When Yuan Yang began her economics course in autumn 2008, she was shocked that within the cloisters of Balliol College, little attention was paid to the world outside. As Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy left markets reeling, her lectures at Oxford university offered little to help her understand how the failure of a single US investment bank could cause global pandemonium.
Only when she voiced her disquiet to her tutor did she encounter theories that offered explanations for what was happening. “The crisis exposed how disconnected the teaching of economics is from helping students understand real-world events,” says Ms Yang, now a 23-year-old student at the University of Beijing. “When I discovered that, within economics, there was an alternative to what I was being taught, it was such a relief. I had felt like I was part of an intellectual enclave that had no consideration for what could be learnt from psychology, philosophy or anything else in the social sciences.”
Ms Yang is at the forefront of a growing movement of young economists calling for universities worldwide to reform the way they teach the dismal science. They believe exposure to a broader range of approaches is essential if their generation is to avoid the policy errors made in the run-up to the crisis, and to grapple with issues such as inequality and the economic consequences of climate change.
In 2012 Ms Yang helped found the Rethinking Economics network, aimed at changing what she describes as the subject’s isolation from public debate. The network has branches around the world, which are among the 42 student organisations that this month signed an open letter calling for the standard curriculum to be overthrown.
The students, who are scattered over 19 countries on four continents, are demanding professors scrap their focus on a single way of analysing the economy. The signatories, mostly in their twenties and early thirties, want more discussion of alternative theories and methods. Rather than just prepare them for a career in finance, they want their courses to grapple with the big problems of the economy.
“Most economics models we’re taught consider just one thing: profit. There’s little consideration of sustainability or equity,” says Nicolò Fraccaroli, the founder of one of the groups – Rethinking Economics Italia – and a student at Luiss Guido Carli in Rome. “Universities need to teach you how to do a job. But first we need to be sure that people who are going to move massive amounts of capital are conscious of what they’re doing.”
The open letter is part of a broader rebellion against mainstream economics teaching. It has gathered pace since the financial crisis dented the view among some in academia that economics had solved most of the world’s big economic conundrums.
Lena Kaiser said her interest in economics was piqued by wanting to understand inequality, the theme of Thomas Piketty’s bestseller, Capital in the 21st century . Her studies at the University of Mannheim left her disappointed. “The questions I wanted to discuss weren’t discussed at all. There was no critical thought whatsoever.”
In the 1980s it was common for students to sit modules in economic history and public economics. Behavioural economics has long been researched and, in 2002, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for economics for his insights into decision making.
But over the past three decades, undergraduate courses have been increasingly dominated by the quantitative methods of the neoclassical school. Almost six years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the standard university course has barely changed. A study by Peps-Economie, a group of students who came together in 2009, found that just 1.7 per cent of modules in French universities covered economic history and there was just one course at a single university devoted to the epistemology of economics.
Eric Beinhocker, head of the Oxford Martin School’s wing of the Institute for New Economic Thinking, an organisation founded in 2009 by billionaire hedge fund manager George Soros, says: “The world has changed a lot. Economics has changed a lot, too. But the curriculum hasn’t.”
Reformers accept that policies with their roots in mainstream neoclassical economics helped contribute to the Great Moderation, the era of stability and prosperity in the decades running up to the crisis. Yet they view as myopic the focus on just one school of thought. Louison Cahen-Fourot, a member of Peps-Economie, says: “We’re not anti-neoclassical, or anti-maths. We just see it as one part of something much bigger.”
Those who studied before the crisis describe complacency among not only academics but also their fellow students. “When I started in 2004, I asked very critical questions in class. When I did, everybody said, ‘you’re wasting our time – we need answers for the exam’,” says Thomas Vass, the founder of Rethinking Economics’ New York branch. He is now a student at the city’s New School, which does offer more heterodox courses.
The turmoil since 2008 has provided a fresh catalyst for change. Camilla Cea, who was involved in student protests in Chile between 2011 and 2013, says: “The critics to today’s curriculum have long existed. [But] the financial crisis has acted as a trigger.”
Students are not alone in calling for reform. Support has come from policy makers including Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist-designate, and Peter Mooslechner, an executive director at the Austrian National Bank. Wendy Carlin, a professor at University College London, who leads a project at the Institute of New Economic Thinking to reform undergraduate teaching by compiling course material from different schools of thought, says: “The [letter] is great – very open and constructive.”
Other academics have been more wary. The University of Manchester refused demands by students in its Post-Crash Economics Society to include an optional module for next year’s syllabus on alternative theories of financial crashes. Officials have said they will consider adding a module on alternative economic theories from 2015.
Critics of the students’ demands point to the work of economists they view as mainstream, whom they argue explain the crisis. They also contend that the methodologies used by other schools lack rigour.
Tony Yates, reader in economics at Bristol University, blogged in reply to the Manchester demands: “Students wanting to draw the analogy between the financial crash and organic processes had better stop chatting about Austrian economics and start crunching exotic non-linear ordinary differential equations [or rather, starting the slow and painful process of learning how to do it]. Even if heterodoxy is to be the new orthodoxy, students are going to need [to] suffer the trials of dynamic mathematics.”
Yet student frustration – fuelled and disseminated by social media – remains clear. Mr Cahen-Fourot, active in the Peps-Economie group since moving to Paris in 2011, says: “Without any co-ordination, students around the world had all had the same feelings about their economics education. We started to think it was a global problem.”
Last December he sent Facebook messages and emails, eventually arranging a Skype call in late January. Mr Fraccaroli says: “We speak around 10 different languages and a lot of us – like me – are not native English speakers. But we shared the same feelings. We had some arguments but we solved them and the way we have co-ordinated our campaign around the world is proof of it.”
