Why there should be more to teaching economics than just finding the market equilibrium

By Veerle van Onzenoort

When professor Mohammad Marandi wrote his article ‘Eurocentrism and Academic Imperialism’, he captured one of the biggest problems we face in academia today. In this article, he puts forth that the world is almost always viewed in a strongly Eurocentric manner in academia and that it is in fact a very homogeneous field. Over the last couple of years, people have become increasingly aware of this problem and school curriculums are being updated to be more diverse. However, in the field of economics, there is very little progress like this visible, even though this might be the field where it is needed the most.

If you walk into an economics 101 class at any western high school or university, the subject matter will likely be very similar. First, the theoretical basis of the field will be explained, you will learn about Adam Smith and his Wealth of Nations. Then you will learn that people are rational beings and that the homo economicus will be used for the rest of your studies. After that, it all comes down to profit-maximising, Pareto-efficiëncy and reaching the Nash equilibrium in the market. All of this information will very likely be presented as purely objective and as factual as Newton’s law of gravity.

However, the economy in the form it is today brings winners, but also many losers. One of the disadvantages of our current system is the inequality it brings. At this point, the richest eight people in the world own as much as the bottom 50% combined. There is also the issue of climate change, which is caused mainly by profit-maximising, Pareto-efficiënt companies. As a CDP report points out, the 100 biggest companies in the world have been responsible for 71% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Inequality and climate change are just two examples of problems that are for a large part linked to our economic system.

The roots of this economic system have been debated, but it largely comes down to two movements. The first is 18th-century liberal economic thought, with Adam Smith as its leading figure. The second is the industrial revolution in the 19th century when the global free trade system started to take shape. Both of these movements completely originated in Europe and were spread around the world through imperialism. Therefore, our current economic system is predominantly Eurocentric.

Right now, 41 of the 50 world’s leading universities are in the United States and Europe, meaning that the centre of academia is mostly located in the West. The people studying at these universities will likely end up in powerful positions later on. Therefore, it is important to teach these students by means of a diverse curriculum. Especially if we take into account the strong negative effects of this capitalist system, as well as its roots, it seems necessary that some subjectivity is relevant when teaching economics.

There have been plenty of alternative perspectives and theories on how to arrange an economic system, as well as many critiques of the capitalist system as it is right now. If we consider the contributions of postcolonial, feminist, and Marxist scholars to the field, they show us that the field and the way it is taught is not as objective as it may seem and that there is indeed a lot that can be, and perhaps should be, changed. Considering these perspectives and critiques, it seems relevant to teach our future leaders that there is a more humane and subjective dimension to economics that goes beyond reaching the Pareto optimum.