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Abstract

Purpose The global financial crisis led to increasing distrust in economic research and the economics profession, in the process of which the current state of economics and economic education in particular were heavily criticized. Against this background, the purpose of this paper is to conduct a study with undergraduate students of economics in order to capture their view of economic education. Design/methodology/approach The paper is based on the documentary method, a qualitative empirical method, which combines maximum openness with regard to the collection of empirical material coupled with maximum rigor in analysis. Findings The empirical findings show that students enter economics curricula with epistemic, practical or moral/political motivations for understanding and dealing with real-world problems but end up remarkably disappointed after going through the mathematical and methods-orientated introductory courses. The findings further indicate that students develop strategies to cope with their disappointment – all of them relating to their original motivation. The theoretical contextualization of the empirical findings is based on the psychological concept of cognitive dissonance. Social implications A socially and politically responsible economic education, however, should provide students guidance in understanding current and prospective economic challenges, thereby enabling them to become informed and engaged citizens. Therefore, it is essential that the students’ criticism of the current state of economic education be taken seriously and BA programs reformed accordingly. Originality/value The originality of this paper lies in the application of a qualitative methodology and explicit focus on the student perspective on economics education. The study provides empirical evidence for a lack of real-world orientation in economics education.
International Journal of Social Economics
What economics education is missing: the real world
Stephan Pühringer, Lukas Bäuerle,
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Stephan Pühringer, Lukas Bäuerle, (2018) "What economics education is missing: the real world",
International Journal of Social Economics, https://doi.org/10.1108/IJSE-04-2018-0221
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What economics education is
missing: the real world
Stephan Pühringer and Lukas Bäuerle
Institute for Economics, Cusanus University, Bernkastel-Kues, Germany
Abstract
Purpose The global financial crisis led to increasing distrust in economic research and the economics
profession, in the process of which the current state of economics and economic education in particular were
heavily criticized. Against this background, the purpose of this paper is to conduct a study with
undergraduate students of economics in order to capture their view of economic education.
Design/methodology/approach The paper is based on the documentary method, a qualitative empirical
method, which combines maximum openness with regard to the collection of empirical material coupled with
maximum rigor in analysis.
Findings The empirical findings show that students enter economics curricula with epistemic, practical or
moral/political motivations for understanding and dealing with real-world problems but end up remarkably
disappointed after going through the mathematical and methods-orientated introductory courses. The
findings further indicate that students develop strategies to cope with their disappointment all of them
relating to their original motivation. The theoretical contextualization of the empirical findings is based on the
psychological concept of cognitive dissonance.
Social implications A socially and politically responsible economic education, however, should provide
students guidance in understanding current and prospective economic challenges, thereby enabling them to
become informed and engaged citizens. Therefore, it is essential that the studentscriticism of the current
state of economic education be taken seriously and BA programs reformed accordingly.
Originality/value The originality of this paper lies in the application of a qualitative methodology and
explicit focus on the student perspective on economics education. The study provides empirical evidence for a
lack of real-world orientation in economics education.
Keywords Cognitive dissonance, Global financial crisis, Documentary method, Economic education,
Qualitative social research, Real-world orientation
Paper type Research paper
1. A crisis of economics after the global financial crisis (GFC)?
The GFC led to a growing distrust in economic research and the economics profession.
The criticism advanced against the current state of economics was manifold. Modern
economics was, first, accused of being unable to understand and explain a wide range of
real-world phenomena due to its strong focus on methodological rigor and monist
paradigmatic structure (Beker, 2010; Colander et al., 2009). Second, recent studies have also
formulated a critique of economic imperialism(Mäki, 2009), i.e. of economics as largely
ignoring the theoretical and empirical findings from other social sciences (Fourcade et al.,
2015). Third, there is further concern regarding the far-reaching political and societal impact
of economics as a discipline and of economists as individual actors (Christensen, 2017;
Dellepiane-Avellaneda, 2015), particularly since the GFC economists continue to hold core
positions in policy advice and public economic debates (Green and Hay, 2014).
There is a long-lasting debate on the social and political impact of economics and its
consequences for the economics discipline particularly in the field of social economics. For
instance, prominent economists such as Boulding (1969) stressed the character of economics
International Journal of Social
Economics
Emerald Publishing Limited
0306-8293
DOI 10.1108/IJSE-04-2018-0221
Received 2 May 2018
Revised 19 July 2018
Accepted 5 August 2018
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
www.emeraldinsight.com/0306-8293.htm
© Stephan Pühringer and Lukas Bäuerle. Published by Emerald Publishing Limited. This article is
published under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) licence. Anyone may reproduce,
distribute, translate and create derivative works of this article (for both commercial and non-commercial
purposes), subject to full attribution to the original publication and authors. The full terms of this licence
may be seen at http://creativecommons.org/licences/by/4.0/legalcode
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as a moral science. Hence, Boulding (1966, p. 13) states: I became an economist because I
thought there was an intellectual task ahead, of desperate importance for the welfare and
even the survival of mankind.
Fourth and finally, the outbreak of the GFC resulted in a new movement of critical students
and researchers claiming a more pluralistic economic education, thereby focusing on a plurality
of theories and methods as well as on interdisciplinary approaches. Students claim that
studying economics in modern economics curricula fosters egoistic and purely economic
attitudes. These fail, moreover, to prepare students to deal with real economic problems. Hence,
the ISIPE (2014) concludes that [] students should understand the broader social impacts
and moral implications of economic decisions.A further critique against the current state of
economics developed from the perspective of economics students is presented in the book The
Econocracy(Earle et al., 2016). The authors conclude that even after the crisis thepeoplewho
are entrusted to run our economy are in almost no way taught to think about it critically(p. 51).
