This week I attended the ‘Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL) in the South‘ conference hosted by the University of Johannesburg, where I presented a paper entitled: “What would an (South) African economics curriculum look like?”. (A project I have gestured at previously when commenting on discussions around UCT’s economics curriculum – here, here – and promised to do a follow-up on).
The conference itself was interesting and included a number of different perspectives, and opinions, on the question of ‘decolonisation’. The conclusion I came to was that there are two main aspects to this issue: institutional change and disciplinary change. And in both cases we need to start talking details, because that’s where the really hard work will start and become apparent. In this context, my paper aims to make a contribution in relation to the discipline of economics.
In the end, my discussion of what should go in the curriculum is very limited. One reason is because of the word limit for contributions, but the main reason is that I found there to be many preliminary issues that required fleshing-out first. Some of the more provocative, and important, assertions I make are that:
- Demographic transformation of faculty is important in its own right, but should not be conflated or confused with substantive transformation of the curriculum
- Changing content by introducing certain topics is important but need not lead to the imagined outcomes, it depends on the framing of those topics (e.g. North American economic history arguing that slavery was not such a bad thing)
- The awkward reality that South African academic economics and its institutions is largely characterised by a weak attempt at imitating a lagged, conservative version of the neoclassical mainstream
- A substantively ‘decolonised’ curriculum would be much more challenging than the standard mainstream curriculum – so concerns about ‘lowering of standards’ are misplaced in that context
- Our biggest challenge is the massive gulf between what an ideal, decolonised curriculum looks like and what we (African economists) actually have the capacity to do.
Feedback on any and all aspects of the paper are very welcome.
I intend to get into much more detail regarding an ‘ideal curriculum’ in a second paper, hopefully with some collaborators.
Edit: here is the stand-alone version of my final paper submitted to the SOTL proceedings.
In some previous posts [here and here] I discussed my experience of, and thoughts about, the University of Cape Town (UCT)’s undergraduate economics curriculum. I committed to writing a final, constructive post on what I think a South African economics curriculum (not particularly limited to UCT, or undergraduates) should look like.
That intention was partly overtaken by events and time constraints, but mainly I decided that the question deserved more lengthy treatment than just a blog post. So I am drafting a paper, which I hope to present at a few, relevant conferences/workshops, and once that draft is completed I will post a summary here.
I have been a little slow in picking-up on recent events at UCT this week regarding the economics curriculum. One of the non-permanent lecturers on the history of economic thought (HET) course, Kenneth Hughes, has had to stop teaching in person after some students took exception to a piece he wrote about aspects of the Rhodes Must Fall movement and UCT management’s response to RMF. [Subsequently an appropriately punchy response has been published from Russell Ally, Executive Director for Alumni and Development at UCT]
This is really all too predictable, and I have little sympathy for the department or university management: they are reaping the consequences of myopic and unprofessional decisions made in the past (albeit maybe not always by the same protagonists). As I noted in a footnote to a previous piece, when the core staff for the HET course were unavailable, the then-HoD (not the current one) just pulled-in whoever they could with little regard for academic status, qualifications, what they actually taught and so forth.
At the end of Part I of this comment on the UCT economics curriculum, I identified two further issues for immediate consideration: the nature of textbooks, and problems arising from academic incentives. The textbook issue also raises the important role of history of economic thought and economic history courses.
It would be no exaggeration to say that I have taken a critical interest in UCT’s economics curriculum for over fifteen years, and some of the associated dissatisfaction has shaped my career and approach to the discipline as a whole. As an undergraduate majoring in economics I was bored stiff for the first two years by being taught how to regurgitate graphs and solve equations from American textbooks. I seriously thought of quitting – this was not what I had signed-up for. There were some useful ideas about the functioning of markets and individual behaviour, but they were so obviously crude, decontextualised and evidently infused with free-market, anti-poor (pro-rich) ideology that as a student it was not possible to separate what was useful from what was irrelevant, implausible or ideological.
For example, minimum wages were stated as definitively reducing employment (with no reference to possible effects on effort or aggregate demand), but higher taxes on the rich were stated as negatively affecting economic activity (without any reference to benefits from public expenditure or reduced inequality).
Economist readers might want to note that this was 10 years after publication of Akerlof and Yellen’s paper on efficiency wages. It was 5 years after publication of Card and Krueger’s landmark book on minimum wages, challenging the ‘conventional wisdom’ on the minimum wage in economics with empirical evidence. I had to find that book in the library on my own to get an alternative view. Scanning library shelves also led me to Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, which introduces the notion of conspicuous consumption, and JK Galbraith’s History of Economic Thought.
Our lecturers did little to assist: they were mostly graduate students, rushing to get through material that they did not have the incentive, inclination, or intellectual foundations, to critically evaluate or present differently. Only in the third year electives did I finally find a reasonable amount of intellectual stimulation, evidence of alternative views and explicit reference to the South African context.
For this reason, I am sympathetic to the recent criticism of UCT’s curriculum by Ihsaan Bassier. He notes, among other things, that:
“I find myself at the end of my undergraduate degree without the tools to interrogate the economic situation surrounding me”.
“Critical economic thinking is simply not taught during an economics undergraduate degree. The department attempts to push mathematical concepts, but only succeeds in promoting rote learning, characteristic of a production centre for ideology.”
Such concerns can be located in broader, international student movements to change the undergraduate curriculum. In general, I support those movements as well. However, they have a tendency of conflating a number of important issues: ideology, academic incentives, bureaucratic obstacles, fetishisation of quantitative methods and the problematic status of economics as a ‘science’.
Students are driven by a well-founded instinct that something is wrong, but they struggle to decipher what the causes are. In my view this is entirely understandable given that undergraduates cannot be expected to have a uniformly better understanding of the discipline than those teaching them! But muddling of issues is often used by those favouring the status quo to deflect otherwise legitimate criticism. The points I make below can be applied as much at Harvard or Oxford as at UCT, because they pertain to deep problems with economics as a discipline and universities as institutions, but I will use UCT as my working example – having studied and lectured there.