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Archive for October 11th, 2010

Bruce Caldwell elucidates the importance of studying the history of economic thought [ht:sf]. First, it is an important part of a liberal arts education in economics:

When I did my graduate work in economics at UNC, the history of economic thought was one of the core classes that all students had to take. We read and studied the great economists of the past–Smith, Malthus, Marx, Marshall, Keynes–whose insights directed (and sometimes misdirected) the progress of our discipline.  Things have changed dramatically since then. The history of economic thought has virtually disappeared from the graduate curriculum in the United States, and if current trends continue, in a few decades it will have disappeared from the undergraduate curriculum, as well.

This situation is deplorable. The history of economic thought constitutes an essential part of the broader liberal education of economists.

In addition, it is important for how we understand “progress” in economics:

Studying the history of economic thought allows students to see where current theories and ways of thinking came from. In itself that’s a useful exercise, but one with further benefits—for as one learns more about the history of one’s discipline, a whole new set of insights arise. Despite the alleged “progress” in economic thinking over the past two centuries, it is remarkable how many old ideas (both good ones and not so good ones) keep resurfacing. Students need to understand that the idea that we have nothing to learn from the past– a belief too often expressed by economists – is just a scientistic prejudice.

Students who learn about economics without the benefit of a history of thought course are inclined to assume that what they learn from their textbooks is settled fact. They do not see that the development of ideas always involves argumentation and criticism, something that usually disappears in textbook treatments of issues.  History of economic thought courses also expose students to alternatives to mainstream views. Without such a course, an economics student will probably know little or nothing about the likes of Karl Marx, Thorstein Veblen, Carl Menger or F. A. Hayek.

History of economics also opens to the door to an interdisciplinary approach to economics, thereby making us aware of our own disciplinary biases:

Furthermore, the history of economic thought course is one of the few places in the economics curriculum where economists connect economics to other disciplines within the social sciences and humanities. As the title of Robert Heilbroner’s best-selling book, The Worldly Philosophers, emphasizes,economics was the creation of scholars and thinkers who did not see themselves as “economists,” but as people trying to make sense of the social universe in the same way that natural philosophers were trying to make sense of the natural world.

…Disciplinary specialization encourages a form of brain-washing: this is how you are to look at problem x if you are an economist. Studying the history of ideas provides a partial remedy to that. I often tell my students that studying the history of economics is like traveling. Just as the latter makes you aware of your own cultural biases, the former makes you aware of your disciplinary biases.

And lastly, the history is fascinating:

Finally, it has been my experience that undergraduate students love studying the history of economic thought.  Many have even said, in their end of term evaluations, “this course ought to be required for every economics major.”  Students rarely ask for more required courses, but history of economic thought is an exception.

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