Alternatives to the psychology curriculum: lessons from economics

There is a rather uncanny resemblance between the orthodox economics and the psychology most taught in universities.

Economics emphasises the rational, autonomous individual, making choices.  It’s conceptual models ignore the wider context of ecology and society.  It ignores the collective dimension, and those aspects of human life (such as domestic work) that aren’t subject to monetary exchange.  And its models were shown to be of staggering incompetence when the global economy tumbled – only a handful of economics professionals predicted the crash.  But the orthodox teaching goes on, with its quantitative models that bear little resemblance to the real world of human life in a finite world.

And orthodox psychology similarly likes to build models based on the individual level, better if they are quantitative.  It ignores the making of humans through their transactions in society via family, economy and community.  It can be hopelessly irrelevant when confronted with the real challenges facing humanity – war, exploitation, ecological collapse.  Much of this was said in the late 1960s and 1970s and that debate helped pave the way for both community social psychology and liberation psychology.

Now economics students are saying that enough is enough and the curriculum has to change to include other approaches, including ecological economics, Marxism and a proper treatment of Keynes.  This movement began here in Manchester but is spreading to other universities, supported by a few academic economists who fall outside the hegemonic neoclassical model.

Could something like that happen in psychology?  On Wednesday in London I gave a talk to some 35 people on community social and liberation psychologies from Latin America.  The audience was interested, engaged, enthusiastic – keen to find and build alternatives that more adequately respond to the profound threats such as organised violence, neoliberal austerity and climate change that challenge people worldwide.  Only a minority had heard of Paulo Freire, one of the greatest educators who ever lived.  Not their fault but that of the Educational system here in the UK.

We need change – are psychology students up for it?  If so, could the example of the Post Crash Economics Society established by economics students at the University of Manchester help?  What do you think?