The Mint: Good afternoon, Joris, and thank you very much for joining The Mint to talk about your new book, Economy Studies.
Joris Tieleman: Henry, thanks for inviting me. Good to be here.
The Mint: Well, I thought I’d start by asking you about what the motivation for producing this quite substantial book, and you’ve got a lot of materials to go with it as well, haven’t you? Must have been quite a hard work.
Joris Tieleman: It was a bit of slog at times, yeah. The motivation, so this book originated in the Rethinking Economics movement, and the idea for the book germinated in a bunch of these international meetings that we had over the years. Before we came up with this project, a lot of the longer term projects of Rethinking groups all around the world was to review the local curriculum, take a critical look. What is being taught? What theories are being taught? What methods are being taught? How much attention for values, for real world economics is there? And you’d have similar findings everywhere of very homogeneous, very mathematics heavy, one type of theory and so on.
At some point the picture was clear. And what we noticed, we did one of these projects in the Netherlands as well, Thinking Like An Economist? And at some point we realised, okay this is actually being received rather well, surprisingly, by a lot of the faculties. A lot of the faculties picked up our … Well, actually we drove around with a van and put a copy of our report in everybody’s mailbox. I was going to say, “They picked up our report,” but they picked it up from their mailbox. This was in Netherlands, yes, yeah. So we printed a bunch of copies and every econ professor in the Netherlands got a free copy.
Not everyone, but there were a lot of positive responses of people saying, “Okay, you have a point here. It’s all good and well. Maybe we should change something, but what do you suggest?” That was a really fair question, and we realised that, yes, we have directions, broadened the theoretical scope. Okay, great. How do you do that? Well, have some Post-Keynesian stuff, some institutional, some Marx in economics. Good. Do you have concrete suggestions? No, not really. Well, we have a couple of good books. We can make a reading list.
We went through this exercise more or less, and at some point we realised, yeah, we should have a concrete map through this whole jungle of new teaching materials. Because we have a bunch of it in our bookcase, but it’s not accessible if you’re a lecturer and you’re not in this network. And yeah, there’s a whole world out there and you’re stretched for time of course. That’s how we came up with the idea of creating some kind of toolkit for curriculum builders and for lectures.
The Mint: This is aimed at lecturers. Would those lecturers, do you think, have to have studied some of the strands of economic thinking?
Joris Tieleman: Not necessarily. There’s a lot you can do about courses, even if you’re not intimately familiar with different heterodox schools of thought. I mean, it depends at what level you want to teach it, but to teach an introductory class and to contrast a Post-Keynesian perspective with maybe a neoclassical perspective, I mean, you can do a bit of weekend reading and teach the basics of it. The tricky thing is that a lot of lecturers shrink back from teaching something in which they feel they’re not complete experts.
The Mint: Yeah, yeah.
Joris Tieleman: You can teach it, but you have to be willing to admit that your knowledge goes only up to a point. And if you do, then actually I think this can be really empowering for students. Because in universities, in any educational institution, but especially in universities, there’s always this sense of the lecturer, the professor, sitting on their throne build out of academic transcripts and papers and having enormously in-depth knowledge. Which they do, of course, but it creates this massive distance. And it reduces a student also to the position of a sponge, taking it all in, but not thinking critically or adding something.
And if you say, “Hey, there’s these different perspectives, they’re worthwhile to learn about. I suggest you go into them and see which one triggers something,” and then from there to your exploration as well. “Here’s some further reading materials, but I have not read all of them myself, but I suggest them to you.” That’s powerful as well for students.
The Mint: Now I can imagine that. Did you have any of the lecturers that had given positive feedback, did you engage with them in terms of trying the book or trying the approach that you’ve taken?
Joris Tieleman: Yes. Yeah, we had quite an interactive writing process. I mean, so the idea for the book came out of Rethinking groups, so came out of the student movement. But before we started writing anything, before we started outlining even the chapters, we emailed, I think at that point, about 100 or 150 professors worldwide.
The Mint: Worldwide?
Joris Tieleman: Yes, worldwide. Yeah, yeah.
The Mint: Right.
Joris Tieleman: A wide range.
The Mint: How did you choose them? Were they once that shown interest or that you’ve had some engagement with previously?
Joris Tieleman: Yeah, those definitely. And also people we respect, people who are in our bookcase basically.
The Mint: Did they include people who are basically neoclassical?
Joris Tieleman: Yes, absolutely. Yeah.
The Mint: Okay.
Joris Tieleman: A lot of different big shots in the field, also in the current mainstream. Yeah, so we wanted to get a broad view of … Basically we asked some very, very simple, straightforward questions, like what makes good economics education? What are crucial core ideas for students to learn? What should be the majority of teaching time, stuff like that. And we got a lot of responses actually.
The Mint: How many?
Joris Tieleman: On that round I don’t have a figure for you, but I do … We continued this approach, I’ll give you a figure in a second. Because we continued this approach, we did another round after drafting … The core of the book consists of 10 building blocks. And after drafting the first set, which I think contained only seven or eight, we did another feedback round to see, do we have the core modules there? Do we have the core materials?