During the last few years, several authors have conducted studies with economics
students and found that they tend to behave more rationally and egoistically compared to
students of other disciplines (Bauman and Rose, 2011; Frey and Meier, 2005; Rubinstein,
2006). However, it is controversial whether the empirical evidence can be interpreted as an
effect of self-selection or indoctrination. In other words, the question is whether economics
studies induce students to behave more in accordance with the homo oeconomicus model
promoted by standard economic textbooks. Thispaperaimstocontributetothisdebate
by presenting an interview-based assessment of undergraduate students of economics
from five universities in Germany and Austria. Our research is mainly focused on the
studentsgeneral study experiences, their original motivation and whether, or to what
extent, their study of economics has shaped their perception of economic phenomena.
Hence, we aim to contribute to the debate about improvements in economic education in
the twenty-first century as well as the debate on pluralism in economics. In doing so, we
particularly pay attention to the perspective of undergraduate students. We found that
students are confronted by a major dichotomy between their real-world economic
orientations on the one hand and the way economics is taught in introductory economics
courses on the other.
The remainder of the paper is structured as follows: Section 2 introduces our methodological
approach. In Section 3, we illustrate some empirical findings from our study and discuss their
consequences in Section 4. Section 5 provides a short summary of our main results as well as
some concluding remarks including possible policy options for curricular change.
2. Methodological approach
Our investigation was primarily interested in the basic concepts and orientations students of
economics themselves use when they talk about their studies. This entailed three different
methodological consequences: first, not seeking to testan ex ante hypothesis, we structured
the terms of the methodological design (e.g. questionnaires) accordingly, and contrarily
required a method that, second, allowed students to express themselves as freely as possible
and assured, third, that during the examination phase the empirical material would not be
biased by our own perceptions. Against this background we needed to combine maximum
openness with regard to collecting empirical material with maximum rigor in analysis.
Although quite uncommon within standard or even heterodox economic research (Lenger and
Kruse, 2017), the field of qualitative empirical social research methods provided a rich source for
adequate tools[1]. To collect student narrations of their daily study experiences, we chose the
method of group discussions (Bohnsack, 2010), an open interview form where the interviewer
emphasizes the field of interest (in our case: the study of economics) only at the beginning and
subsequently endeavors to foster a self-reliant, casual group discussion atmosphere.
The transliterated material was analyzed according to the documentary method
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(Bohnsack, 2014), aimed at reconstructing the fundamental concepts and orientations of
participants in social contexts used by students to produce relevant contexts. As a consequence,
documentary research is not interested in apparently objective facts,but in the processes of the
accomplishment or construction of worldand reality,that is the How’”(Bohnsack, 2014, p. 218)
of meaningful sociality. These processes, it is assumed, mainly rely on implicit and habitualized
knowledgewhichisessentiallysocialincharacterandpossiblyneverarticulatedbytheactors
themselves. Explicating this implicit knowledge is the main task for scholars, who do not
presume or presuppose that they know more than the actors in the field, but rather that the actors
themselves do not really know exactly what they know all about(Bohnsack, 2014, p. 224, emphasis
by the author). Originating in Karl Mannheims sociology of knowledge, the documentary
method is applied in a variety of fields, prominentlyineducationalresearch(Bohnsacket al.,
2010). As true for most qualitative research methods, the main quality criteria of the documentary
methodology is not to engender quantitative representativeness but robustness of reconstructed
orientations which allow generalizations (Przyborski and Wohlrab-Sahr, 2010, p. 29 ff.).
In total, 16 groups comprising more than 50 economics students (bachelorsdegree,
second to sixth semester) were interviewed at five different universities ranking among the
20 largest economics faculties in German-speaking countries: Vienna (AT), Mannheim (DE),
Cologne (DE), Frankfurt a.M. (DE) and Linz (AT). In accordance with the documentary
research process, we ultimately aimed at reconstructing basic orientationsbacked by at
least three different cases (i.e. groups). Surprisingly, we found a striking homogeneity across
different groups, cities and countries. Most of the basic orientations, among them the
one addressed in this paper, were found in all of the groups analyzed[2]. This meta-finding
can possibly be linked to the magnitude of standardization in economics education (Graupe,
2012). From the various orientations established, the following will concentrate on only one.
3. Empirical results
On the empirical basis provided by the group discussions and their assessment as described in
chapter 2, the following common orientation among others was reconstructed: students feel
that there is a significant gap between their study experience of economics and the real world
out therewhich they must bridge in some way. Hence, the relationship between the study of
economics and the real world remains fundamentally opaque: neither does the economics
curriculum explain its connection to the outside world, nor can reality bridge the gap to
curriculum. Caught between these two poles, the student herself feels the need to resolve the
situation by developing bridging strategies. The material shows three different kinds of
dissociations and bridging strategies respectively: the epistemic, the practical and the moral/
political. The following introduces each case, whereby two groups are referred to for each one.
3.1 Epistemic gap
The group Mannheim Orange Juice(MOJ) consists of six male representatives, each
members of the local economic departments student council, who are in their fourth
semester of study (BSc) at the prestigious University of Mannheim[3]. Two of them (Am and
Dm) are also active in the local pluralist economics initiative. Most importantly, they all
share an epistemic study motivation: to know and understand better. Due to their committee
engagement, they are comfortable discussing and arguing their study experiences.
