Yesterday, I had posted about Yanis Varoufakis and his attempt to reform Phd Economics program at Univ of Athens.
I got hold of the paper where he presented his ideas about the Phd Prog (called UADPhilEcon).
He begins with a quote which applies to economics higehr teaching:
[The] Azande see as well as we that the failure of their oracle to prophesy truly calls for explanation, but so entangled are they in mystical notions that they must make use of them to account for failure. The contradiction between experience and one mystical notion is explained by reference to other mystical notions.
(Evans-Pritchard 1937: 388)
Mainstream economics is little different. Its success, like that of the Azande’s priesthood, is due to its capacity to offer full (and fully mystical) explanations of its explanatory failures and, additionally, to maintain its position of monopoly on “economic witchcraft” by ensuring that only its disciples are listened to. To gain that accolade, the young must, courtesy of a suitably rigorous postgraduate education, first suppress their critical faculties and, subsequently, learn how to account for the mainstream theory’s failures by appealing to the same mystical notions which failed in the first place
He reflects on his teaching experience at Univ of Sydney (he was based in Sydney before comign to UofA):
A natural reaction to the state of contemporary economics is to wish for a syllabus which aims to shield students from the arid rituals of the current orthodoxy and, instead, help them approach the economic world as a system that has evolved historically. Would it not be delightful to design a program that sidesteps the countless hours of repetitive mathematical modeling whose end result is negative value added to our understanding of capitalism? Would it not send most of us into a frenzy of joy to be able to dismiss most of the orthodox curriculum, and its sad fixation with rational expectations that no rational person would ever entertain, competitive markets in which no competition ever occurs, models of development in which nothing of substance ever develops, theories of trade in which systemic trade deficits are assumed never to exist, econometric exercises which can never really distinguish between the competing theories, and so on? Of course it would.
And yet, doing that would be an appallingly bad idea. During the late 1980s and the 1990s I taught at an undergraduate program that did precisely that. The Political Economy Program at the University of Sydney was offered to students who wanted to understand contemporary capitalism but who did not want to go through the tortuous path designed for them by the mainstream Economics Department, before ending up with even less of a feel for capitalist dynamics than they had entered university with. Thus, an interesting experiment, lasting almost three decades, occurred with two economics degrees being offered at the same time and in the same faculty.
Despite the better inputs in pol eco program, students were unsure:
And yet, it was the economics students that exuded the confidence which makes or breaks a career. The Political Economy students, although highly employable, lacked in confidence that which they possessed in educational and intellectual essence. Deep down, they did not really think of themselves as competent economists. The mere mention of Lagrange multipliers, fixed point theorems, and co-integration tests that their colleagues from across the corridor knew off the top of their heads, cowed them into a form of intellectual submission that was utterly at odds with their actual capacities. Meanwhile, the economics graduates had no qualms in pronouncing simplistic views and policy recommendations regarding issues that they were genuinely innocent of.
Even worse, after graduating, a small number of the Political Economy students enrolled in mainstream economics graduate programs and became neoclassical zealots. With the infinite pathos that is typical of the “born again,” they espoused the orthodoxy with a ferocity and anti-pluralist fervor that turned them into the greatest enemies of the type of political economy which they had studied as undergraduates. Interestingly, these few cases, as I witnessed them, led to sad and unfulfilled academic careers, full of bitterness and devoid of any real intellectual excitement.
So the lessons were:
In short, any attempt to build a curriculum which sidesteps the techniques of the mainstream is bound to backfire, for two reasons: First, for practical reasons, economists need to speak the language of the dominant meta-narrative when attempting to undermine it. Mainstream economics is a web of beliefs and a set of language games (of a Wittgensteinian sort) which are used to couch all the arguments that contribute to the reproduction of society as we know it. In this sense, a study of capitalism which is separate from a study of this meta-narrative is both impossible and ineffective. Second, for purely psychological reasons, not understanding the orthodoxy better than the orthodox do exposes young minds to the danger that they will turn to the latter’s soothing embrace as born again zealots.
He came to U of A to change all this perception and build a more pluralist program. However, such a program was only possible in U of A because of the unique nature of Greek economy:
Why is the periphery a good breeding ground for a pluralist doctoral program such as UADPhilEcon? My answer, drawn from the particular experience with UADPhilEcon, comes in two parts: (1) That a pluralist doctoral program such as UADPhilEcon could only have sprung out of a nineteenth-century university in the European periphery, and (2) that a traumatic recent history, which included a Civil War in which the Left was defeated totally, also played a decisive role.
The University of Athens, the oldest in the land, was founded concurrently with the modern Greek state and as part of the same nation-building exercise that followed Independence from the Ottoman Empire in the 1830s. This background helps generate a healthy student demand for UADPhilEcon places, but also a genuine willingness from academics belonging to other universities to contribute to our courses for a minimal fee. As for the University itself, it harbored sufficient ambition, under the weight of its own history, to look kindly at the prospect of an ambitious doctoral program. The fact that Greece’s universities are still unaffected by the strictures of commercialization helped us sidestep the usual pressures (that manifest in newer institutions) to orient any new postgraduate program toward the amorphous market and its precise whims.
What follows is an interesting discussion on how there was no real mainstream thinking in econ dept in Athens. Political economy was always there Greece was always in political trouble:
It is for these two reasons (first, the combination of tradition and relative backwardness typifying the University of Athens, and, second, because of an historically engendered shared appreciation of the political, philosophical, and socially contingent aspects of economics) that a doctoral program such as UADPhilEcon could get off the ground on the back of hard, mostly unpaid work put into its creation by enthusiastic colleagues with good mainstream credentials from some of the top universities in the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Germany; colleagues who felt the need to participate in a pluralist program such as the one described in the next section.
That willingness, to conclude, was not merely a type of accidental voluntarism. It was, I submit, the product of the turbulent history of a small country ravaged by Civil War and caught up in the wake of a broader global power struggle, the Cold War, which had profound effects on almost every family, every village, and every cell of its extensive Diaspora. Economic theory, in this context, was not an end in itself but an attempt to study analytically the causes of all that had befallen us.
Fascinating to read how political situation shapes economics departments.
He then discusses the main features of the new program:
For the reasons stated in the previous section, UADPhilEcon teaches the highest form of neoclassical economics most rigorously to all its incoming students; regardless, that is, of their individual preferences or plans. But, at the same time, it forces upon them a critical disposition which is at odds with the mainstream’s practices. For instance, modules in political philosophy, economic history, and history of economic thought are compulsory.
Of course all good economics departments in the United States and the United Kingdom offer courses in the latter (especially economic history, law and economics, and to a lesser extent, philosophy). However, they do so in the same manner that military schools teach cadets good table manners, or that companies organize golfing weekends for their executives: they are treated as, at best, essential add-ons to the real business they are engaged in; either as a vital induction in etiquette or as pastimes which help rejuvenate the mind while the latter is taking a break.
In contrast, UADPhilEcon teaches history, political philosophy, and the history of ideas as an integral part of economic theory’s central core: neoclassical, classical, Austrian, Ricardian, Marxist, and Keynesian, among others.
He discusses the courses taught in various years etc..
But much of this is history now as the program is mostly closed because of lack of funds.
However, some univs can definitely try and assess the merit in adopting such a program. if not replacement of exisiting may be introduce a new one..
Also, I do not know how earlier students whuch passed from this Uof A department fared? Was the program as good as Prof. Varoufakis claims?