the technical tools necessary to equip those who want to follow a career in economics is justified and leaves little scope for the teaching of economic history, history of economic thought and methodology, however desirable these might be. They contend therefore, that economics ought not be taught ‘as if it were one of the humanities in a traditional liberal education’. These claims deserve further discussion.

Coyle and Wren-Lewis raise what is, to me, the most important question in economics teaching: what are the aims of economics programmes? This ‘why?’ question must precede those of ‘what’ to teach, and ‘how’ to teach it. Without answering that question, teaching cannot be effective. Coyle and Wren-Lewis claim that most departments aim to create graduates who can think critically, apply their knowledge to problems, be lifelong learners, and be well-equipped to choose their own path. These aims are, of course, entirely consistent with a traditional liberal education.

My own view is that, rather than being motivated by a concern to create educated citizens, economics teaching has been driven by a desire to train students in a set of concepts and techniques, designed to produce the next generation of economists. We have to consider whether there is a conflict of educational philosophy here. We should also allow that for some departments their aims may not be clear. Overall, we simply do not know what the aims of economics departments are or what students think they are (literally) buying into when they undertake an economics degree.

For Coyle and Wren-Lewis, economics is inherently a vocational subject, and the aim of its teaching is vocational. Both are disputable. Economics was long grouped by Cambridge among the moral sciences, those disciplines such as history, law and philosophy, as well as economics, that studied various aspects of human behaviour. Marshall defined economics as ‘a study of mankind [sic] in the ordinary business of life’. This means the discipline was concerned with understanding, explanation, and illumination. Economists have also always been engaged in critique. Keynes talked of economists being like dentists, in a world in which the big economic problem had been solved — but his dentist-like economist was a vision of the possible (however unlikely), not a description of what economics currently was. Indeed, he understood the power of ideas to criticise and consequently to change economic reality. Viewed these ways, economics has a heritage aligned with critical social science, or indeed the humanities. Like the humanities, the moral sciences promoted a liberal education. On that reading, economics has a vocational aspect, in the same way that, say, the study of English literature may be a particularly good background for a novelist, but that does not make it a vocational subject, like a course in creative writing — or dentistry.

Coyle and Wren-Lewis call for ‘[recognition of] the vocational nature of an economics degree’. Let us suppose they get their wish. It is not clear that there is a strong link between students’ desire to study economics and a desire to become economists. Many students choose economics because of the general intellectual development they believe it provides and signals to employers. Many others study it because they think it is interesting or economic issues are important. They may have little notion of going on to do graduate degrees in economics, or to become either professional or academic economists.

It is also worth noting that if economics departments are aimed at creating ready and able economists, Economics Network surveys of employers suggest there is considerable room for improvement. For example, in the most recent survey of employers, on key skills, such as the ability to apply, adapt, and communicate, many more respondents score graduates ‘not very high’ rather than ‘very high’. In the previous employer survey (2007), scores for many key skills were pretty low. Only 41.7 per cent of graduates were rated as ‘strong’ or better at abstraction. It may be simply that economics departments are not good at teaching. Another explanation is that, in fact, economics departments are not aiming at those goals.

That all leads me to doubt that economics degrees are in fact, or even intended to be, vocational. A more apt description might be ‘technical’. Problem sets are not the same as problem-solving. For all the excellent elective courses on climate change and other crucial issues, the core of economics degrees — microeconomics, macroeconomics, mathematics, econometrics — seems to be geared towards building a conceptual, technical framework.

Overall, then, I would contest Coyle and Wren-Lewis’s claims that economics teaching has a vocational thrust, and that economics is largely vocational. Embracing economics’ explanatory, critical, philosophical and cultural heritage means that an economics based on the values of liberal education is entirely possible. Indeed, in this spirit, I find it significant that the new QAA benchmark statement makes several references to ‘education’, rather than training.

I welcome Coyle and Wren-Lewis’s paper as opening a debate on the nature and purpose of economics and economics degrees.

Andrew Mearman
University of the West of England

From Issue no. 170, p.20

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