Opinions Column: Educational Aims

By Annavajhula J.C. Bose, PhD; Department of Economics, SRCC (University of Delhi)

Is the purpose of education, including economic education, to communicate to today’s young an established body of knowledge or is it to promote understanding, and to discover new knowledge to reconstruct the world?

For those who wish to achieve a fairer society, hope for the future must lie in education and the communication of ideas. Yet history of education suggests that the educational agenda has been controlled by the authorities and their institutions to serve the goal of education to be one of reproducing society as it is, complete with the existing inequalities. This holds good in Economics programmes too all around the world. 

To begin with, the aims of education can be split into two broad categories, that is intrinsic and instrumental. Intrinsic education is true education; it is about critical (evaluative) and analytical thinking, comparative thinking and intellectual open-mindedness or emancipation. Openness and intellectual liberalism can lead to the development of critical world views, which in turn might lead to transformative action. By contrast, instrumentalist education aims at reproducing the existing social system as it is via socialization or even indoctrination with the purpose of creating consumerist, socialized citizens susceptible to advertising and mainstream news management; and creation of a useful and productive as also compliant and pliable workforce.  The goal of ‘employability’ is accepted by students and by wider society and this leads students to seek and demand speficic learning, skills and training.  Meeting such demands makes students adept at solving problems but impairs their ability to understand and to think independently and critically. 

Intrinsic education is undervalued whereas instrumental education is glorified and demanded. The latter education is geared to the market place. This means that education should meet the needs of the employers. It also means that education process should be marketised  so  as to move, via privatization, into demand-led popular areas only. There will be production of citizens not only capable of filling the roles of producers and consumers in a free-market society, but happily disposed to approve of such a society and their roles within it.

The portrayal of intrinsic and instrumental aims of education as a dual as presented above is rather mistaken. Actually, both can be achieved simultaneously.  If criticism is the key to intrinsic education, a level of knowledge is first required before that knowledge can be effectively criticized. Therefore it is not possible to educate intrinsically without the student gaining instrumental knowledge. 

This of course does not operate in reverse. It is possible to achieve instrumental aims without any intrinsic outcomes. All that is needed is the training of students in the methods of economics which is currently the case in Economics education all over the world whereby the aim of Economics education as intellectual development with a critical approach is heavily compromised. But a ‘trained mind’ differs from an ‘educated mind’ in that a man with the former can tackle particular problems that are put to him in a rigorous and competent manner where as a man with the latter has got more awareness of the different facets and dimensions of such problems.

Economics is divided into two broad schools, that is Orthodox Economics of persisting with free-market society with corrective actions if needed and Heterodox Economics of diversified transformational discourse for fairer society. The American Economic Association and the International Economic Association are servicing the former and the World Economics Association the latter.

What does this discussion amount to you, especially if you are intelligent enough to demand both instrumental and intrinsic economic education? 

Economics teaching is dominantly skewed in favour of instrumentalist orthodox economics teaching which wants you to absorb its content without questioning its framework. Many heterodox economists are also concerned with content, although their argument is that the ‘wrong’ content is being absorbed and that heterodox content is more appropriate with its useful, realistic explanations and ‘true’ knowledge. But you may not be thoroughly drawn into the heterodox thinking, especially in terms of its variant in the name of Marxist Economics. 

The point is that although heterodox economics is superior in achieving the instrumentalist and intrinsic goals of education, at present there is a strong imbalance in favour of instrumentalist aims of Orthodox Economics which deliberately tends to stifle criticism and alternative views, thereby limiting your intellectual emancipation. 

There is no gainsaying the fact that Marxism can also be abused explicitly for ideological, instrumental purposes as indeed it had happened under Stalinism. But you will benefit from Marxism if you are introduced to it as an integrated approach by incorporating history, social studies, spatial analysis, etc. into a philosophical framework and also as a methodology, theory, policy and practice based on mathematical modeling, graphical analysis, dialectical logic, and materialism/realism. Marxism is deemed more relevant and realistic as it might be more engaging and thus more able to affect the cognitive domain (thought and knowledge), which in turn can lead to developments in the affective domain (attitudes and values). Marxist economics can also deal directly and openly with political aspects. This might allow critical thinking and also engagement, as perceived relevance would most likely increase. 

Although Marxism integral to Heterodox Economics can be extremely attractive to students by instrumentally reproducing economics through engagement, highly relevant policy proposals, inspirational debates and arguments and links to other disciplines whilst not using methods that seem to exist for their own sakes or assumptions that are deemed irrelevant, it will most probably not be taught to you for the following reasons.

Under the present system of imposing market forces on education and  government funding universities, dominated by orthodoxy,  according to research quality, rating that quality by publications, and rating publications by journal, heterodoxy will be marginalized with a reduced recruitment of heterodox economists, especially the Marxists. Also, there is a shortage of economists trained adequately to teach Marxist economics even as already noted, the approach of current orthodoxy to the history of economic thought is such that it discourages pluralism and tends to bring rival theories into disrepute. The orthodoxy holds an unchanging belief in a monolithic ‘science’ of Economics, which is taken to disallow plurality. Moreover, students who have already been trained in orthodox ways find it difficult to forget them when they are introduced to individual units of Marxism.  Finally, the socialization process in Economics to justify the current economic system is too strong for teachers and students to deviate from the path dependency of the orthodoxy. 

To conclude, just as education and educational policy have historically reflected a narrow set of instrumental aims, so also economic education that you are going to receive is most likely to be like that only. Will you be happy about this?  Or, will you rebel against this and get into the heterodox pathways including the Marxist one?

Sources:

Pete Clarke and Andrew Mearman. 2003. Why Marxist Economics Should Be Taught but Probably Won’t Be. Capital & Class. March 1.

Rob Sewell and Alan Woods. 2013. An Introduction to Marxist Economics. Marxist Student Federation. October 21. http://www.marxist.com

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