Accordingly, the discussion soon shifts into a controversial debate away from formal
aspects concerning the curriculum to neuralgic observations. The passage Questioning
Assumptions,[4] shows discussants criticizing lecturers for generally failing to introduce
implicit assumptions in the study content, e.g. their formal models. They especially
problematize not addressing the normativity of model specifications. Hence, Em concludes
that, after studying economics for four semesters, he has come to realize that the subject of
economics isnt very close to reality(MOJ QA, l. 220 f.). He refers to the mathematical focus
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of the study program as well its examination procedures which distinctively encourage high
levels of abstraction, whereby much reference to reality is lost. Am agrees: I felt like we
were just doing pages and pages of remodeling. We werent given any economic intuition
(MOJ QA, l. 427 f.). Economic intuitionrefers to how abstract models can be contextualized
by rational and reality-linked reasoning. The foundation for sense-making foundation is lost
when students are primarily asked to process mathematical reformulations and calculations
during exams: [Am:] during an exam somehow only remodeling was being tested, but in
the first two tasks, what was behind the model was, like, [] we didnt comment on that, it
was just all about remodeling(MOJ QA, l. 488 ff.). On the contrary, exclusively processing
mathematical calculations does not shed light on the foundations and relationships of
models in relation to reality and/or scientific reasoning about reality. At the end of the
passage, the discussants suggest the criteria of empirical evidence(MOJ QA, l. 511) as
positive counterbalance, which is validated by two more speakers.
The groupscritique on the one hand arises from their experience with a highly abstract
study content which fails to establish a link to reality. On the other hand, the discussants
criticize being taught without appropriate contextualization. As a result, the economic
education they are receiving not only fails to help them understand reality, but also fails to
help them understand what they are being taught on a fundamental level. Faced with these
epistemic shortcomings of their study program, the group immediately begins to discuss
possible bridging strategies.
Bm, for example, who during the discussions tends to relativize Ams provocative
positions, counters the diagnosis of an all too abstract economics curriculum with the
explanation that abstraction from reality is worthwhile in order to understand fundamental
relationships and further be able to work with that or to be sensitized or at least in order to
gain that style of thought, which can be applied practically(MOJ QA, l. 255 f.). Bm hopes that
with the study contents degree of abstraction will enable him to gain a broader perspective
for deeper lying relationships. He underlines this statement with three additional advantages
of abstraction. In response, Em adds a temporaldimension in that practical applicability of the
study content will be possible later sometime(MOJ QA, l. 258). In consequence, the
discussants endeavor to close the epistemic gap by conceptualizing a future ability in which
what they learn will be understood once basic concepts and ideas have been mastered[5].
This hope allows Bm and Em to maintain a passively heuristic strategy of wait and see.The
epistemic character of the gap and its resolution is characterized by Bms argumentation that
it represents a specific style of thoughtwhich will later mark and distinguish economics
graduates from other professionals in the job market.
A second bridging strategy developed within the group is equally based on an epistemic
dissociation but differs sharply in its heuristic consequences: Am and Dm choose to become
involved in a local initiative for pluralism in economics study programs at the University of
Mannheim. In order to bridge the lamented gap, they take an active role in an attempt to
modify the curriculum according to their needs and motivations, which consequently serve
as legitimization for altering economics. It is not they who need to change. In contrast to the
first bridging strategy, theirs is a present orientated: resolving the gap is a matter of today
rather than tomorrow.
The second group to indicate an epistemic gap in their studies is Cologne Courtyard
(CC), consisting of two male students enrolled in the BSc economics program at the
University of Cologne. Bm, aged 20, is in his third semester of study, whereas Am, aged 25,
is in his sixth semester besides working in a call center part time. The discussion reveals
that although their motivation for studying are completely different, both are coping with a
similar problem, i.e. the curriculum is not teaching them what they want to learn. Their
different motivation and the corresponding disappointment reflect the epistemic gap in
Bms case and the practical gap in Ams case.
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In the first hour the students discuss different modules in the introductory courses of
their curriculum. While talking about the various obligatory modules in the business
administration, Bm becomes increasingly angry about the fact that these are misplaced in
the curricula for future economists. He repeatedly emphasizes his interest in typical
economics modules, in particular macroeconomics, which he plans to specialize in advanced
semesters. His motivation for studying economics was based on a genuine interest
understanding real economic processes: what holds the economy together on a higher
level? That was a really important factor in my decision [] besides the being better than
youkinda thing [laughing](CC MM, l. 12 ff.). Apart from feeling superior to his former
classmates, Bm is keen to learn about real-world economic relationships on a
macroeconomic level. Again, it is the will to learn and know something about economic
phenomena that motivates Bm. This epistemic motivation becomes severely contested by
business administration-related and, as he points out, method-orientated modules lacking
apparent economic content.
In order to overcome this lack of intellectual stimulation, Bm opts for a strategy of hope
projected onto the future. Contrary to Mannheims Bm, his hope is not directed toward a
certain future epistemic payoff where he is able to think like an economist,but rather
toward the curriculums purported structural change in the higher semesters. After a severe
and narrow initiation phase of third to fourth semesters, the curriculum will later offer more
variety and opportunities to choose, e.g. internships or foreign exchange programs. With
this prospect, Bm is able to subject himself to the required learning and repetition of
depressing contents in the early semesters. Similar to the bridging strategy thinking like an
economistand its related trust in economic thinking evinced in the Mannheim material, this
bridging strategy can be described as trust in curriculum structures.
