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How to decolonise an Economics curriculum

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The economics curriculum at South African universities is in crisis, claims Ihsaan Bassier, an honours student at UCT. He writes that UCT’s curriculum is ‘largely abstracted from South Africa’s economic crisis and reinforces an anti-poor understanding of policies’. He explains:

Economics is presented as an amoral subject, only examining mechanistic questions and optimising efficiency. If it is amoral, why is so little attention given to heterodox thought? Capitalism arbitrarily privileges those with money over others in the most violent form possible, through a system of class protection, marginalisation of the poor and gross injustice. Rather than being amoral, undergraduate economics in fact promotes a horrible moral: that “rationality” is defined as profit-maximisation and that the point of departure is our violent system. Students are trained to be apologists for capitalism and alternatives are marginalised.

It is both bad economics and anti-poor for students to be bombarded with arguments that government intervention and minimum wages are “bad”. Social benefits are blamed for unemployment, as if it is preferable to allow people to starve; regulation is demonised, as if unfettered business would solve South Africa’s economic problems. Some attention is eventually given to market failure, but only as a token.

Why do we not learn more seriously about other systems and behaviours, about technical aspects of socialism and redistribution, about power, about how racism interacts with capitalism, the pervasiveness of rent and out-of-equilibrium dynamics, or an endless number of alternatives that my education has not exposed me to?

UCT’s curriculum is quite similar to that of Stellenbosch, where I teach. So let me respond to these rather big accusations, and then make a suggestion.

Capitalism arbitrarily privileges those with money over others in the most violent form possible. Economics equips students with a set of tools that allow them to explain the world around them. One of those tools is statistical analysis, which means we can test a hypothesis – like the above statement – with evidence from the real world. And unfortunately for Ihsaan, the real world evidence is pretty clear on this one: capitalism, a system based on the principle of individual rights, has created remarkable economic freedom for humanity over the last three centuries. Consider this: the real income of the median person in the world doubled in the period between 2003 and 2013, a period that included a financial crisis. In 1981 more than half the people in the world lived in absolute poverty. Today, it is less than 20%. It is simply wrong to declare, without proof, that capitalism arbitrarily privileges those with money. Millions of Indians, and Chinese and, yes, Africans too, have higher living standards than their parents did, and that is highly correlated with more market activity, not less. (In fact, privileging arbitrarily is exactly what communism does, by removing people’s individual freedoms and choices. Just ask the Latvians or any other Eastern Europeans who suffered its consequences.)

Global poverty the last two hundred years

Global poverty the last two hundred years

That is not to say that everything about capitalism is great. Capitalism is not one thing – it morphs into different forms depending on the political and social context. Capitalism in America is certainly more unfettered than capitalism in, say, France. And there is certainly space for more debate about the type of capitalism we need in South Africa.

But those debates need to be based on sound theories and falsifiable evidence. Economic policy arguments – Is a higher minimum wage better for the poorest? Do social benefits lead to unemployment? Does regulation impede growth? – are all empirical questions, one that economists’ statistical toolkits can answer. Yes, we have theories about how the world works, but as Dani Rodrik explains in his excellent new book, Economics Rules, there is not one single (better) theory, but a menu of theories that economists can use to understand their world. Think of a theory (or a model) as a map. There is no single map that explains everything. Sometimes you need a world map just to look at countries. Sometimes you need a street map to take you to your destination. Other times you need a map of the soil quality if you want to sow for the coming season. Economists’ models are the same. We use different models in different contexts, and what makes a really good economist is picking the right model for the right question.

EconomicsRulesHere, Ihsaan’s critique is valid. In first and second year, the emphasis is too much on a single theory (or model) of the world, the standard, neoclassical theory. There are good reasons for this, of course: it is mathematically tractable and provides a solid base for understanding basic human interaction. And that is exactly why it is a good platform for understanding why it does not work in every setting: the assumptions are strong but they are also explicit. Relax some of those assumptions, and the results change. This is exactly how we come to improve our understanding of the world. (In my class, I discuss these assumptions in the South African context and ask the students whether they may or may not hold. That is, I’ve found, how students actually gain a better understanding of the complexities of the problems we have in South Africa, and an appreciation for the tools of economics, of modeling and statistical testing, to solve them.) But a more explicit treatment of the menu of theories economists have at their disposal is necessary.

Ihsaan offers three solutions to solve the curriculum conundrum: 1) admit that we are in a crisis, 2) allocate time to a topic in proportion to its importance in our context, 3) include topics such as poverty, unemployment and inequality from the first year. He fears that too many students leave Economics after only one or two years, without understanding the nuances of the models.