And finally, once we had written them, we did … And also some of the other chapters we did a final round, focusing more on the specialists. For example, if we’d write on labour economics, we suggest teaching these three different perspectives. Then we’d write through to experts on each of these perspectives and say, “Hey, did we represent the Post-Keynesian stuff well on this one? And do you have some comments, other teaching materials?” And all in all we got inputs, short or long, from 150 different professors.
The Mint: Wow.
Joris Tieleman: Yeah, throughout this whole process. And some of them, very lengthy and some quite brief notes of course, but it was great.
It was a very, very rewarding process. Scary at the beginning, of course, yeah, to expose your intellectual baby to the world and say, “Shoot.” But then we got so much good feedback and so helpful, it was great.
The Mint: Have any of your lecturers trialled it, actually? In the draft, did they actually use it in their teaching?
Joris Tieleman: Yes. So one side note, it’s not a textbook so you cannot use it to teach. You don’t tell students to read it. It’s more of a manual for course design. In the Netherlands, in Amsterdam actually, where I live, there are two universities. And one is the Vrije University, the Free University it’s called. And they are setting up a new bachelor programme, and quite a bunch of the courses that they’ve now put in through the programme design are based not one-to-one, but closely based on our different building blocks.
And this was based on a draught version from, I think, two years to go, which largely had the shape of the final book. All the building books were there, but still an outline. Yeah, so it’s being taken up. It’s really nice.
The Mint: No, that’s amazing. And beyond the Netherlands, do you think … I mean, talking to the rest of the Rethinking Economics movement, I suppose to a large extent I would suggest students tend to get disappointed by how little the departments of economics are willing to move.
Joris Tieleman: Yeah.
The Mint: Is Netherlands different, do you think? Or where do you see the movement?
Joris Tieleman: Yeah, that’s a tricky question. I think the Netherland is a little bit different, in the sense that there’s quite an informal connection between lectures and students here. You would address lectures by first name or a lot of people would, and they would be fine with that. And you can walk into their office and have a conversation. And in, I think, the majority of countries it’s just not the case, it’s this massive hierarchy. This helps for us to be more easily heard in the Netherlands and to more easily speak up. And I think that’s plays a big part in ideas being adopted.
One thing is, it’s kind of tricky to know where change is, because in this case we had conversations with the professor chairing the design of this new bachelor. And when they send us the new version of the programme, we could see title by title that it was in there. But still they found it quite hard to admit that they’ve taken student ideas in.
The Mint: Yeah, I can imagine that.
Joris Tieleman: Yeah, it somehow … Yeah. I can also imagine it, but it makes it hard to track where change is happening and whether it’s because of the student movement.
The Mint: I mean, as far as I understand it, at the moment there are no economic departments in the Netherlands that are pluralist in outlook. Is that right? I mean, compared to the UK where they clearly are, but there’s a big dividing line between the pluralist departments and non-pluralist departments.
Joris Tieleman: Yeah. More or less, there’s a few … For example, Nijmegen, it’s a Radboud University. It’s relatively pluralist. And then there’s a couple of individual professors, but really departments … For example, we have the Institute for Social Studies, where one of the leading economics professors is Irene van Staveren, she’s also fiercely pluralist. She got to-
The Mint: That’s who I talked to, who said that she thought there were … Because she’s not actually in an economics department, is she?
Joris Tieleman: No, that’s right. As you say, in terms of econ departments, no. No.
The Mint: So a lot of the departments at the moment, all your departments of economics now in the Netherlands, are neoclassical in approach, aren’t they? Do you see the possibility that they will actually take on your book and restructure their curricular as you suggest?
Joris Tieleman: Yeah, that’s a big one. I think the hardest thing is to take on our suggestions on theory. Theoretical pluralism, whenever we have a discussion or there’s a public panel or something, we notice our ideas are really actively being circulated and I think they’re influencing the curriculum. But one thing that’s left out is theoretical pluralism.
What people are happy to talk about is how to get more real world economics in. Yeah, so some concrete knowledge about economic challenges that our society faces, maybe some history of the economy. Not just economic thought, but history of the economy itself. Something about even the main sectors in the Dutch economy, what are they like? What’s the structure here? I can see that being adopted slowly over time.
I can also see less, but still a bit, stuff on values that we suggest being adopted over time, to actively discuss what are the values at stake in this economic question. So philosophy of science courses might come back. Probably it’ll often be in a separate course called ethics, which I think is not the best way we suggest integrating it in the main courses, but still. I can see it being taken up to some degree, but theoretical pluralism and is super hard because, yeah, as we discussed, it’s really hard for a prof to teach something that they don’t feel they completely own.
The Mint: You don’t think that they would teach Post-Keynesian macroeconomics or institutional economics or?
Joris Tieleman: I think, unless they hire Post-Keynesians or unless they hire whatever … Yes, exactly. I think that’s knowledge that would need to be hired in, and right now the hiring practises are not set up for that because they’re oriented towards publication records in mainstream top journals.
The Mint: I suppose, I notice on your back of your book, your first person who says, “What a wonderful book,” is Wendy Carlin, of course, who created the CORE curriculum. And the one interesting thing about the CORE curriculum is it also doesn’t accept economic pluralism, does it, as such.
