“We, economics students of the world, declare ourselves to be generally dissatisfied with the teaching that we receive.”
– Opening lines of the letter from economic students to professors and others responsible for the teaching of this discipline (2000)
After the Reign of Terror in France, there existed a vast divide between the 1792 Republic and the country’s elites. To bridge the gap, among recommendations from other committees, the commission on public education recommended the creation of a planned centralised national education system. Two of the commission’s members – politicians Joseph Lakanal and Dominique-Joseph Garat – suggested the creation of an institution at the core of this system. The institution was intended to provide the Republic with a new body of professors and teachers who were thoroughly trained in critical spirit and the secular values of Enlightenment which had been at the forefront of questioning orthodoxy with its overpowering sentiment of ‘Sapere aude’ i.e. ‘Dare to Think’ or an intention to think on one’s own. Times of instability carried on in the country as years passed and École Normale Supérieure (ENS), as the institution is known today, took its place at the centre of Paris’ education system.
In June of 2000, nearly 200 years after its first establishment, a group of French students from ENS issued a petition which began to question the lack of realism in economics, using mathematical concepts as ‘an end in itself’ and the notion that the yesteryear social science now belongs to the domain of an imaginary world where models are taught and neo-classical theory reigns. As per Edward Fullbrook’s article titled ‘The Post-Autistic Economics Movement: A Brief History’, this students’ petition by the crème de la crème of the French education system garnered support from economics teachers across the country who added their own analysis of the status-quo and called for a public debate on the states of economics and economics teaching. This entire situation was taken note of by French newspaper Le Monde and it opened the gates for a public debate after interviewing few prominent economists who found their sentiments expressed by the students’ petition.
As debates grow broader and bigger, the initial fear to commit oneself which had held back a few students and teachers from signing the petition lost its presence and the petitioning voices grew stronger. This shift marked a change in the media coverage and thus Post-Autistic Economics (PAS) Movement took shape. The resulting media coverage forced the then French minister for Education Jack Lang to establish a commission to investigate the matters and at the head of the commission was none other than French economist Jean-Paul Fitoussi.
The entire situation, at least to those not well versed with the subject or the students’ intentions, begged the question, what exactly was the movement for those who had started it?
The ENS students, while questioning the prevalent economic thinking and teaching, were merely acting out in the spirit for which the institution was first established in 1792. Armed with a critical outlook towards the detached-from-reality teaching within model-based economics classes and an intention to question the orthodoxy of teaching economics through purely mathematical concepts, the students declared that they ‘wish to escape from imaginary worlds’ and wrote in the original petition as follows:
Most of us have chosen to study economics so as to acquire a deep understanding of the economic phenomena with which the citizens of today are confronted. But the teaching that is offered, that is to say for the most part neoclassical theory or approaches derived from it, does not generally answer this expectation. Indeed, even when the theory legitimately detaches itself from contingencies in the first instance, it rarely carries out the necessary return to the facts. The empirical side (historical facts, functioning of institutions, study of the behaviours and strategies of the agents…) is almost non-existent. Furthermore, this gap in the teaching, this disregard for concrete realities, poses an enormous problem for those who would like to render themselves useful to economic and social actors.
With the problems laid bare, they continued by targeting neo-classical economic thinking and calling for a more pluralist approach to teaching methods:
Too often the lectures leave no place for reflection. Out of all the approaches to economic questions that exist, generally only one is presented to us. This approach is supposed to explain everything by means of a purely axiomatic process, as if this were THE economic truth. We do not accept this dogmatism. We want a pluralism of approaches, adapted to the complexity of the objects and to the uncertainty surrounding most of the big questions in economics (unemployment, inequalities, the place of financial markets, the advantages and disadvantages of free-trade, globalization, economic development, etc.)
If the students call for debate and the discussion looked faint and too juvenile, the economics teachers in France gave their voice in follow-up petition to promote the idea of a debate on the teaching of economics as follows:
Two fundamental features of university education should be the diversity of the student’s degree course and the training of the student in critical thinking. But under the neoclassical regime neither is possible, and often the latter is actively discouraged. Insistence upon mathematical formalism means that most economic phenomena are out-of-bounds both for research and for the economics curriculum. The indefensibleness of these restrictions means that evidence of critical thinking by students is perceived as a dangerous threat. In free societies, this is an unacceptable state of affairs.
We, economic teachers of the France, give our full support to the claims made by the students… We are particularly concerned with initiatives that may be taken at the local level in order to provide the beginning of answers to their expectations. We also hope these issues will be heard by all economics students in universities everywhere.
And so the debate began. The original students’ petition had already divided the economic thinking narrow and broadband thought – with them calling for the latter to take front stage – and word had spread around the world. Within a year or two, petitions from students at Cambridge University in the UK, Kansas City and Harvard in USA, Australia and Canada were released. All of these were based on the intentions clarified in the original French petition and called for economic departments all over the world to take note of the pedagogical crisis in economics that had been brought about by the prevalence of neo-classical economic thinking.
The Fitoussi Report was ultimately released in 2000 itself and called for limited reforms. Critically analysing the report so submitted, Gilles Raveaud wrote that Fitoussi was yet to realize that his Keynesian thinking was no more at the helm of the economic discourses given at the universities. Raveaud accused the report of not answering the serious questions raised by the petitions. Rather, he argues, the report gives a ‘politically adroit’ answer by laying down suggestions on taking the economic teaching seriously by initiating debates in the economic courses and making economic courses multi-disciplinary. Expressing a sentiment that may or may not have been collectively shared by those making the charge, Raveaud accepted the Fitoussi report apart from a few disagreements saying that ‘if it is implemented, it would make economics in French universities look like very different than it does today.’
In many ways, the movement had somewhat succeeded. By November 2000, the student group had launched the paecon.net website which was focused on documenting the movement. Multiple conferences had taken place and the movement had become truly international. Pressing questions had been raised before status-quo economists and education departments and the idea that a critical outlook might be applied by economic graduates seemed more plausible.
Everything looked alright until 8 years and a few months had passed since that inquisitive June in 2000, and the world was poised for one of the worst financial crises since the Great Depression of 1930.