Are universities teaching the right kind of economics? Are they inspiring students with the right kind of values and skills?

These are amongst some of the questions academics in the economics discipline have been grappling with for quite some time

Economics teaching needs to be more relevant and rooted in reality, not theory. Photo:Jason Winter/Shutterstock

'University economics teaching to be overhauled.'*

This was the caption of a report in the Guardian (Monday 11 November 2013) on the outcome of a meeting of economists hosted by the Treasury in London. The move follows criticism over a 'limited and outdated' curriculum and the failure to include how financial markets can undermine stability.

This is welcome news for those of us who have been pointing out the inadequacy of the economics syllabus at universities. Well before the financial crash of September 2008, I wrote the following:

‘The recent global crises have lead to questions about whether the kind of economics that is taught in universities was responsible for the crisis itself, or indeed for its widespread failure to predict the timing and magnitude of the events that unfolded in 2008. There are many reasons for such failure. However, whatever the reasons might be, I strongly believe that now is the time for us all to begin to debate this issue further and more deeply. Soul-searching and self-criticism should not be seen as a source of weakness, but as a source of strength, humility and the search for wisdom.

‘It is clear that some serious reflection is in order. Not to stand back and question what has happened and why, would be to compound failure with failure: failure of vision with failure of responsibility. If nothing else these current crises of finance, social injustice and environmental devastation present us with a unique opportunity to address the shortcomings of our profession with total honesty and humility while returning the “dismal science” to its true position: a subject of beauty, wisdom and virtue.

‘It seems clear to me that the time has come for economics to change direction and to find a path which does not deviate from true human values. The obviously contrived nature of neo-classical economics has begun to attract many calls for change.”

Even earlier, I had written the following:

‘From 1980 onwards, for the next twenty years, I taught economics in universities, enthusiastically demonstrating how economic theories provided answers to problems of all sorts. I got quite carried away by the beauty, the sophisticated elegance, of complicated mathematical models and theories. But gradually I started to have an empty feeling.

‘I began to ask fundamental questions of myself. Why did I never talk to my students about compassion, dignity, comradeship, solidarity, happiness, spirituality – about the meaning of life? We never debated the biggest questions. Who are we? Where have we come from? Where are we going to?

‘I told them to create wealth, but I did not tell them for what reason. I told them about scarcity and competition, but not about abundance and co-operation. I told them about free trade, but not about fair trade; about GNP – Gross National Product – but not about GNH – Gross National Happiness. I told them about profit maximisation and cost minimisation, about the highest returns to the shareholders, but not about social consciousness, accountability to the community, sustainability and respect for creation and the creator. I did not tell them that, without humanity, economics is a house of cards built on shifting sands.’

These conflicts caused me much frustration and alienation, leading to heartache and despair. I needed to rediscover myself and real-life economics. After a proud twenty-year or so academic career, I became a student all over again. I would study theology, philosophy and ethics, disciplines nobody had taught me when I was a student of economics and I did not teach my own students when I became a teacher of economics.

It was at this difficult time that I came to understand that I needed to bring spirituality, compassion, ethics and morality back into economics itself, to make this dismal science once again relevant to and concerned with the common good.”…

There you have it. Lest we forget: There were economists, who were ahead of their time, who rejected the dominant model of rational choice, the miracle of the efficiency of the market economy and market fundamentalism. They wanted to reconnect the study of economics to the real world; to make its findings more accessible to the public and to place economic analysis within a framework that embraces humanity as a whole. These economists who were open to other traditions and disciplines, were trying to encourage a pluralist approach to the study of economics, looking at economic history, sociology, and anthropology, philosophy, ethics and spirituality for example.

However, it is better late than never. Hopefully now with this new initiative we can reverse the wrongs of new economics and the neo-liberal economists and give to students what they deserve: Economics as if they matter. For further reading, information and original sources for excerpts quoted above see:

*University economics teaching to be overhauled | Business | The Guardian

In praise of the students of Economics at Manchester University for rising against neo-classical fundamentalism

In Praise of the Economic Students at the Sorbonne: The Class of 2000

Towards an Education Worth Believing In

Small is Beautiful: The Wisdom of E.F. Schumacher

Economics and Economists Engulfed By Crises: What Do We Tell the Students?

“Why Love, Trust, Respect and Gratitude Trumps Economics: Together for the Common Good”:

The Story of the GCGI

Kamran Mofid, Globalisation for the Common Good, Shepherad-Walwyn (Publishers), London, 2002
Marcus Braybrooke & Kamran Mofid, Promoting the Common Good, Shepherad-Walwyn (Publishers), London, 2005

Globalisation for the Common Good Initiative (GCGI): A Brief Introduction and Summary

Guided by the principles of hard work, commitment, volunteerism and service; with a great passion for dialogue of cultures, civilisations, religions, ideas and visions, at an international conference in Oxford in 2002 the Globalisation for the Common Good Initiative (GCGI) and the GCGI Annual International Conference Series were founded.

We recognise that our socio-economic problems are closely linked to our spiritual problems and vice versa. Moreover, socio-economic justice, peace and harmony will come about only when the essential connection between the spiritual and practical aspects of life is valued. Necessary for this journey is to discover, promote and live for the common good. The principle of the common good reminds us that we are all really responsible for each other – we are our brothers' and sisters' keepers –and must work for social conditions which ensure that every person and every group in society is able to meet their needs and realize their potential. It follows that every group in society must take into account the rights and aspirations of other groups, and the well-being of the whole human family.

One of the greatest challenges of our time is to apply the ideas of the global common good to practical problems and forge common solutions. Translating the contentions of philosophers, spiritual and religious scholars and leaders into agreement between policymakers and nations is the task of statesmen and citizens, a challenge to which Globalisation for the Common Good Initiative (GCGI) adheres. The purpose is not simply talking about the common good, or simply to have a dialogue, but the purpose is to take actions, to make the common good and dialogue to work for all of us, benefiting us all.

What the GCGI seeks to offer- through its scholarly and research programme, as well as its outreach and dialogue projects- is a vision that positions the quest for economic and social justice, peace and ecological sustainability within the framework of a spiritual consciousness and a practice of open-heartedness, generosity and caring for others. All are thus encouraged by this vision and consciousness to serve the common good.

The GCGI has from the very beginning invited us to move beyond the struggle and confusion of a preoccupied economic and materialistic life to a meaningful and purposeful life of hope and joy, gratitude, compassion, and service for the good of all.

Perhaps our greatest accomplishment has been our ability to bring Globalisation for the Common Good into the common vocabulary and awareness of a greater population along with initiating the necessary discussion as to its meaning and potential in our personal and collective lives.

In short, at Globalisation for the Common Good Initiative we are grateful to be contributing to that vision of a better world, given the goals and objectives that we have been championing since 2002. For that we are most grateful to all our friends and supporters that have made this possible.

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