3.2 Practical gap
In comparison, Bms group mate Am enrolled for totally different reasons and, after
becoming disappointed by these studies, experiences what we call a practical gap.In the
passage Micro vs Macroboth once again address their motivations to study economics.
Am summarizes his position as such:
Am: Yes, I just thought sometime, one day youll need a job. And in order to be able to decide
flexibly and earn good money you need a good education. Thats why you need a Mastersdegree
and to have Masters you need a Bachelors, so what Bachelor suits you? Which one helps you the
most to enter business life in the end? Obviously, something economical, and anyway its all
mathematics and Im good in mathematics [ta da!] (CC MM, l. 32 f.)
So he opted for the economics study due to his wish to have a well-paid job someday and
due to formal requirements. During the course of his study experience he came to realize
that the specific study program contents did not interest him at all. He seems to be unable to
establish a connection between what he is studying and his original motivation, i.e. a job
qualification. What he does know is that a diploma is needed to enter the labor market. This
is expressed in the following passage, which also illustrates the fundamental difference in
motivation between himself and Bm:
Am: [] from the beginning to this moment I just have this one fundamental drive: to get a
bachelors degree and not keep the content in mind very well
Bm: Mhm, but [4 sec. pause] I []
Am: Hm?
Bm: Yes, I did it because it interests me.
Am: Actually, that is probably more motivating. (CC MM, l. 62 ff.)
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Faced with the dilemma of not being interested in his program of study, but having to finish
it anyway, Am opts for a strategy of studying efficiently. Accordingly, his curricular
decisions are based on achieving the highest gain with minimum efforts. In his own words,
he chooses courses which offer a lot of points, it is very efficient(CC MC, l. 527). During
large parts of the conversation, Am does not refer to a single specific content of his
economics curriculum. What he really cares about is calculating the time and effort needed
to fulfill the formal requirements of his study program.
A similar strategy is found in the group Frankfurt Big Four(FBF), made up of two women
andamanaged2126 years. All of them are in their fifth semester of the BSc economics
program at the University of Frankfurt. All of the members have professional work experience
and are highly motivated and expect to work at one of the four internationally most important
consulting companies (Big Four). Correspondingly, their central motivation to study can be
described as finding a well-paid job. As a result, decisions concerning their academic studies are
made toward establishing beneficial advantages for themselves in the labor market.
Early on the conversation, the passage purpose of studyingis introduced by a
discussion on the lack of relationship between study contents and a future job. Am states
that the things he learned in his studies would not serve in a future job, which he illustrates
by personal experiences in and relations with professional contexts. What makes the course
of study specifically useless is the degree of abstraction represented by ludicrous models
(FBF PS, l. 1 ff.) which have nothing to do with the real world. Bf and Cf validate this claim.
The latter concludes with the pointed judgment that the theories learned are not
applicable(FBF PS, l. 18) anyway. This is the moment where the group identifies a gap
between theoretically abstract study contents and the reality of future job requirements,
where practical requirements consisting of specific abilities and knowledge are not being
met by the economics study program. Therefore, Am suggests that the workplace itself
would ultimately provide the best study program. Due to its practical uselessness, the
economics program actually impedes the development of necessary abilities. Nevertheless, a
diploma is still required to apply for relevant jobs: [Bf:] uh-huh, one only needs the diploma
in that sense. Yes(FBF PS, l. 50 f.). By reducing the existential nature of the study program
to merely formal significance, the content of that program becomes irrelevant. The three
participants are not oriented toward understanding the curricular content but attaining the
necessary prerequisites for successful entry into the labor market.
Negotiating the contradiction between the formal necessity of a diploma and the
uselessness of the content it represents, the three discussants opt for a pragmatic solution:
e.g. Am tries to complete as many internships as possible during summer vacation
(FBF PS, l. 30 f.). He reports with enthusiasm how from early on he was able to achieve a
certain level of excellence despite continuously reducing his study efforts. In the
time he saved he was able to take on more jobs on the side, once even managing three at
the same time. He subsequently shares the optimizing strategies he applied to further
minimize his study efforts: Am describes how video broadcasts of lectures or participation
in self-organized study groups with highly engaged fellows play a crucial role.
To overcome the gap between what a bachelors degree in economics offers and the
requirements of a future job, the members of this group opt for a performative strategy.
They do not try to change the curriculum itself to suit their needs, nor do they alter their
original orientation, e.g. by adapting it to the course design. Ultimately, they arrange their
everyday life in a way that supports their final purpose (getting a rewarding job) by
integrating practical experiences outside the university and reducing obligations while
seeking job orientated offers within the university. This includes participating in events
organized by the local career center which include encounters with potential employers[6].
The participants establish an autodidactic routine in which a required mode of job
performance is learned and acquired for future context.
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3.3 Moral/political gap
The group Vienna Meadow(VM) consists of two male students and one female economics
student in their fourth to sixth semester of their bachelor study program. They know each
other very well and share a common critical attitude toward the current political and
economic conditions in western capitalist countries. All three of them are active in either
political and cultural-political initiatives or the local student council at the University of
Vienna. Consequently, they are studying economics to acquire a better understanding
of how the economy or the system we live in(VM PR, l. 9) works.
