The opening stanzas from Jean McCurd's poem Another World

Talking to my Granny taught me more about economics than my degree

When Charlie McCurdy started studying economics at university, his granny Jean wrote him a letter. This was the start of an ongoing discussion between the pair which made him reflect on the subject in ways he'd never expected

At the ripe old age of 89, my Granny Jean asked me why I’d chosen to study economics, and what I thought of the way it was taught. Turns out she’d come across an article with the headline ‘Students call for shakeup of economics teaching’, and no doubt wondered what her grandson was up to.

Jean had a real interest in, and ability to understand, other people’s perspectives. She was curious to get to the bottom of why I’d embarked upon a course in what’s still often referred to as ‘the dismal science’.

She, like many of us, found economics complicated and baffling, but in spite of this had the curiosity and patience to talk to me about it while I was studying at Manchester University. With her heartfelt passion for society and for the environment, she was determined to grasp the intrinsic role of economics in determining the fate of each.

The whole study of economics is to me, not only daunting, but also so complex, that I’m inclined to switch off.

Her life spanned numerous economic realities. Born in 1926, she lived through the Great Depression, the Second World War (eventually marrying an RAF fighter pilot and prisoner of war), the birth of the NHS, Britain joining the European Union, and the technological ‘revolution’. Given her experience, she truly valued the world we live in, and was a conscious and thrifty consumer if ever there was one. This poem, written by Jean in 1995, demonstrates both her love for the natural world and fascination with the shifting realities of 21st century life.

Jean McCurd's poem Another World
Jean wrote this poem in 1995 (text below)

Jean and I discussed economics as a discipline, but also its application to the real world. Economics, we decided, was all about people. Which is to say that by studying economics we can understand one of the major ways in which humans relate to one another and the world around them. Crucially for her, it was about coexistence and co-operating to maintain the natural world and all its beauty. She loved nature.

She enclosed the article she’d found in a letter sent just before my 21st birthday, in which she wrote:

“As it’s your birthday I’m deciding to write you a letter! Very old fashioned I know, but then I am old! I noticed a smallish article recently in a paper I take (called Positive News) which I enclose. You probably know all about it anyway; but for me it made me wonder what you think of your course. The whole study of economics is to me not only daunting but also so complex, that I’m inclined to ‘switch off’. But I shouldn’t be so negative. It is a very important part of our lives I realize, being interwoven with the society we live in, in so many ways. In fact it takes such a dominant place in the ‘news’ everyday that one can begin to feel it rules our lives!”

Jean McCurdy
Jean McCurdy in May 2006

It’s hard to disagree. Economic interaction is everywhere, so it always seemed common sense to me to study the theory behind such a hotly debated topic; one that dominates so many aspects of our lives, as Jean so clearly saw.

One line in the article she sent stuck out: “... the lack of intellectual diversity does not only restrain education and research, it limits our ability to contend multidimensional challenges of the 21st century.”

Again, Jean explained: “It’s about the international concern of many economics students about the current curriculum, considered to be too narrow. How it should be considered with social studies; with environmental issues; with people and morals. What d’you think?”

“Do you have a critical opinion about how your course is taught? Or are you trying to keep focused on the end goal?! I have a feeling we need more freethinking, innovative and questioning economists.”

In another conversation, she asked: “Are people going to be able to divert the course of economics, so its aim is not growth forever, but a more ‘down-to-earth’ policy? The earth doesn’t keep on growing, it stays roughly the same, except for all our influence and exploitation.”

I have a feeling we need more freethinking, innovative and questioning economists.

Her questions and insights hit home. So much so that I began to seriously consider my own experience of studying the subject. Eventually this led me to become involved in Manchester’s Post-Crash Economics Society (PCES). The group formed after the global financial crisis of 2007/08, and was a reflection of the many students around the world who’d arrived at the opinion that economic teaching should be radically rethought.

As economies around the world plunged into crisis, even the Queen (born the same year as Jean) began to question why so few economists saw the recession coming. There are now over 31 student societies around the world that are demanding a change of direction and who want to see alternative perspectives used in economics courses, with much more real-world application and greater public accessibility.

After three years of study, when I look back, it was actually the many chats I’d had with Granny Jean that taught me to really scrutinise the way we think about and apply economic theory to the problems the world faces.


Another world

They tell me
there’s a new world in the offing,
call it ‘cyberspace’.

How to get there?
Press the button,
tap the right keys,
watch the screen,
all end!

Your eyes will ride you
to a highway labeled ‘super’,
crossing deserts of shifting molecules.
Signs, lure you on
to faceless countries and encounters.

(You must leave your heart, and head, behind)

This is a pitch less void
where no sun shines,
nor light from any eye.
Only a lurid electronic glow
from a dead sky leads you on
to – virtual reality!

Hold my hand! Don’t let me go!
I want my head and heart.
I want sun, wind and rain.
I want the close enigma of your eyes again.

(Jean McCurdy 1995)

This article was authored in British English

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