What undergraduate Economics begins to do is equip students with the analytical tools to investigate the important topics of our era. Students need the basic skills of mathematical and statistical analyses to be able to empirically test the questions we are all concerned about. To make it more practical: Debating poverty in South Africa is very difficult if your opponent has no idea how to calculate a ‘poverty line’ or ‘median income’. Or the impact of a higher interest rate with someone who has no idea what the monetary transmission mechanism is. Or the impact of an increase in VAT with someone who has never heard about tax incidence. That is why we need those first three years.

And yes, many students leave after only two years. True, they will have a limited understanding of Economics. But no one expects me to be a psychologist with just Psychology 1, or fluent in French with just French 2. This is why we need to encourage more students to enroll for Economics graduate degrees, and why we need to expose them to more analytical tools, not fewer. We cannot afford to have a society where economic policy is not informed by sound economic analysis undertaken by well-trained, analytical economists. Undergraduate Economics – with the emphasis on rigorous analytical training in microeconomics and macro-economics – needs to stay. This not only gives a solid toolkit for those who want just the ‘essence’ of Economics, but it also allows students to continue with graduate Economics, not only in South Africa but elsewhere. And as I’ve said before, to get into US universities requires a lot of analytical skills.

But I also understand the need for more context, for thinking and discussing the very real material problems that South Africans face. So, I have another solution for Ihsaan, one that betrays my biases: We can look to the past to help us understand today’s problems, and we can look to what the brightest minds have thought about solving these complex problems. In short, we can do more to encourage Economic History and the History of Economic Thought as analytical tools of their own to make sense of today’s development problems.

Ihsaan is fortunate: UCT does have a good undergraduate economic history programme, and a wonderful third-year class in the History of Economic Thought. Global and African economic history provides us with an understanding of the historical roots of poverty, inequality and unemployment; the past does not only explain the present, as one colleague notes, but it is analogous to the present. The History of Economic Thought is concerned with philosophers’ (or theorists’) ideas about solving the economic problem, including philosophers that were very much in favour of socialism. If the neoclassical model is a country-map, the History of Economic Thought is a map of the world, showing how neoclassical thinking evolved and why it became the dominant model.

At Stellenbosch, we have created an entire course in the second year to investigate past and contemporary economic development. One semester of Economics 281 starts with the Neolithic Revolution (circa 8000 BCE) and ends with the Economics of Apartheid. The other semester considers all kinds of current development policies, with a specific focus on South Africa. I see Economics 281 as complementary to the standard Economics courses. You cannot have the one without the other.

You do not decolonise a curriculum by removing content. If you do that, you deny students the opportunity to participate in global debates and the global job market. You decolonise by adding more context and diversity. We advance science by standing on the shoulders of giants. Decolonisation done right can add more shoulders to stand on.



14 Responses

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  1. […] to do with Western culture, based on the fact that it is simply “not African.” Another great article to read is one by Johan Fourie, a lecturer at Stellenbosch university, regarding the decolonisation […]

  2. […] discussion closer to home, we observe a professor of economic history at Stellenbosch University, Johan Fourie, in his response to the call to decolonise economics writing of socialism and communism […]

  3. LOL! Stellenbosch Economics is the furthest thing from objective. Prof. Johan Fourie, you rise to defend this? Perhaps we need a lot of introspection – the rhinoceros after all, always sees its own horn in its image of the world. The trick is to see beyond your own horn. haha….

    I was a student at stellenbosch myself, through to honours and was taught by a lot of the faculty. First things first…. Economics, fundamentally is really not a science, even with the ‘abundance’ of statistical methods and all. You do not need Plato or Socrates or Marcus Garvey or Marx or Mandela or any fancy philosopher to tell you that all the activities in our reality which involve human interaction, be it competition or cooperation (and which have even historically led to war and violence and some peace) is political in nature. In this sense, economics, as evidenced in the global history of economic thought, is an argumentative practice, where empirical evidence, based on disparate population samples which in actuality can never be inferred to a population, are used to justify ideological positions.

    Can you economists tell the truth for once? You choose abstraction over truth? What is your truth Johan?

    I think Cara puts it well, “It is like taking students who are used to Comparative Religion, putting them in a class with a generic name like Religious Studies, and then diving into Christianity for the rest of the year. Just anticipate that this is going to go against their grain, acknowledge it and explain why you’re going to do it.

