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By HENRIQUE PEREIRA BRAGA*

Comments on recent changes in economics curricula

In an article published in the newspaper Economic value Curriculum reforms in undergraduate courses in economic sciences, conducted by some of the most traditional institutions in economics teaching in the country, are reported.[I] With the purpose of attracting young people, these teaching institutions made the curriculum more flexible, increasing the number of optional subjects; they concentrated the teaching of “economic theory” in the first two years of the course; and they inserted, each in their own way, disciplines related to data analysis through the technology known as “Big Data”. Celebrated with jubilation by the newspaper, for its supposed adequacy to the needs of the market, these measures seem to reveal, in our opinion, the technicalization of the “economic sciences” course.

By concentrating the “theoretical” disciplines, which comprised three (or four) years of study, in the first two years of the undergraduate course, their teaching was compromised, to say the least, given that it is not possible to operate this reduction without changing the scopes and contents of the disciplines. In this sense, the space for criticism (when it exists) is limited to a few strokes – certainly reductionist – that prevent a serious and frank debate of the different formulations about the economic phenomenon. Not that this debate takes place today, but the main issue is its complete ban.

One point that deserves attention, in my view, is that the emphasis given by the reforms to data analysis suggests the subordination of the study of theory to the manipulation of “data”. In other words, theories will be taught as a set of heuristic principles for handling the information that emerges from complex computational systems. With this, the teaching of “economic science” becomes the transmission of only practical-operational knowledge, consolidating the absence of teaching explanations about the nature and meaning of economic phenomena. Which implies taking as given, for example, the acquisitive, insatiable and rational individual – or even approaching the Brazilian economy as devoid of particularities arising from its “national formation”.

It should be noted that knowledge of this nature cannot be called “science”, as it avoids the debate of explanations about the phenomenon that it deals with. And, therefore, it lends itself to reinforcing the social form in which we live – and, not least, only mitigating its most varied ills, which are taken as “given”. In short, the direction of the reforms reinforces, it seems, partial, uncritical and technocratic thinking, consolidating a hegemonic way of teaching economics in US economics departments since the mid-twentieth century, animated by free market ideology and the pursuit of McCarthyism (MIROWSKI; PLEHWE, 2009).

Another facet of these reforms is in the set of keywords: flexibility, itinerary and choice. These are the same words used to characterize the secondary education reform initiated during the Michel Temer government (2016-2018). In this way of framing the relationship between student education and the labor market, the cause of the drop in interest in the course (high school or economic sciences) is placed in the rigid and outdated curriculum. However, the lack of interest in undergraduate courses (in particular in the humanities) results from numerous reasons, one of which is the fact that we live in a time of decreasing expectations (ARANTES, 2014).

For young people from peripheral capitalism, this means, among other things, that the future that awaits them will be a fratricidal struggle for their survival. In the case of the economic sciences course, we can add the decline in employment in sectors where economists traditionally worked – such as planning and management of industries and government – ​​as a result of the course of that same capitalism. As a result, restricted areas of activity remained, disputed with other professionals, ranging from “portfolio management” to the application of austerity in public policy.

It does not seem that the insertion of “data analysis” and “artificial intelligence” will be able to address these problems, since, from the outset, it prohibits the teaching of criticism of the economic discourse itself (and its practice) that has contributed, since the 1990s, for the deepening of our peripheral and subaltern condition. And, therefore, we emphasize that it is not a question of being for or against the teaching of these disciplines; but, moreover, how his teaching is disjointed from critical reflection on economic phenomena.

That said, the measures adopted will certainly attract, at first, young people interested in new technologies to this new economics course. But, due to living on campus, students may ask themselves: instead of taking a course in which data manipulation appears at the end, wouldn't it be better to be initiated into this investigation from the beginning (as statistics, engineering and other sciences)?

The most critical ones might even think: instead of analyzing the data already biased by certain economic thinking, wouldn't it be better to learn the production of data by these complex systems so as not to incur gross errors in their analysis? In short, why take a generic data manipulation course, if they could do the originals, knowing, inside, the operation of these systems?

When they face competition, in a narrow labor market that characterizes this market in peripheral capitalism, the questions will be even more visceral – in particular from the part of the countless losers. Without the critical apparatus to face the situation they will find themselves in, it is likely that they will swell the ranks of resentful graduates, who are easily manipulated by the hate speeches uttered by the extreme right.[ii] Therefore, the intentions of the reform may even be good at first sight, but its consequences may be deleterious for the professional training of economists and, given the centrality of the economy in our social life, for the country.

*Henrique Pereira Braga Professor at the Department of Economics at the Federal University of Espírito Santo (UFES).

References


ARANTES, p. The new time of the world: and other studies on the era of emergency. Sao Paulo: Boitempo, 2014.

MIROWSKI, P.; PLEHWE, D. The Road from Mont Pèlerin: the making of the neoliberal thought collective. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Notes


[I] “See what economics colleges are doing to attract young people”. Newspaper Valor Econômico, April 11, 2023. Available at: http://glo.bo/3UTiEe8.

[ii] It is not by chance that the opinion polls for the last presidential election showed the inclination of votes for the most educated candidate for the far-right candidate.


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