Economics Education in the 21st Century – Piet Keizer

On Wednesday June 7 2017 Marcel Boumans organized a symposium about economics education in the 21st century, in the context of U.S.E. Academy, Utrecht University School of Economics. The speakers were David Colander, Zohreh Emami, Sam de Muynck et al from Rethinking.Economics.NL, and Bas van Bavel. In this text I summarise the messages of the speakers and add some comments to it. Why? Because the topic is very important and the quality of the speakers was good. The focus is on the BA-, not on the MA-level.

David Colander

When constructing a BA programme, we must not prepare students to become academic economists. We must realise that most of them, after having followed a more specialised MA, enter society. Their work environment will increasingly be an integrated institutional structure, characterized by artificial intelligence. An Economics BA should focus on high level and creative thought, in which economics is a part of social science. It means that the homo oeconomicus must be broadened, thereby making the study more multidisciplinary or even interdisciplinary. In this way institutions are playing a more important role. Policy should be separated from theory: reality is too complex to develop analysis and theory, which is the basis for policy conclusions. By working with many perspectives a person can find out which model fits a particular situation best. The usual dichotomy between normative and positive analysis must be overcome. The two types of analysis are interconnected. A liberal-positive view on development aid, for instance, might lead to free trade policies, without helping the poor directly (example is mine, PKK). Philosophy is important for economists; it offers students a paradigmatic basis, necessary for a change in the homo oeconomicus. Adam Smith (1759), John Stuart Mill and Keynes are mentioned by Colander.

Zohreh Emami

When teaching first year’s students, it is very important to know their prior knowledge. Especially if students think they know a lot already, but their knowledge is badly structured, it can be a barrier to good understanding. A BA-study must start from scratch and take the following two points into account.

  1. To develop a reasoning ability to understand the external world, students must develop a reasoned self-scrutiny. The way we understand ourselves has a strong effect on the way we learn to understand the outer, empirical world.
  2. Students must learn in different environments. Only then knowledge structures can develop and embedded information can sink in. If an educational programme is quite neoclassical, go to union meetings in the manufacturing sector, and try to convince the workers of employers being right in their policies of wage reduction. When students go to London, and speak with financial experts in the City, while never meet students with a low-class background, it leads to serious biases in their intuition (examples are mine, PKK). Emami calls it experiential learning.

Studying science on human behaviour requires students to deal with a whole series of tensions in their work. Some information is very concrete, while other texts are highly abstract (1), some are discursive, while others are recursive. So with the duals reflection versus action, individuality versus relationality, and precepts versus theorems.

Emami pleas for an interdisciplinary dialogue. Compared with the contribution by Colander there are no significant contradictions between the two speakers.

Bas van Bavel

In many interdisciplinary approaches to societal issues disciplinary expertise is used. In these cases a reality-check is needed. When economists discuss economic growth issues, they end up with the idea that free-market economies, in which technological progress spreads easily over the economies, show continuous growth. A history-check is necessary. Then we see that there are very long run cycles. Van Bavel (2016) explains these cycles by referring to the emergence of free factor markets, which creates severe economic and political inequalities. The continuous strife that follows leads to a decline in economic growth. A very long run decline is the result. The conclusion must be that institutional frameworks play an important intermediate role in the explanation of the rise and decline of economies and societies. Economic history can deliver significant contributions to economics, because of its empirical, long-run character. By offering chronology it shows interaction between empirical variables and causality.

Sam de Muynck et al (Rethinking.Economics.NL)

About half a year ago Rethinking.Economics.NL published a Report on the bachelor programmes in the Netherlands. Now they presented an updated version of the Report, which shows that about 90% of the programmes is neoclassically orientated. Heterodox economics plays a marginalised role. Methodology, philosophy, history of economic thought: it all has almost completely gone.

Rethinkers stress the relevance of the following issues:

  1. A multidisciplinary approach to economics;
  2. A sophisticated methodological box of tools, which makes it possible for students to compare different scientific programmes (pluralism);
  3. Knowledge of the real world economy and its history;
  4. Critical, open and reflective ways of thinking.

Neoclassical analysis is not our enemy, but its monopoly is. It is not scientific, not democratic and not efficient to maintain this situation. So we must broaden our knowledge of methodology, learn several competing perspectives and compare them with each other. This is the only way of making students more critical, open to people who think differently and make people self-reflective.


Comments by Piet Keizer

Since I had not any role in this symposium, I was able to spend all my energy in just listen carefully what the various speakers had to say. Afterwards they all send me their ppt-slides, making it possible for me to think through all their ideas. It led me to the following comments.

  1. Science is about making models of reality, based on analysis, which starts with a paradigm, necessarily of an axiomatic character. Some models might reach a level so realistic, that they can function as a theoretical foundation for empirical research.
  2. The concepts used must be defined carefully, and their meaning is determined by the analytical context in which they function. Our Economics textbooks almost never do this, and therefore they are a source of misunderstanding and bad empirical research. Economics is dominated by neoclassical analysis, in which the concepts economic (1), rational (2), non-social or atomistic (3) and logical (4) form its axiomatic structure. Quite often the concepts economic, rational and logical are confused, making it impossible to show the model’s limitations; in the language of Colander: neoclassical literature almost never present an economic analysis in its CONTEXT.
  3. According to Colander the Bachelors programme should start with the ‘old-fashioned’ (i.e. orthodox, PKK) economics. When discovering its limitations, the students can learn to relax the axioms and further assumptions on which it is based. Keizer (2015) offers an extensive treatment of orthodox economics, ending up with a list of these limitations, and relaxes them all, one by one. If we were relaxing them all at the same time, we would enter the world of complexity. This is the world in which policy conclusions are assumed to function well (see again Colander).
  4. The primary aspects of human behaviour, which cannot be ignored are the economic aspect (1), the psychic aspect, which deals with the degree of rationality) (2), the social aspect, which deals with our drive to social recognition, rivalry and the degree of morality (3), the logical aspect, which is the basis of our thinking and therefore our acting. It is also the foundation of mathematics and statistical theory (4), the time aspect, which stresses the dynamic and historical nature of reality. Everything evolves always and everywhere. Equilibrium or balance is a construction, which is very useful – but outside our mind it does not exist (5), the space aspect, which stresses that reality cannot be imagined as one point. The famous orthodox theorem of ‘the law of one price’ is a nice starting point for the development of a multidisciplinary geographical analysis (6). The introduction of the assumption of incomplete information does not only facilitate the introduction of irrationality, but also the role of institutions, of which legislation is a very important one.
  5. Emami stresses the role of psychology, not only the neuro-scientific, the behavioural and the cognitive perspective, but definitely also psychic dynamics. By means of introspection every person can increasingly discover his genuine self, which is the basis for choosing realistic perspectives and moral positions. It is also the basis for discovering prejudices, which makes it difficult to make intuitively correct decisions. There is a strong connection between a human’s inner world and the CONTEXT in which he or she lives (the outer world or empirical world). Emami talks about the necessity of reasoned self-scrutiny. In this way science is more than thinking and observing – it also can commit persons to act according to reliable findings.


Bas van Bavel, (2016), The Invisible Hand: How Market Economies Have Emerged and Declined since AD 500, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Piet Keizer (2015), Multidisciplinary Economics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Piet Keizer,

Associate Professor of Economic Methodology

Utrecht University School of Economics

Utrecht, 19 June, 2017

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