The group claims that the study of economics indirectly as well as directly serves an
ideological purpose, namely, to promote a politico-economic understanding in line with the
ruling systemof the society, particularly in the introductory courses. The group in turn
interprets the current state of economics and its educational programs as merely the result
of politico-economic power balances. The participants report that their lecturers criticize
them for being politically motivated when they question the ideological bias of certain
economic models and theories. Moreover, most professors in their study program follow a
positivist approach which demands academic research to be free of value judgments, which
are considered un-scientific. Cf and Am report one such negative experience with a
professor: You cannot write it like that [] you need a model [] Thats not scientific at all,
youre making politics, not economics(VM PR, l. 41-53). The three discussants draw the
general conclusion that a critical attitude toward the current economic and political system
in general and the discipline of economics in particular must come from outside.As a
consequence, the status quo can only be changed by becoming active, either by joining
political initiatives or critical student movements.
In the passage exams and mathematicsin particular, Cf becomes very emotional when
talking about the moral challenges in her economics studies. She mentions the obligatory
management courses as an example, where wage levels are exclusively understood and
taught as a result of optimization processes in which maximum worker motivation is
achieved through a minimum of costs, assuming full rationality on the part of both workers
and employers. Damn, and this is how youre supposed to do it and you think, fuck, do we
really live in a world where we assume people act fully rationally?(VM EM, 567-574).
A similar moral and political gap is also addressed in the Cologne Biscuits(CB)
discussion. The group consists of one female and one male student in the first two semesters
of their economics degree at the University of Cologne. Both have a relatively wealthy
family background and share the moral conviction of social responsibility due to their
privileged social status. Both are also engaged in charitable institutions and share an active
social commitment.
Against their social and moral background, the group describes how difficult it is for
economics students to connect their self-image and life goal with the public image and
typical job description of an economist. They also claim that while economics and
economists have a social and moral responsibility, no reflection on such a responsibility is
evident in their courses. On the contrary, they report that many assumptions and incentives
in economics introductory courses enhance selfish and competitive behavior in many ways.
Both discussants are therefore worried about the jobs available to economists. For instance
Bm states: I looked at the chances for getting a job after my degree and it seems to me
many involve a lot of immoral activity(CB FS, 125-127). In a similar vein Af even states
that because her economics studies challenge her moral integrity she is afraid that she
will violate the moral claims of herself and of her social environment: I dont really
know I could live with being a waiter to earn my living and do other things in my spare
time, but I cant imagine to work for a consulting company like McKinsey and uncaringly rip
someone off. Thats really not my idea of a good life. Even if I was very good in stock-trade
I simply would feel bad, I guess(CB FS, l. 103-109).
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To summarize, both groups report a moral and political gap between their self-image and
their personal idea regarding the social, political and moral responsibilities of economics and
economists as taught in introductory courses. This gap is at least twofold: first, the students
chose to study economics to comprehensively understand how the economic system
functions. Second, their decision was carried by the idealistic motivation and moral
obligation to improve the current political and social situation. Their goal, therefore, was to
fulfill their perceived social responsibility as economists. Yet, in the first semesters of their
study program they are being confronted with a concept of economics that strongly
contradicts their idealized perception. Moreover, they feel that their course of study is
training them to argue and think according to strict economic efficiency criteria and to
ignore approaches to social phenomena beyond the economic.
This disassociation from moral and politicaldimensions evinced by their program of study
triggered two types of coping strategies. The first strategy is best described as moral
outsourcing.Since the students perceive their economics studies to be immoral or a-political,
the moral integrity or social responsibility students hoped to obtain cannot be realized. As a
result, they are forced to consciously create two separate spheres of activity, one inside and
one outside the university, where social engagement according to their perceived moral/
political responsibility is only possible in the latter. The second strategy seeks to actively
initiate anddeliberately carry out critical reflection of economic theory and practice within the
discipline of economics itself. In doing so, criticism of the capitalist systemand its politico-
economic power imbalances is combined with a fundamental critique of standard economic
education,thereby underlining its ideological character. To do so, studentsbecome involved in
critical student initiatives or the pluralism in economics movement.
4. Discussion
First, it should be pointed out that the above empirical inquiry clearly confirms the claim
that students enter the classroom with a wide range of backgrounds and with many
preconceptions about how the world works(Samuelson and Nordhaus, 2010, p. xx). The
study shows that they bring with them preconceptions on how a bachelors degree in
economics should support them in knowing, doing and/or being. These preconceptions of
what an economics curriculum will look like become severely contested in their first four
semesters of study. Hence, the experience and recognition of disassociation between the
study of economics and real-world phenomena actually originates in the fundamental
difference between an (inexperienced) concept of the study of economics and the
(experienced) reality of the study program. For the student of economics, this difference
becomes a serious biographical problem on a daily basis. Using the psychological concept of
cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957), we now propose a theoretical framework which
allows and promotes an interdisciplinary reflection of our empirical findings.
Since its introduction to psychological discourse by Festinger, cognitive dissonance has
become a prominent concept of psychology, particularly within social psychology. It has
further proven fruitful for other social sciences, e.g. the fields of sociology, anthropology and
political science. Through the work of Hirschman (1965) and Akerlof and Dickens (1982),
cognitive dissonance has become a widely referred concept in economics (Schlicht, 1984).
