‘Blind-spots in mainstream undergraduate teaching: Economics and Sociology’

16 Sep 2014 - 11:45

This series aims to facilitate meaningful discussion and debate on how academics at UCT engage with matters relating to Poverty and Inequality in South Africa through their curricula. The ‘Blind-spots in Mainstream Economic and Sociological Teaching’ Seminar on 30 April marked the beginning of a series of discussions interrogating the effectiveness of UCT’s undergraduate curriculum in addressing development and social justice issues. This seminar, hosted by the Poverty and Inequality Initiative, was chaired by Emeritus Professor Francis Wilson, with Nicoli Nattrass (Economics and CSSR), Ari Sitas (Sociology), and Edwin Muchapondwa (Economics) participating as panellists.

Nicoli Nattrass, Professor of Economics and Sociology, opened the dialogue by highlighting ‘blind-spots’ in both Economics and Sociology. She started off noting that the absence of teaching about “political economy” in the Economics curriculum means that students are exposed to a largely one-sided view of economics. She argued that currently students are only being taught very conventional neo-classical economics, and are not exposed to theories or a history of economic thought which may challenge the status quo. Nattrass stressed that students should learn about alternatives, and that debate about different theories should be core to the curriculum. According to Nattrass, one way to facilitate contextualising economic theory is through integrating more Economic History into the curriculum, as this helps to build an understanding of power in society as a whole. Nattrass also asserted that there is a need for sociologists to broaden their understanding of macro-economic constraints and find a way to look past the perceived “bad image” of economics. Within Industrial Sociology, in particular, which deals with workers and capitalists, there is a total defence of labour laws which is a blind-spot. Nattrass concluded that overall there is definite need for change in the way we teach ‘growth’ in both Economics and Sociology.

In his opening remarks, Ari Sitas, the Head of Department of Sociology, emphasised the position of the university in society as an elitist institution, which poses both advantages and disadvantages when addressing issues of poverty and inequality. Within the context of this institution there needs to be a space for dialogue about the sciences and how they help reproduce inequality, and in this dialogue we must remember that there are ranges of inequality, not just one kind. To facilitate this dialogue, communication across disciplines and campuses is needed to encouraged reflection at various levels. Sitas went on to state that amongst South African students there is an apparent aversion to dealing with issues of poverty and inequality, citing the fact that three quarters of the students enrolled in Development Studies are not South Africans. Turning specifically to ‘blind-spots’ within the Sociology curriculum, Sitas noted that there is an ‘urban bias’, and this results in rural contexts not being dealt with adequately. He concluded by asking whether our curricula expose students to knowledge about societies that have been able to reduce inequality.

The final panellist, Edwin Muchapondwa, Head of Department at the School of Economics, began his presentation by noting that at 1st year Economics level, although no courses explicitly deal with issues of poverty and inequality, students are taught tools such as the Gini coefficient which help them analyse these concepts. He identified a possible ‘blind-spot’ – in the focus on “growth models” at 2nd and 3rd year level, there is need for wider coverage of more varied models that fit better with the South African and broader African context. In the Economics curriculum there is a focus on economic growth to increase the “size of the cake” so that more people can benefit from it, but often concerns about how the “cake” is distributed are neglected. Muchapondwa further noted that perhaps more should be done to infuse research done by SALDRU into the curriculum and draw on guest lecturers to expose students to real life problems and issues. He then added to the observations of previous panellists in saying that more interdisciplinary interaction between academics is needed in relation to how the topic of ‘poverty’ is taught, encouraging collaboration between departments such as Economics, History and the

At the end of the opening statements, it was clear that all three panellists agreed that there is a need for more interaction and discussion between academics across disciplines generally, and in particular there is a need to consider how perspectives from different disciplines can be infused into the sociology, history and economics curricula to equip students better for engaging with the challenges of poverty and inequality in South Africa.

Discussion that followed highlighted a number of themes. One such theme addressed the ‘type’ of students currently at UCT and their motives for choosing specific fields of study. The first comment was from an academic who stated that students simply don’t read newspapers and are not in tune with current affairs, and are in a sense removed from the reality of poverty and inequality, which creates a vacuum of knowledge about what’s happening in the world. The question of attitudes among students also needs to be addressed. “Why are students not interested in talking about poverty?” then surfaced. In response Ari suggested that of the mission of the university needs to be interrogated. Should the university be targeting another ‘type’ of student that is interested in these issues, and can we or do we want to become the ‘Fort Hare’ of the new age? What kind of students are now attending university as compared to the previous generation – where is the hunger for change or to address social injustices?

This led to further questioning of the one-sided teaching of Economics, where it was asserted that students are more concerned about future employment when choosing fields of study.  Several people commented that the current economics curriculum places a higher premium on learning technique than on analytical thinking, and this is problematic. One academic observed that we are seeing the products of particular approaches to the teaching of economics because graduates are not equipped to engage with real life problems analytically. In response to this, a post-graduate student then raised that there are some new moves internationally to rethink how economics is taught, led by the New Economic School. The student further pointed out that ‘development’ courses in Economics are not ‘requirements’ but ‘electives’ at a 3rd year level, and are therefore mostly neglected.  He suggested that these courses should be compulsory.  In response to the comments from the floor, Nicoli Nattrass stressed that the ‘core’ of economics is technical and therefore hampers thinking about ‘real world’ economics.  She proposed the possibility of ‘boot camps’ for students from Economics and Sociology to be exposed to cross-disciplinary lenses. Edwin Muchapondwa responded that the Economics Department is open to new ideas, and is undergoing a ten-year review that could open the door to change within the department. 

Discussion also turned to interrogating the role of the university, with questions raised about the extent to which the university itself constrains exploring themes that are relevant to the country as a whole. Another contributor commented that there is no structured attempt to get the curriculum to talk to policy issues in South Africa. There was a suggestion that UCT should provide incentives for academics to take the teaching of undergraduate students more seriously. Another suggestion was that departments, specifically Economics, should engage with students about their views on the curriculum and its relevance in South Africa and in this way work with students, and through these initiatives it may become possible to think more creatively about core courses and streams. The seminar raised important questions with regard to teaching in the undergraduate curriculum and set the tone for future seminars in the series.