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Telling Other Stories: Heterodox Critiques of Neoclassical Micro Principles Texts

Global Development and Environment Institute | August 1, 2000

Currently, more than one million students take principles of economics classes (introductory micro and macroeconomics) annually in the United States. These courses will be the main contact with formal economic theory for most undergraduates and will influence how they think about economic issues. Only a few percent of all students studying introductory microeconomics will likely use a textbook that seriously challenges the neoclassical paradigm.

Even professors critical of neoclassical theory tend to adopt mainstream textbooks when teaching micro principles. These instructors usually include comments questioning neoclassical theory in lecture and assign some readings from alternative paradigms. There are several reasons for this choice. First, there are relatively few non-neoclassical principles texts currently in print. More importantly, many heterodox professors feel a need to teach students the neoclassical paradigm in order to prepare them for upper level economics courses or business school classes. Others feel it necessary to teach and critique neoclassical intro texts in order to prepare students to “talk back” to texts in the future. Some heterodox professors teach in neoclassical departments where textbook adoption choices are made as a group. Others (especially untenured professors) feel subtle pressure to conform to colleague expectations in “core” courses.

The challenge of “teaching against the text” is extremely difficult. The need to “cover the text’s material” constantly threatens to crowd-out critique. Like the major cereal producers who fill-up supermarket shelf-space with multiple variations of themselves, the neoclassicals’ canonization of standard material precludes attention to the competition. This phenomena asserts itself at the curricular level as well, where core “(neoclassical) theory courses,” applied classes, and mathematical and statistical course requirements have managed to crowd out topics like economic history and the history of economic thought.

While the textbooks’ formal presentations of the mechanics of neoclassical theory (indifference curves, etc.) are only partially retained by most readers, the texts’ project of teaching students “to think like economists” is relatively effective in establishing a language, a system of metaphor, and overall framework for posing economic issues. It is this “framing” or paradigmatic lens that needs critique.

There are many excellent collections of multi-authored essays critical of bits and pieces of neoclassical theory that are reasonably accessible to beginning students. There are also many “readers” that explore the implications of different economic paradigms for public policy debates. These materials are frequently assigned as reserve readings in introductory courses taught by heterodox professors, but are often judged less important than the purchased textbook by students. Neither of the collections presents a unified critique that runs alongside a standard textbook. The essays are free standing and do not generally draw analogies between their topics.

While linkages can be supplied in class by heterodox professors, a text that offered a sustained critique (chapter by chapter) of a typical mainstream textbook could be very useful in helping students to construct an alternative framework for thinking about economics (or at least helpful in problematizing the neoclassical framework and inviting attention to alternatives)—and in making students more self-conscious about what “thinking like an economist” means.

This paper explores what a critical commentary on micro principles texts might look like, examining what is to be critiqued and how to do it.

By Steve Cohn

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Read More: Economy, Education, United States, Americas

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