Recently, Kessler (2010) used the concept of cognitive dissonance to describe responses to
and explanations of the GFC by a group of influential market fundamental economist
(described as believers in laissez faire). We now seek to apply cognitive dissonance theory
to describe the economics discipline itself, i.e. its education programs[7]. In its original
formulation, cognitive dissonance refers to a conflict between divergent knowledge,
opinion, or belief about the environment, about oneself, or about ones behaviorthat a
person recognizes within herself (Festinger, 1957, p. 3)[8]. Furthermore, cognitive
dissonance can be seen as an antecedent condition which leads to activity orientated toward
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dissonance reduction just as hunger leads to activity oriented toward hunger reduction
(Festinger, 1957). By referring to the phenomenon of hunger, Festinger underlines the
existential need for what the literature terms cognitive consistency,a balanced self-image
or state of mind, where fundamental knowledge, opinions and beliefs fit together.
As our empirical results indicate, the belief about the environment,which here refers to
the bachelor program in economics, becomes strongly contested within the first two years of
study. The concept of a fruitful relation between the course content and real-world orientation
in particular dissolves itself, which not only entails a major loss of motivation for the student,
whether epistemically, practically or moral/politically, but and more importantly the
cognitive dissonance between her conception and real experience also signifies a problem of
self-image and sense-making: Why do I spend so much time on an occupation that actually
doesnt serve its original purpose?.By having chosen the economics curriculum in the first
place and continually choosing to follow its necessities and obligations over the course of time,
the student increasingly identifies herself with the subject and its reality. This identification is
vastly performative in character, yet is not necessarily based on conscious reflection:
dissonance is greatest and clearest when it involves not just any two cognitions but, rather, a
cognition about the self and a piece of our behavior that violates that self-concept(Aronson,
1992, p. 305)[9]. Since their study experience and corresponding performances are affectively,
if not consciously dissonant with their original motivations and conceptions, students face a
dilemma of existential inconsistency. They continuously tend to perform what has been
termed a counter-motivational act(especially within the forced compliance paradigm)
(Girandola, 1997, p. 595). Or to put it more simply: the disappointing gap between economics
and reality is also reflected in a psychic disassociation (i.e. cognitive dissonance) within the
student herself. Aronsons (1969, 1992) cognitive dissonance theory and similar work
published in the 1980s (Steele, 1988; Higgins, 1987) emphasize the importance of a coherent
self as the driving force behind dissonance resolution. Following this tradition, our research
bears numerous interfacing points with the economics of identity (Davis, 2011; Akerlof and
Kranton, 2010) and especially with the issue of conflicts and identity (Sen, 2007).
Aronson (1992, p. 305) mentions three different motivations and actions which may cause
cognitive dissonance:
[] most individuals strive for three things: (1.) To preserve a consistent, stable, predictable sense
of self. (2.) To preserve a competent sense of self. (3.) To preserve a morally good sense of self. Or, in
shorthand terms, what leads me to perform dissonance-reducing behavior is my having done
something that (a) astonishes me, (b) makes me feel stupid, or (c) makes me feel guilty.
In our case, students experiencing epistemic or practical disassociation in their program of
study can be subsumed in the second case: they strive for (idealistic or practical) sense of
competence, which they are not granted. As a result, they feel stupid or betrayed considering
their own counter-motivational actions. Students experiencing the moral gap clearly fall
within the third category; they feel guilty for choosing their particular course of study.
In order to reestablish cognitive consistency, students gradually opt for different
bridging strategies. In order to reduce cognitive dissonance Festinger suggests that
individuals may change behavioral cognitive elements, environmental cognitive elements or
add new cognitive elements to reduce dissonance(Metin and Metin Camgoz, 2011, p. 132).
The following outlines some of the bridging strategies found and an enumeration of possible
solutions to dissonance dilemmas:
Practical gap/all of the strategies: since our search for potential discussants in the field
exclusively focused on enrolled economics BA students, we missed those students
who opted to leave their studies due to experiences of dissonance. Hence, we were not
able to evaluate the phenomenon described as self-selectionin the corresponding
literature (e.g. Frey and Meier, 2005)[10]. That cognitive dissonance is being addressed
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performatively can be seen in the strategies bridging the practical gap. As a pragmatic
solution, desired abilities lacking in the curriculum are being sought in other contexts,
i.e. students acquire the ability they need somewhere else. Hence, in actively seeking to
fulfill their original motivation and self-image, there is a gradual shift from dissonant
and obligatory performance to consonant performance. Students opt for a change
in behavior by continuously reducing dissonant performance, which entails remaining
enrolled in the study program in order to finally achievethe motivation- and self-image-
consistent goal of a graduation.
Epistemic gap/engaged strategy: another performative solution evolving from the
dissonant study experience involves an engaged strategy exhibited by discussants of
pluralist student groups. In order finally get to know reality-orientated theories and
methods, they engage in concrete activities supporting their goal and original
motivations. Cognitive dissonance is reduced through a change in behavior, which
while in this case does not immediately eliminate the sources of dissonance (i.e. by
quitting the study program) but rather seeks to transform these sources themselves
according to their original reasons for choosing the economics curriculum.
