Interesting Discussion of Increasing Interest Among Economics Students in the History of Economic Thought
I have mentioned on Lost Legacy signs of discontent at Manchester U and Harvard U among some economics students in their standard modern economics classes, dominated as they are by higher mathematics allegedly ‘proving’ the dominant school of rational expectations ( “MaxU”) certainties are the driving force of human behaviours in markets.
This was to be expected given the apparent disconnect between recent events in several major economies from 2008 and the complacent certainties of the dominant ‘theologies’ driving many academic departments in recruitment of staff and students. Economics no longer has a credible claim to its so-called ‘scientific’ status for its mainstream dismissal of the History of Economic Thought (HET) of the discipline as being worthy of study within an economics first degree, and, for the few graduates who aspire to an academic career, a ‘kiss-of-death’ for their chances of passing a selection board for entry-level appointments with even sniffs of HET in the academic cv.
Here are to recent posts relevant to what is beginning to happen to HET in academe and of which I was very pleased to read:
1. Steve Kates (Associate Professor RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia):
“I found Jerry Green's description of how he ended up teaching his mini-course in HET quite remarkable, especially this:
"I am teaching a course on the history of economic thought this year -- actually it is running all year long so that half of it is still to come. . . . Last year I began my lectures in economic theory (the course that is required for all our graduate students) with a few minutes of historical introduction, before getting to the main part of the lecture. I always did this to some extent; it was not a new idea or a change in the course. However, for some reason it hit a responsive chord with two of the students and they asked if I would lead a reading group on history of thought this year. We made up a reading list and circulated it to all the graduate students -- 40 people indicated an interest in joining the group."
If the academic world were made up of profit-oriented institutions in the normal sense, the latent interest would lead to more such courses finding their way into the world. In Auckland, in a fashion similar to the experience described by Jerry Green, I discovered that an HET group was set up by the students themselves to which they invite their own list of speakers.
"History of economic thought and economic history are essential for students to be able to evaluate the quality of economic theory. To understand the historical development of a particular model or economic paradigm provides an invaluable insight into the problems it was designed to solve and how context influenced its formation. This is a vital counterweight to the hubristic belief that economic theory can represent universal truth and the refusal to recognise the limits to our knowledge."
Leaving aside "hubristic", I think this is exactly so, and I also agree with Jerry Green where he states that most academic economists are not against such courses. A course, for example, in the history of the theory of the business cycle would be the kind of mini-course that would attract serious interest and would be of genuine educational value - truly useful for an economist - although I suspect there wouldn't be all that many who would even know how to teach such a course or even where to begin.
It is a sad fact that the way that we now recognise academic success in economics is far distant from the history of economic thought, but it does not have to remain this way. There is clearly an interest, and also serious value in a restoration of the history of economic thought in the curriculum of economists. This is something that those who set the agenda both for HET and economics in general ought to be thinking seriously about.”
“I don’t know anything about MIT, but a couple of years ago Jerry Green at Harvard responded to student requests and started a reading group that morphed into a one semester, and then a two semester, graduate course. We invited Jerry to come up to Middlebury and talk about the course, which was a very useful exploration of where recent economic ideas came from. He did a lot of research preparing for the course. Here is what he wrote me in an email as we were discussing the course.
“I am teaching a course on the history of economic thought this year -- actually it is running all year long so that half of it is still to come. As you may know, this is not my field. However, last year I began my lectures in economic theory (the course that is required for all our graduate students) with a few minutes of historical introduction, before getting to the main part of the lecture. I always did this to some extent; it was not a new idea or a change in the course. However, for some reason it hit a responsive chord with two of the students and they asked if I would lead a reading group on history of thought this year. We made up a reading list and circulated it to all the graduate students -- 40 people indicated an interest in joining the group. Clearly this was too large for a small group discussion, and so we made it two "real courses".
This is not going to be a permanent fixture of my teaching, much as I have enjoyed doing it. I do plan to do it again, however, maybe condensed into one term and maybe for undergraduates instead of graduate students.
So I think it was a one-time thing, and it certainly was not part of the core.
The reality is that there is interest by students in the history of thought—especially as it relates to current ideas, but when push comes to shove, and one has to start thinking about getting published in acceptable journals, that interest fades. The faculty recognize that, and provide the education that will further their student’s careers.
I think the best chance for history of thought to make some inroads into graduate programs is with mini-courses that some programs offer. I will be going to Tel Aviv next year to teach a mini-course in the history of thought. I think if the HES put together some mini-courses and provided ways for those course to be taught in grad programs, that it could be a useful outreach, and is the best way for history of thought to be presented to students. My sense is that students want relevant history of thought—faculty are not against it, but they see the technical training as being that which they should focus on. I remember when NYU gave up the history of thought course—Bill Baumol was there and was a strong supporter of history of thought—but he voted in favor of giving it up history of thought in order to make room for another technical course that he felt would help students more. In terms of their future, that’s probably true, but it is sad that that is the case.”
3. History of economic thought being reintroduced at graduate school? Alex Millmow
“At the latest HETSA Conference in Auckland, New Zealand there was a forum session on the future of economic thought. Various strategies were discussed. One intriguing comment from the floor was that Harvard and MIT were reintroducing HET into their doctoral programs Does anyone know anything about this?”
Does any reader know of similar initiatives in their institutions or elsewhere?