But she likes your book. But obviously yours is different from CORE, in that it’s explicitly pluralist. How did that come about? Did you have a conversation with her?
Joris Tieleman: Yes, yes. Several conversations. Yeah, we had some good talks and some heated discussions as well. You say they’re not pluralists as such, and I would agree up to a point. What CORE does is a lot more pluralist than what Mankiw does, the mainstream textbooks.
The Mint: Oh, definitely. Yes.
Joris Tieleman: But it’s pluralism, they call it pluralism by integration.
The Mint: Yes.
Joris Tieleman: They try to sort of stick it into the mainstream structure and add some institutions in there, and add some consideration of values and add … Yeah. But our big wish, which they don’t fulfil, is putting it side-by-side and saying, “Here’s one theory. Here’s the efficient market hypothesis and here’s Minsky stuff.
The Mint: Well, that’s it-
Joris Tieleman: That they don’t do.
The Mint: Don’t reference. I mean I remember, this was some time ago, a conversation with Wendy Carlin about the institutional economics section. And I noted it didn’t reference Geoffrey Hodgson, who in the UK is the top institutional economist. And Wendy Carlin’s response to me was that he was quite difficult to read, which I must admit, I don’t find. And anyway, he could confuse the students.
Joris Tieleman: That’s the big disagreement we have with them.
The Mint: Yeah.
Joris Tieleman: We think you should confuse … Not you should confuse us, but if you show a field which has a single story about everything, even if it’s a more complicated and more nuanced story as they do, but which doesn’t have several perspectives and doesn’t have disagreements also, not even historical disagreements, then you are robbing them of a vital aspect of an academic education, which is to form an independent thought in the midst of several contrasting ideas.
And that is a crucial aspect of, yeah, training and opening your mind, which is, I think, the core … That’s the name of the book, the key goal of an academic education.
The Mint: Yeah.
Joris Tieleman: You teach them a lot of thinking skills, but not the central one. And most of the theory people will forget, but this kind of skill that … Yeah.
The Mint: Now I think you’re absolutely right, and so I sort of disappoint … I was hoping that Netherlands might be, but the trend, economics departments will be willing to take on disagreement and show a contrast, different ways of thinking about economics. But you don’t think they’re up for that?
Joris Tieleman: Well, I mean, it remains to be seen what this Free University will do. Because as they set up their programme, that would really require some new hires. So they might, they might hire in. Yeah. The big question is, will they have also teaching-focused careers or different reward system for … How do you say this? For different staff evaluation systems. Because with the current staff evaluation systems-
The Mint: People would fail the staff evaluation because they wouldn’t have the publications in the right journals.
Joris Tieleman: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, they would fail so you’d need to change that. And then it would be quite possible. It would still be quite a rough road for the people coming into a very mainstream apartment, but some people are … Some heterodox economies are up for that and able to do it. I have hope there, but on the whole, no, it’s not happening much in Netherlands. No. CORE is being adopted though.
The Mint: The Free University … Sorry?
Joris Tieleman: CORE is being adopted though. That’s a big step forward.
The Mint: Well, that is something. And is the Free University quite a high status university?
Joris Tieleman: In economics, mid range I would say.
The Mint: Okay. So if the Netherlands you’re not sure about, where do you see the most fertile ground for reception of your book?
Joris Tieleman: Actually, I think outside the Global North, probably. Yeah, because it’s basically, the bigger the contrast between the mainstream programme and the actual economy, the bigger the chance that it’ll be adopted. That people will say, “Hey, we need a fundamental restructuring.” And then there’s space for this kind of proposal to come in.
The Mint: And will the Rethinking Economics groups around the world be using this to campaign? To say, “Well, here, use this. This is what we want.”
Joris Tieleman: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m happy to tell you that they are. We give workshops, one or two every week, to student groups and also to staff actually. Just a couple of days ago I gave a workshop to the National University of Colombia. There’s América Soy, which is the Latin American Rethinking Economics movement basically.
The Mint: Yeah.
Joris Tieleman: And two other local Rethinking style groups, who are picking it up and addressing their staff with this. And a couple of weeks before we were in Barcelona on a conference, where the students called us in and said, “Come and also give a workshop to our staff.” And we do a lot of online workshops. The students are picking it up and doing exactly that, as you said, here, this is the sort of stuff we want. So it’s yeah.
The Mint: Well, that is great news. And I can just wish you as much power to your hands as possible. And it’d be great to talk again in a few years’ time to see what’s really happened on the ground.
Joris Tieleman: Yeah, we will. And one more piece of good news. We are expanding the Economy Studies team actually. We’re getting three additional people on board to run a lot more of these workshops and to also develop the material further. So a bunch of the building blocks are not in the programme, but there’s great material, great textbooks available.
But a bunch of them also, there’s really not much teaching material available. With this new team we’re going to build that, we’re going to gather it together from throughout the Rethinking movement and make it available. And this hopefully will take a further step. So I hope when we speak again to give you some more good news there.
The Mint: Brilliant. Well, thanks very much for your time now.
Joris Tieleman: Thanks, thanks for the interview.