Moral gap/moral outsourcing: another performative solution to develop from the
dissonant study experience is a strategy we denote as moral outsourcing.Many
students perceive their education as either immoral or as a-moral.Regarding the former,
students feel that the study of economics e.g. through the emphasis on egotistic
behavior promotes activity that contravenes the studentsown moral and social
claims, or the respective claims of their social environment. In the latter case students
report that moral and political questions simply are not addressed at all. In both cases,
the participation in the study program causes cognitive dissonance, as each does not
match with their moral/political demands and self-image. In order to reestablish
consistency they cognitively uprate already established moral behavior (change the
order of cognitions) or choose to encourage new consistent engagement (change in
behavior), for instance by actively engaging in social and charitable initiatives. In both
cases, the reference point for their moral actions lies outside their studies. The moral
and political dissonance induced by their study of economics culminates in an active
coping strategy marked by intensified political activism to directly eliminate sources of
dissonance. Students who adopt this strategy try to reformulate their criticism against
the current state of economics education in political terms. A possible alternative
strategy could involve students adapting their sense of morality accordingly so that a
contradiction to the study contentno longer exists, signifying successful indoctrination.
Rabin (1994) for instance discusses such a behavioral adaption as a typical example of a
performative effect of cognitive dissonance[11].
Epistemic gap/thinking like an economist: one prominent branch within cognitive
dissonance research is called the effort-justification paradigm(Harmon-Jones and
Mills, 1999, p. 7 f.). Early experiments (Aronson and Mills, 1959) showed that the
experience of tough (i.e. dissonant) initiation rituals to social groups lead to an
enhanced identification with the group compared to those with mild initiation
rituals. Hence, when new positive cognitions are projected as the outcome of a
dissonant process, the respective effort becomes justifiable. As recent economics
textbook analysis has shown (Graupe, 2017), a tough and troublesomelearning
experience, especially during the first semesters, is not only anticipated but also
explicitlyformulated in combination with positive/rewarding cognitions: As you work
through yourmodules you willfind that it is not always easy to thinklike an economist
and that there will be times when you are confused, find some of the ideas and concepts
being presented to you running contrary to common sense (i.e. they are counter
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intuitive). []Dont worry about this what you are experiencing is perfectly normal
and a part of the learning journey(Mankiw and Taylor, 2014, p. 17). In this manner,
the study programslack of epistemic qualification toward real-world problems
becomes tolerable through the prospect of new cognitions as a finaloutcome: the future
reward, i.e. the ability to think like an economist,outweighs the dissonant aspects
experienced in the first semesters. This strategy in effect implies that it is normal and
necessary to live through a dissonant phase in order to finally being able to think
differently. Daily participation in the programsobligations thus becomes consistent
with the studentsoriginal motivation. Depending on the manner in which students are
led to the acquisition of new cognitions offered by the program (through its didactical
material, lecturers, etc.), this process may also be subsumed under the virulent
indoctrination hypothesis(Frey and Meier, 2005; Rubinstein, 2006).
Based on the empirical findings discussed in Section 3 and their theoretical
contextualization above, we conclude with an outline of possible policy implications.
5. Conclusion
In summarization, the main conclusion to be drawn from our research is that, in its current
form, the study of economics causes dissonances for many students. The concept of economics
which originally motivated the interviewed students to enroll differs substantially from their
real experience while studying. In order to avoid such disappointment and frustration, one
possible solution would be to simply point out (in study manuals, advertising material,
corresponding websites and official study objectives) that seeking an economics bachelors
degree initially involves a course of study that is completely abstract from economic reality.
However, as recent research in the field of social economics or economic sociology, e.g. in
the performativity studies of economics, has impressively shown, economics and economic
knowledge have a huge political and social impact. Against this background it seems to be a
plausible claim that fruitful economic education should enable prospective economists to
understand real-world economic phenomena and to act accordingly. Moreover only a small
minority of economics students become academic economists (Colander, 2009), where abstract
modeling isa core requirement. Nevertheless, as the debate on the GFC has shown, not only do
economics graduates leaving academia to work and live in realityneed to be able to
mindfully cope with that reality, academic economics particularly need to provide concepts
and strategies that foster an understanding rather than an undermining of reality.
Responsible economics education should therefore become concerned about students
dissonances and the consequences from the unrealistic assumptions it engenders as well.
In order to establish a social responsible and more reality-oriented economics curriculum we
would like to make three important suggestions based on what we found motivated students in
our study. First, students should learn about economicsand the economys political and social
embeddedness as claimed by prominent social economics scholars. This requires a pluralism of
economic theories and methods as well as courses in economic history and the philosophy of
science. Second, economic education should empower students to act responsibly in the context
of real-world economic phenomena and thus enable students to develop their own perspectives
and approaches to economic processes. Third, a central concern of economics education based
on the humanist educational ideal should be to promote the moral and political development of
its students, i.e. help them to become thoughtful and engaged citizens.
Acknowledgments
The authors of this paper have not made their research data set openly available. Any
enquiries regarding the data set can be directed to the corresponding author. The authors
want to thank all the participants of the group discussions for their openness, which allowed
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the authors to gain insights into their daily experiences with their studies of economics.
Furthermore, the authors want to thank Madeline Ferretti, Hannes Bohne, Silja Graupe,
Walter Ötsch and Aglaja Przyborski as well as two anonymous reviewers for their helpful
remarks and comments. This research was funded by the Research Institute for Societal
Development (FGW) (Project No.: 1605fg020(b)).
Notes
1. In applying qualitative empirical social research methods to academic economic education we
follow the pioneering work of Richardson (2004).
2. Other basic orientations we found in the group discussions include the priority of study
structures (Bologna reform) over study contents, the formative impact of mathematical
methods and the differentiation between a heavily standardized and externally framed
introductory study phase and a more self-determined phase after the first four semesters.
