Re: Critical thinking in economics classrooms.

Developing critical thinking skills at the post-secondary level of education has long been on the radar of educators. After several decades, however, despite valiant attempts by many, outcomes don’t appear to be matching the efforts.

While nearly ten years old, the book, Academically Adrift, published in 2011 by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, showed that little progress had been made in advancing the development of critical thinking skills during students’ years at college. That conclusion probably holds true today. With the explosion in online social media and algorithm driven news feeds, desired outcomes probably have been stymied rather than helped.

The authors’ claim was based on surveys of employers and on how well students were prepared for critical thinking on the job. While I have a problem with this criteria — namely, I don’t believe that critical thinking ability should be judged only by on-the-job applicability — there is no doubt that an ongoing serious deficit in critical thinking ability among college grads exists regardless of how it is measured.

What follows, therefore, is my two-cents worth on the problem from the perspective of an educator of economics, having taught off and on for the past 32 years.

First, I have always tried to address critical thinking development as a teacher of economics. In fact, it was the reason I started teaching. I was trained to critique textbook economics by some of the best in the business (Robert Heilbroner, Edward Nell, Anwar Shaikh, Ross Tbomson, David Gordon, ) at advancing critical thinking about economics. I brought that pedagogy straight to the classroom and made it part of the narrative. That said, here I will confine myself to discussing just a part of my teaching pedagogy at introductory levels of microeconomic and macroeconomics.

Most students attending these required sections of economics will rarely take another economics course. For example, in my experience at the University of Vermont between 2009 and 2017 as a full-time lecturer, fewer than 5% of over 3,000 students I taught were majors of economics. Thus, they would not likely attend any other economics courses in their lives. This made it extremely important to make sure students developed some critical thinking about what parades as economics knowledge before they finished their once-in-a-lifetime course. For those majoring in economics, on the other hand, it was possible to spread this effort out over other courses (such as at intermediate-level courses and seminars).

One of the big problems we face today is the relentless tsunami of information at our fingertips via the Internet. It can be overwhelming for even the most prepared to handle. While access to so much information has potential in some ways, it can be difficult for many students to be able to critically separate the wheat from the chaff, as the old adage goes. In today’s online world of Youtube videos, Google news feeds, and algorithmic curated searches, we often have a problem of way-too-easy access to information, much of it of dubious quality. Add to this all the algorithm-driven information that is pushed on us based on our search and clicking activity, and you face a blizzard of information that can blind you to the valuable kernels of thought.

This can become a positive feedback loop of one-sided takes on any particular topic. Based on my experience with Google’s news feed, which is a handy tool to be sure, after several years of clicking on news stories and items in the feed, I have yet to find one that points to anything related to left academic economics. And the more I click on libertarian influenced pieces, the more of the same I would receive. I like to read these and might not encounter them otherwise. Still, the Google newsfeed-served links ran from Austrian (right) to Keynesian (liberal) perspectives. Absent were truly left academic economics perspectives. And deep ecological economics perspectives and related news items. This is a huge hole.

For those not aware of this gaping hole, it is easy to assume you are getting the full picture. On the other hand, if you are aware that clicking on a particular article might generate more articles containing information with the same focus, and you want that, it can be a good thing. The key is being aware and having a strategy to navigate this Internet jungle. If you are aware of what you are not being exposed to, then you can seek out the missing information. Let’s now turn to a similar problem in the economics classroom.

Similar to the problem of positive feedback information loops on the Internet, the economics profession, as structured and incentivized, has enabled a similar outcome. I will not delve into this issue or argument in any detail right now (it will instead be the subject of a future post or two). For now, let me just assert that the nature of the problem in the teaching of economics is different from Internet positive feedback loops. But the results are the same. Let me flesh this out a bit and in a subsequent post I will more fully develop this hypothesis.

Textbooks are studied by thousands of students every year, with some of these students later going on to become teachers. These teachers will end up using the same conventional textbooks (they each differ only marginally). Since textbooks contain the same content these teachers learned, and fully know, they turn to these same textbooks for teaching in their courses. It makes life easy for a newbie academic. What is worse, this is what advances their careers, so they continue to use these textbooks rather than be controversial. And this behavior is rewarded by approving conventional colleagues. This thus becomes a self-reinforcing form of groupthink that happens for career reasons, not anything else. And if the same idea is repeated enough, people start to think uncritically about the content of textbooks. This reproduces itself in the minds of students, who then fail to develop critical thinking ability.

This positive feedback loop, or snowball effect, propels forward into successive generations what I call a monoline economics knowledgebase. It excludes competing schools of thought. This is what economists call path dependence — but here in a bad way. That is, the future is delimited based on a bad path taken in the past. We remain on the same bad path because it is easier, rewarded and non controversial in the case of economics — even though it may be a big detour in terms of advancing knowledge.

Lost along this dependent path, meanwhile, is critical awareness of the social and political nature of the generation of the knowledge found in the conventional textbooks — namely the history of ideas, controversy surrounding the ideas, the analytical dead-ends, and important debates about the merits and real alternatives. For me, this is where the failure resides in developing critical thinking about economics among students.

By not teaching students at the introductory level a sub-knowledge (historical and philosophical roots) of the knowledge of economics and knowledge generation, we lose a chance to bring in controversy and with it an opportunity to develop critical perspectives and critical thinking skills. Surely, monoline economics teachers will disagree — many vehemently, but this is rather self-serving. Many of these same academics have a big stake in protecting the status quo.

The fancy academic words for this big gaping hole in the typical college economics classroom are epistemology and ontology. Both of these refer to questions about the validity of accepted economics knowledge and from where this knowledge actually originates (and how and why it exists, especially ideologically, socially and politically). This palpable hole means that debates about alternatives are excluded and there are no fundamental challenges to the purported scientific truths of the textbook. I will return to this missing dimension later in this post.