    How come a whole economics department like stellenbosch has no course in the history of African Economic thought? Yet you are in Africa?
    Even in honours level institutional economics, the focus is only on the formal set of institutions? I remember us brushing over Thorstein Veblen, and informal institutions, entirely neglecting veblenian economics, instead focusing on some warped neo-liberal property rights transaction cost economics, (why not call the entire course TCE then?)… thats when I began to wonder… why? Why is it that even at the honours level, we skirt over social theory in economics at stellenbosch university? Why did we not even go into veblens theory of leisure class?
    Innocently, I think I even asked the lecturer, Siebrits (?) about why we were skipping over Veblen, and he being an honest sort of chap just shrugged and quickly moved on…. Thankfully I kept wondering…

    Education, I beg of all of you, is not about the what, it is about the how.
    Economics as it is taught in Stellenbosch is uncritical and seeks to preserve the status quo because It is more about the what than the how. The so called teachers are more interested in telling students that they are right or wrong than actively engaging in any sort of critical thinking.

    One does not need any exceptional skill to recognize this. I have walked through each module, and yes I majored in Economics (so I took almost every economic module available) – 114. 144, 214, 244, 281, 318, 348, 388, 381. (Johan will probably even remember me smirking in his class).

    But it is all right, education has to teach both the teacher and the student, otherwise it is dogma. Do you remember when Europeans scientifically claimed that the world was flat? today it is round. Do you remember when phrenology scientifically theorised about the negroe? Economics is not short of divination folks…to the myth of the free market.

    It is my hope that all these discusssions should move beyond mere reactionary dialogue and should perhaps prompt us to greater self-consciousness about the historical specificity of our own time and thinking; and even of its imperial antecedents.

    Sekou Nyabinghi

    April 28, 2016 at 21:10

  4. […] there’s been very little of it. Save for a few references on social media, there was this response of Johan Fourie, a lecturer in economics at Stellenbosch University and avid blogger, that […]

  5. […] en juego, se ha hablado poco de él. A excepción de algunas referencias en los medios sociales. Esta respuesta de Johan Fourie, un profesor de economía en la Universidad de Stellenbosch y activo bloguero, se […]

  6. […] stake, there’s been very little of it. Save for a few references on social media, there was this response of Johan Fourie, a lecturer in economics at Stellenbosch University and avid blogger, that deserves […]

  7. Johan you endless ability to apologise for the Dark Science is capable only by someone who has never turned a profit in his life. (those who can’t do – teach). Economics is the last barracade, the place where we defend capitalism. Here we defend against the forces of ignorance and misplaced self interest.

    If you cannot defend the position that Capitalism is a terrible system except that it is better than the rest, then it is time for butterfly collecting or Roman Dutch Law.

    Economics cannot be for everyone. Less than 1% of people end up accumulating significant amounts of Capital or managing large amounts of Capital. Obviously it is going to look like gobbledegook to the 99%, otherwise we would all be doing it!

    Joahn, you are right – Economics teaching is in crisis. Certainly for UCT and Stellenbosch. If in teaching Economics you cannot countenance a full understanding of the neoclassical position, then you are best doing something else. Leave economics to the 1% who are prepared to understand Capitalism.

    It is not about whether Neoclassical economics is right or wrong ( I personally destest the neoclassical position) it is that it IS (or at the very least WAS). Leaving out neoclassical economics is like trying to understand relativity without understanding Newtonian Mechanics. Newton was wrong, but you still have to learn why. If you don’t understand Newton you will still be rolling balls down slopes while the rest of us launch sattelites and build GPS systems.

    Economic history is no soft option. Without a full understanding of Riccardo,Mashall, Marx and Keynes, you are wasting your time on Economic History. Can I suggest Politics, sociology or social anthropology. There you can marvel at unfair and unjust history is. If you want to find out why, you are going to have to knuckle down and understand the principles of marginal analysis, equilibrium and econometrics.

    Giving up economics will give you all the time in the world to figure out what “decolonisation” means. If this is important to you, then economics is simply wasting your time.

    Philip Copeman

    March 14, 2016 at 11:47

  8. Just a minor correction – in the first year Micro course at Stellies I know that at least three lecturers present economic models along with the caveat that it is a necessary abstraction from reality which gives us a framework upon which to hang real issues and allows for debate and discussion about real issues. For example, we can discuss alternatives to simple labour market model which rely on price as the only adjustment mechanism in the first year already. We can question the self-interest / social interest advancement in the first year as well. Sweeping generalisations about what students learn when should perhaps be tempered by discussions with those teaching the modules. We do a lot to make real issues come alive in the first year already by helping students make the connection between abstraction and reality early on.


