Day one, year one: I was a girl with black glasses and blue jeans, sitting in the second row, straining my neck to get a good view of the slides on the projector. What was I thinking when I agreed to sit there?
Fast forward a few days, and you would find me in row ten – and not just because I needed to save my neck. I found most lectures dull for their lack of interaction and engagement. I have always been the kind of learner that needed a spark, a form of purpose in whatever I involve myself in. I was not getting that.
The same was true for seminars. It was like I had been transported into the robotics era a few decades earlier. A teacher would walk in, take attendance, read out questions, answer them for us, and then leave. My eyes would yearn for a friendly face; my mind for an interesting discussion.
In class, we often did not question why/how we got to where we were; we took things as given as long as we got the results we were asked to prove. There was no reflection or real understanding.
At this point, you might be thinking that I am painting too grim a picture for a university in the UK. And yes, not all seminars were as I described; some of them did have some form of interaction. But, amid the weight of equations and formulas, something was missing.
I remember myself constantly asking questions such as: Is this the way it works in real life? Does this matter – will it make a meaningful difference to people and planet? Can this be sustained in the long term?
Finally I had to voice my questions out loud. I asked my professor after the class was over, why we needed statistics to establish the importance of happiness in public policy. Shouldn’t it be obvious from human experience? How much time and how many lives would it save if we were simply conscious of what truly matters?
I have come to realise that maybe technical rigour does have an important role to play in research and policy-making. While it is important to keep in mind that numbers are not everything, they give us something tangible to focus on. It is like making a sculpture – creativity alone does not do the trick, you also need to have a good eye for size, shape and form.
But does that mean all the maths we do is relevant, and must continue to dominate in textbooks? During a Rethinking Economics project I had participated in a while back, I asked a senior team member, why she thought we rely on graphs and equations in economics.
She explained that economics was looking to emulate the established physical sciences in a bid to create a space for itself, among intellectuals. She likened it to imitating the qualities of a much older and favored sibling to establish yourself in front of your family. Perhaps, graphs were simply the medium of creating that space through resemblance. It was a fresh perspective for a young student trying to decode the patterns.
Reflecting on what two years at university have taught me, I realise that most people still don’t know what economics really means. All that my close relatives knew about it was: it has something to do with the stock market; it has to be a lucrative field; and the names of random universities they had seen on brochures that offered economics.
What’s even more surprising is that two whole years studying economics did not make me change their beliefs. Not because I was too lazy to bother offering an explanation, but because I, myself, was struggling to figure what it meant as well.
I think it is important that every child learns to ask the right questions and constantly explore avenues before settling for one. Perhaps, interdisciplinarity can help in that quest. Talking, listening (genuinely) and discussing will help us build a collective vision on a new economic model for a happier, more just, and inclusive future.
At the same time, we probably do need a clear view of how the world actually works. Make sure we know the rules of the game before getting into the field and blurring its boundaries or painting new ones for that matter.