Acting together has strengthened the groups’ individual efforts. “We’ve been asked for several presentations. We are [now] being taken seriously as part of the intellectual discourse,” Ms Kaiser says: “There was a post-manifesto event at the University of Heidelberg on curriculum reform attended by several members of the economics faculty. It was packed.”
Partly inspired by the letter, a branch of Rethinking Economics has been founded in Beijing.
Some worry that renewed global growth could muffle calls for reform. “The crisis has been very important. Economic recovery helps people to pretend there is nothing wrong,” says Joe Earle, a member of the Post-Crash Economics Society. “Student life is very transient and curriculum change only happens with a lag so we need to keep the pressure up.”
Others are more positive. “The letter was very thoughtfully done. Now it’s up to faculties to listen and be as constructive,” Mr Beinhocker said. “I’m quite optimistic you will start to see change.”
Student protests have come and gone, and the question remains whether the mooted curriculum reforms would have mass appeal. Mr Vass is confident. He says his old classmates no longer view him as a time-waster. “Those people [who told me to be quiet] come up to me and say: ‘Now I understand why you were so critical’. There’s a completely different attitude.”
当杨园（音译）于2008年秋季开始接触经济学课程时，让她感到震惊的是，在牛津大学贝利奥尔学院(Balliol College, Oxford)的回廊之内，对于外部世界的关注是如此之少。在雷曼兄弟(Lehman Brothers)破产导致市场震荡之际，她在牛津大学所上的课没能帮助她理解一家美国投资银行的倒闭为何会引发全球市场的大混乱。
尼古拉?弗拉卡罗利(Nicolò Fraccaroli)表示：“我们所学的大多数经济模型只考虑一个因素：利润。鲜少考虑可持续性或者收入分配公平性。大学应当教你如何做好一份工作。但首先我们必须确定的是，将会运作大规模资金的人对于他们正在做什么有着清楚认知。”弗拉卡罗利是其中一个组织——重新思考经济学意大利分部(Rethinking Economics Italia)的创始人，他也是罗马国际社会科学自由大学(Luiss Guido Carli)的一名学生。
莱娜?凯萨(Lena Kaiser)表示，她对经济学的兴趣主要源自希望理解收入分配不平等问题的好奇心，这是托马斯?皮凯蒂(Thomas Piketty)的畅销书《21世纪的资本》(Capital in the twenty-first century)的主题。在德国曼海姆大学(University of Mannheim)的学习让凯萨感到失望。“课程完全没有探讨那些我想讨论的问题。不论怎样都看不到批判性思维。”
埃里克?拜因霍克(Eric Beinhocker)是牛津大学马丁学院(Oxford Martin School)新经济思维研究所(Institute for New Economic Thinking)的负责人，该机构是亿万富翁对冲基金经理乔治?索罗斯(George Soros)于2009年创立的。拜因霍克指出：“世界已经发生了重大变化。经济学同样出现了很大改变。但课程设置依然未变。”
改革者同意，根植于主流新古典经济学的政策选择有助于形成了“大缓和时代”(Great Moderation)——这是一段持续了几十年的稳定、繁荣的时期，直到金融危机爆发才结束。但改革者们认为，将注意力集中在一个学派的思想上是短视的。Peps-Economie的成员之一路易松?卡昂-富罗(Louison Cahen-Fourot)表示：“我们并不反对新古典学派或者数量方法。我们只是将其看作一个范围更广的领域的一部分。”
据那些在金融危机爆发前学习经济学的人描述，自满情绪不仅存在于学者圈中，还蔓延到了学生中间。重新思考经济学纽约分部的创始人托马斯?瓦斯(Thomas Vass)表示：“当我于2004年开始学习经济学时，我会在课堂上问非常尖锐的问题。而当我这么做时，所有人都会说，‘你在浪费大家的时间，我们需要考试的答案’。”瓦斯现在是纽约新学院(New School)的学生，这里会教授一些较为不正统的课程。
学生并不是唯一呼吁改革的群体。多位政策制定者对学生的呼声表示支持：包括英国央行(Bank of England)尚未就职的首席经济学家安德鲁?霍尔丹(Andy Haldane)，以及奥地利央行(Austrian National Bank)执行董事彼得?穆斯莱希纳(Peter Mooslechner)。伦敦大学学院(University College London)经济学教授温迪?卡林表示：“公开信很了不起——非常开放而又富有建设性。”卡林在新经济思维研究所领导了一个项目，通过收集来自不同思想学派的课程资料对本科教学模式进行改革。
其他学者则表现得更加谨慎。曼彻斯特大学(University of Manchester)拒绝了本校“后危机经济学社团”(Post-Crash Economics Society)的学生所提的要求，这些学生希望在下一年的教学大纲中加入有关金融危机另类理论的选修模块。学校负责人表示，他们将考虑自2015年起增加有关另类经济理论的教学模块。
布里斯托大学(Bristol University)的经济学在读生托尼?耶茨(Tony Yates)在博客上发文作为对曼彻斯特大学要求的回应：“希望在金融危机和有机过程之间找出相似之处的学生最好停止谈论奥地利经济学派，并开始钻研奇异非线性常微分方程（或者开始学习如何求解这种方程的缓慢而又痛苦的过程）。即便异端未来成为了新的正统，学生们也必须忍受动态数学测试。”
共同行动强化了各组织内个体的努力效果。凯萨称：“我们被邀请做过多次报告。我们现已获得了严肃对待，被看成是知识分子正式讨论的一部分。公开信发表后在海德堡大学(University of Heidelberg)举行过一场有关课程改革的活动，并获经济学系的多位教员参与。活动现场挤满了人。”
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