    March 10, 2016 at 18:26

    • Just for clarification – the sweeping generalisations I refer to are contained within the quote by Ihsaan. Although I have reservations about global figures being very useful welfare indicators for the currently poor.


      March 10, 2016 at 18:39

    • Agree with you Eldridge. In 244 Liezl and I definitely do it. In 144 we try, but there is some degree of “chasing content”, and this needs to be addressed.
      Thanks for this Eldridge.


      March 10, 2016 at 22:38

  9. I did Stellenbosch’s Economics 1 for BA students (forget what the code was) and found it offensive for reasons that I struggled to articulate but which I think Ihsaan articulates. It assumed neoclassical theory so that it could teach you basic statistical concepts. But BA students are being trained from day 1 not to accept neoclassical theory at face value; alternative political ideologies make up the stuff of introductory political science in a way that alternative economic models do not feature in 1st and 2nd year Economics at all. Maybe more needs to be done to explain to Economics students what you just explained here Johan – emphasising why it is that Stellenbosch chooses to compile the curriculum as you do. And to open your reasons up to scrutiny. You’ve probably already started doing that since I took that course in 2006.

    Then I did your Economics 281 – Development Economics – when I was pursuing a masters in political science. I found it truly empowering as I could see links to the real SA policy issues that I was hoping to focus on in my career. Health, unemployment, education and skills, BEE, agricultural development, and the foreign aid debate. I think these issues are indeed essential complements to the “normal” Econ 1 and 2. More so than a study of alternative economic systems. (And let me point out here that my study of all the various political ideologies ended up being far less relevant to my life and career so far than my study of the comparatively dull subjects of democratic citizen politics and policy analysis.) Econ 281 didn’t make me much of an economist but it helped to get some handle on the basic concepts at play in these issues – and to appreciate further sound research into the concepts as I encounter it in my career.

    In my opinion it would be good for BCom students to take good note of why you teach them macro and micro economics instead of focusing on alternatives to capitalism. But mostly I remember wishing that the BCom students around me who were hoping to go into corporate South Africa with only the “normal” Econ 1 and 2 could have their education supplemented with Econ 281 because I feared they were eventually going to lead Corporate SA further into calamity without an appreciation for these issues.

    Cara Meintjes Hartley

    March 10, 2016 at 14:57

    • Cara, were you in Economics 288 or Economics 114 and 144?


      March 10, 2016 at 22:38

    • Two quick comments:

      1) I find the statement that economics curriculae that focus on neoclassical economics in the first and second year are “offensive” very strange. I assume (correct me if I’m wrong) that you mean you don’t believe that neoclassical economics is “correct”, so you don’t like that it is put front and center. My questions are: why do you believe that, are you actually right, and should your (and other first/second year students’) opinions about what is right/wrong actually shape curriculae?

      2) Political science departments do indeed put “heterodox” political economy front and center in South Africa. As a political scientist who studies South Africa (but no longer in South Africa), I would put it to you that South African political science has been hamstrung and globally left behind by this approach. Political scientists worldwide are contributing important answers to political and policy questions that have major impacts on the lives of the disenfranchised and poor. They are not “heterodox”, and sadly, they are very rarely South African.

      Apologies in advance if I misunderstood your positions.


      March 10, 2016 at 23:09

      • Just in case this isn’t clear, I really enjoyed Johan’s post and I hope this discussion will continue in SA!

        I think I did both Economics 144 and 114 in my first year as a BA student..? You, Johan and Liezl all taught in that class… As I understand, we did a simplified version of what the BComm students do in their first year. Basic micro and macro economics. I ended up enjoying the content, I was just put off in the first few classes by the lack of a disclaimer (like I try to explain again below…)

        Then in 2011 I did Economics 281 and 288 I think – the Development Economics course.

        1) You misunderstood me on that one. What I found “offensive” was that the course dove into macro and microeconomics (which works from the assumption that there’s a market and a state operating in your economy) without acknowledging the bias inherent in that and without justifying that bias in the way Johan does above. It’s a bit like taking students who are used to Comparative Religion, putting them in a class with a generic name like Religious Studies, and then diving into Christianity for the rest of the year. Just anticipate that this is going to go against their grain, acknowledge it and explain why you’re going to do it it. Because they are not in the habit of sticking to one paradigm and now you’re going to ask them to do just that. Eldridge – I’m glad to hear that is the case with the first year micro!
        2) Ja that’s the point I was making too.

        Cara Meintjes Hartley

        March 11, 2016 at 17:26

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