Two weeks ago I had the privilege of attending a conference held to mark the retirement of Professor John King of La Trobe University. One of the themes of the conference was pluralism in economics. Many economists from Australian and overseas universities spoke about the benefits of incorporating alternative political economy approaches into the discipline of economics.
Arguments for more pluralism in economics are both numerous and compelling. Broadly speaking, they can be separated into two categories: 1) the positive effects it would have on students of economics; and 2) the positive effects it would have on the progression of the discipline. This article will focus on the former of these categories and part two will delve into the latter.
Pluralism in the economics curriculum involves raising student awareness of the full variety of established frameworks that can be used to help understand economic phenomena, and to the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. These schools include institutionalism, Post-Keynesian economics, behavioural economics, Marxian economics, feminist economics and Austrian economics. Currently, the strong emphasis on neoclassical economics means many economic students graduate without encountering much of this material.
The central issue here for economics students is that while studying neoclassical economics fosters, among other things, strong quantitative and abstract thinking skills, it is essentially a mastering of one set of conceptual tools. The focus on technique comes at a considerable opportunity cost of attaining a deeper understanding of real-world social, political and economic relationships, and the formation of attributes such as critical thinking and discursive reasoning.
Professor Rod O’Donnell of the University of Technology Sydney has argued that “well designed pluralist courses possess large natural advantages over orthodox courses in developing specific skills in graduates, such skills being important drivers of innovation, creativity and efficiency”. Professor O’Donnell cites a 2006 report by the Business Council of Australia (BCA) which, when touching on desirable employment traits, emphasised the importance of not only technical or discipline specific skills – such as those developed in the core of most economics courses – but also those associated with areas such as written and oral communication and creativity.
It went to explain there is a general dissatisfaction among employers with educational outcomes because graduates were often lacking in this latter group of skills, and were on the whole not fully equipped to meet the needs of business. One of the strongest arguments for pluralism in the economics curriculum is that it has the capacity to improve graduate employability.
I was lucky enough to partake in a course in my first year that covered the range of approaches outlined earlier. The subject aimed to ensure students developed and used robust critical thinking to understand the foundations, key ideas, strengths and weaknesses of each approach. This unit represented a significant divergence from my other experiences in undergraduate economics. Tutorials consisted of engaging debates on the validity of different economic ideas, and essay topics ranged from a critical comparison of Austrian and neoclassical economics, to assessing whether or not Marxian economics could contribute anything worthwhile to our understanding of contemporary capitalism. Feedback for subjects such as this is generally emphatically positive, with students praising the thought-provoking subject matter and emphasis on critical thinking.
It is often mistaken that encouraging students to pursue pluralist economics studies is by its own nature antagonistic to the orthodox core. Rather, it is more likely to help students better understand neoclassical economics, through a rigorous analysis of its history and framework. Professor O’Donnell uses an elegant analogy to summarise this point and the case for pluralism in economics curriculums more broadly.
“Pluralist economics may be likened to foreign travel. It offers a journey across the whole globe in all its diversity and similarity, promotes curiosity about other cultures, provides numerous possibilities for further exploration (now or in the future), and deepens understanding of one’s own culture. At the end of the journey, the traveler is more cosmopolitan, more sophisticated, more sensitive to alternative ways of seeing and doing, and more self-aware. He or she not only gains greater knowledge of other societies but also of their own. In short, the pluralist course enriches all those who undertake the journey.”
Pluralism has the potential to cultivate graduates who have the creativity, written communication skills and critical thinking capacity of humanities graduates, while maintaining the technical proficiency and abstract reasoning that comes from studying neoclassical economics. On top of intellectual enrichment, pluralism adds more tools to one’s toolkit – tools that are useful for understanding economic phenomena. Every economics student is aware of the gap between theory and reality inherent in neoclassical economics. Pluralist studies can give you both a stronger grasp of a range of economic theories, and a deeper understanding of economic realities.
 Rod O’Donnell, “Teaching economic pluralism: adding value to students, economies and societies” (paper presented at the Second International Conference for the International Confederation of Associations for Pluralism in Economics, June 1-2 2007)
Rod O’Donnell, “What do graduate attributes have to do with political economy?” in Challenging the Orthodoxy: Reflections of Frank Stilwell’s Contribution to Political Economy, ed. Lynne Chester and Susan Schroeder (Australia: Springer, 2014,) 57-76.
 O’Donnell, “Teaching economic pluralism: adding value to students, economies and societies”
Image: ‘Rodin’s The Thinker’ by Drflet, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rodin’s_The_Thinker.jpg. Licence at https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en.