3. The group discussions were randomly labeled. Group members are named by A, B, C, etc., and
interviewers by X, Y, Z, adding an indication for their sex (m ¼male, f ¼female).
4. According to discussion analysis methodology a passage is the least interpretable unitof a
transliterated interview, typically containing between 5 and 15 min of transliterated interview.
The authors provide the original transliterated interviews in German on request.
5. Italics in interview citations mean that the speakers themselves highlight the spoken words
verbally.
6. During additional field research, we came to observe that the lecture building at Campus Westend
in Frankfurt is frequently being used as some kind of fair hall, where national and international
corporations present themselves.
7. Here we follow Chabrak and Craig (2013) in their application of cognitive dissonance theory to
students studying economic subjects (in this case: accounting).
8. The subject of a cognition can be manifold: A person can have cognitions about behaviors,
perceptions, attitudes, beliefs, and feelings(Harmon-Jones and Mills, 1999, p. 5).
9. In fact, some of the interviews had the character of self-revelations for students themselves, being
asked to speak two hours about experiences formerly not articulated verbally. The documentary
method focusses exactly on these moments of freshverbalizing about up-to-then self-evident
knowledge or habits.
10. Frey et al. use the term referring to the moment of choosing a specific course of studies. We here
emphasize on self-selectionas ongoing process throughout the professionalization as economist.
11. Our material does contain evidence for this kind of shifting morality, though only on an implicit
and not verbalized level. Its elaboration would require in-depth analysis which could not be
realized in preparation for this paper.
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Appendix
List of abbreviations for the group discussions
(1) MOJ (Mannheim Orange juice)
QA ¼passage Questioning Assumptions
(2) CC (Cologne Courtyard)
MM ¼passage Micro vs Macro
LB ¼passage learning behavior
MC ¼passage motivation and curriculum
(3) FBF (Frankfurt Big Four)
PS ¼passage purpose of studying
LB ¼passage learning behavior
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(4) CB (Cologne Biscuits)
FS ¼passage financing of study
(5) VM (Vienna Meadow)
EM ¼passage exams and mathematics
PR ¼passage politics and reality
Corresponding author
Stephan Pühringer can be contacted at: stephan.puehringer@cusanus-hochschule.de
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... В западном общественном дискурсе проблемы высшего экономического образования и преподавания экономической теории обсуждаются очень широко; созданы и функционируют специализированные научные журналы (Journal of Economic Education и другие) форумы и сети (Economics Network, CORE Economics Education и другие). Если до кризиса в литературе и на различных площадках основные темы были связаны со стилем и методами преподавания [1], то мировой экономический кризис 2008-2009 годов заставил обра-титься к проблематике «кризис экономики и кризис экономической теории», то есть акцент сместился с методики преподавания на содержание дисциплины [2]. Главная мысль в дискуссиях последнего десятилетия прослеживается достаточно четко: в университетах и колледжах студенты вместо реальной экономики изучают абстрактную (умозрительную) науку, не имеющую никакого отношения к тем проблемам, которые их волнуют и которые они хотели бы понять (бедность, неравенство, устойчивость, экология, технологические инновации и т.д.) [3]. ...
... This proposition is not just "talk"it is a deep-seated ontological frame of contemporary economic thought that has found its way into the discipline's textbooks and, hence, has to be learnt by millions of students around the globe semester after semester (i.e. in Mankiw, 2021, 2ff.). "Stop engaging with reality and start thinking about economic laws working behind the curtains" is what students face but a lot of them intuitively reject (Pühringer and Bäuerle, 2019). ...
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The presentation of economics in introductory courses has been highlighted as potentially exacerbating the underrepresentation of women in economics. We study the impact of a gender-neutral change in content and instruction in introductory economics courses intended to increase student engagement. By implementing meaningful applied problems and structured group work, our intervention focuses on the students’ perceptions of “what” economics is and “how” economics is used. Using institutional data of 8,727 students over 9 semesters we find that the intervention improved women’s grades relative to men’s in both Introductory Microeconomics and Macroeconomics and eliminated underperformance by women in Introductory Macroeconomics relative to men at baseline. These effects are evidence that the course content and delivery impacts the experiences and outcomes of female students in economics education.
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The presentation of economics in introductory courses has been highlighted as potentially exacerbating the underrepresentation of women in economics. We study the impact of a gender-neutral change in content and instruction in introductory economics courses intended to increase student engagement. By implementing meaningful applied problems and struc- tured group work, our intervention focuses on the students’ perceptions of “what” economics is and “how” economics is used. Using institutional data of 8,727 students over 9 semesters we find that the intervention improved women’s grades relative to men’s in both Introduc- tory Microeconomics and Macroeconomics and eliminated underperformance by women in Introductory Macroeconomics relative to men at baseline. These effects are evidence that the course content and delivery impacts the experiences and outcomes of female students in economics education.
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Intended for readers working with qualitative methods, this volume presents the first systematic English introduction to the application of the Documentary Method to group discussions, interviews, films, and pictures. Based on a broader German-Brazilian cooperation project, it also offers an overview of the state of art in Germany and Brazil with regards to qualitative research in Educational Science.
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Intended for readers working with qualitative methods, this volume presents the first systematic English introduction to the application of the Documentary Method to group discussions, interviews, films, and pictures. Based on a broader German-Brazilian cooperation project, it also offers an overview of the state of art in Germany and Brazil with regards to qualitative research in Educational Science.
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