While not directed at economics per se, a recent article in the Journal of Higher Education opinion section (Teaching students to think critically (opinion) (insidehighered.com) gets close to but doesn’t exactly identify this absence of epistemological and ontological dimensions as an important one to consider. Exposing a myth about what might have slowed down integrating critical thinking instruction, the author Jonathan Haber writes:

Another myth that has slowed down integrating critical-thinking instruction more deeply into the curriculum is fear that teaching skills, including critical-thinking skills, must come at the expense of teaching academic content. Yet one cannot think critically about a subject one knows nothing about. Since background knowledge, including knowledge of content related to the academic disciplines, is a vital part of being a critical thinker, understanding content and thinking critically about it do not need to come into conflict.

I agree that there is no inherent conflict in trying to do both and that knowledge of the discipline is needed before you can critically assess it. But Haber is pointing out something that requires a little bit more exploration here.

How knowledge is generated, not just what it is in terms of content, is essential for developing critical thinking smarts. Haber doesn’t come out and say that, though. He mentions “background knowledge” of the discipline. But this is a broad concept and I believe he misses the mark here, although he might agree with what I am about to say.

In economics classes, there is some background knowledge of the discipline shared but it usually takes the form of sidebars on Adam Smith or David Ricardo, or even Karl Marx. Their relevance, or lack thereof, is pointed out — with Marx being negatively presented, always as a thinker fit for a museum of dead-end ideas. Ricardo and Smith, meanwhile, are typically presented positively as having been the big classical forerunners of the modern economics of the textbook. This represents at least some background as to how we got to where we are today and why. But it is one-sided, and too little, plus it lacks the real grit of history of intellectual struggles over ideas in economics of the past few decades and again raging today. Today’s fight, like yesterday’s, is aimed at challenging economics of the textbooks.

Today’s textbooks, and most teachers using them (because they were taught with the same textbooks), fail to really provide serious and relevant critical background knowledge of the discipline of economics. It is not hard to do in classrooms. Instead, what is presented is often misconstrued by teachers as a state of the art of the discipline of economics. The debate is over, that is. But this, as I would always inform my students, is a disserve to them — an egregious omission on par with let’s say leaving out a serious Freudian perspective in an introductory class on psychology, or not including the ongoing debates between neo-Freudians and other schools of thought inside that discipline.

To be sure, you need to learn the textbook economics models and methods however one-sided they are. But unless you know how this knowledge arrived to become part of the textbooks (and how, when and why other knowledge has been left out of the textbooks), you are being ill-informed and not critically educated. To undo this ubiquitous dysfunction in economics education, some recent history of thought is required beyond sidebars on Smith, Ricardo and Marx. I disagree with those who claim the mainstream profession has changed and now is more inclusive. This is not true, and I will present a later post on this point.

But worse than students getting this monoline approach of textbooks, the presentation in textbooks purports to be value-free and above ideology. Is this true? This question “Is this true?” is an epistemological one. It seeks an answer to the question of the validity of the purported value-free (i.e., scientific) claim of the textbooks. My answer to this is that textbooks are hardly value-free, but are good at hiding this fact. To prove this, of course, requires a full course in the history of economic thought. Alas, few economics departments have such courses any more.

For example, why did the Solow growth model (found exclusively in all macroeconomics textbooks) replace the Harrod-Domar growth model? This turning point is an interesting one that begs the question: What role did ideology play? Was this evolutionary? Was it a step forward at improving the science of economics? Or was it a detour from perhaps a better road for exploring determinants and the nature of economic growth? These are questions I used to explore in my course covering the history of economic thought. The answers to these questions are quite revealing and there is controversy involved. And ideology.

In the typical economics classroom, you would never know from reading the textbook or listening to your teacher that such questions cited above are valid (questions about the validity of textbooks models and the role of ideology in shaping them). Instead, you are asked to follow (and memorize) a lecture on the meaning of disequilibrium forces leading markets back to equilibrium. And to why and how any market imperfections will block or delay desired market clearing outcomes. There is too much emphasis on memorizing models. This surely doesn’t lend itself to development of critical thinking skills.

It is possible, as Haber argues, that one can present both background knowledge and develop critical perspectives without the two being in conflict. But I would take it one step further. If you inform students of the backstory of disputes inside the profession, you will open up a can of epistemological worms that stimulates student thinking. For example, when you pull the curtain back on past and present struggles challenging the professional grip held by one school of thought on economics classrooms, you immediately have achieved critical thinking in students.

I liked to cover the history of the protests and debates by radical economics students/teachers of the 1960s and early 1970s, and how again today we have the same thrust with the heterodox economics movement. This emphasis brings into focus a struggle for what constitutes valid economics knowledge. And it exposes a hidden fact of life about economics — there is no agreed upon definition of “good economics”. This upends complacency.

Both movements mentioned above were/are aimed at cracking open the closed circle of monoline textbooks and their too often cloned teachers. With this approach, students will not only pay more attention (who doesn’t love controversy?), they will be better informed (critically) of a wider knowledgebase of economics because they will understand that there is more to economics than imperfections in free markets and why removing them is a better thing for us all (the central normative message of textbooks).

Among other things, students will learn that the central message of textbooks contains an ideological agenda wrapped in the sheep’s clothing of the textbook’s models. If a student of economics never learns about this lurking agenda, the student cannot possibly be educated to think critically about the discipline. And this has little to do with needs of your employer. Actually, it might help students stand up for their rights as students and future employees.

Knowing about how economics knowledge is generated and who it serves — plus how it plays into politics and politics plays into it — enhances critical thinking ability. Perhaps it is the absence of this kind of teaching that keeps us from making progress on the critical thinking development front in post-secondary education.

JS