There is much reflexion today on how to enhance the teaching of economics and foster the teaching of the history of economics (cf Avi Cohen’s SHOE post and the CHOPE’s initiative to put online resources for the teaching of HE). In such a context, it makes sense to re-affirm that bringing back HE in economics curricula would make students better economists. At least, this morning, I suddenly felt pressed to test my arguments, and, lacking an economist audience at that moment, addressed my toothbrush, moisturising lotion and lens solution with grandiloquence.
I read the development of HE in the 1990s and 2000s as one of emancipation, whatever historians’ declared (and conflicting) attitudes toward economists were. They have refined criteria for peer evaluation, standards of truth, plausibility and/or relevance (since the post, post-post and post-post-post modern wings of our subdiscipline doubtless refuse to take “truth” as their goal) that are strictly independent from economists’ ones. Historians today (at least some) don’t expect their articles to be assessed by economists’ standards of quality (it happens, tough, when an historical paper is submitted to a generalist economics journal, and the referee reports are often problematic).
Historians handle peculiar kinds of data and are constantly developing new ways of building narratives from them: those using texts, articles, books, as a basis for investigation are acutely aware of the changing meaning of tools and data, of authorship, translations, patrons and funding, publication issues (whether related to the publishing industry in the previous centuries or to the postwar peer review process), audiences, scholarship cultures, and the influence of biographical features, including emigration, religion, political views, love interests, power struggles, perception of contemporary economics/ social events, etc. Others are relying on archives, trading some archival sources against others, wondering what kind of consistent material can be derived from such fragmentary material, or even whether it is a consistent story that should be seek in these dusty folders, reflecting on the meaning of correspondence, course lectures, etc. in the context of the 1930s, 1950s or 1980s. They would also compare such sources with autobiographical accounts and oral histories, and attempt to offset the bias inherent to such exercise by devising new ways to conduct interviews, to gather memories, such as witness seminars. Some deal with the effects of computer science and of the internet on our disciplines: the emergence of new type of material (such as blogs, online lay reviews of economic books) and new techniques (such as network analysis).
At the same time, the scope of HET has been considerably expanded. Gradually moving from a cluster of key individuals (Smith-Ricardo-Marshall-Keynes-Friedman), academic bodies or “places” (Cambridge, Chicago, Harvard, Vienna) and theories or tools, or coming from different disciplinary perspectives, historians have investigated a greater variety of theoretical developments and subfields (econometrics, business cycle theories, general equilibrium, OR, game theory, the Arrow-Debreu mess, Slutsky integrability conditions, law and economics, etc. More recently, development economics, experimental economics, the laffer curve, Ramsey’s growth theory, Woodford’s monetary economics, behavioral economics, neuro-economics…..); other figures; economists’ activities other than research: economists as teachers (awareness to the definition of curricula and to the writing of textbooks; economists as fund raisers (relationships with foundations, the NSF, etc.), policy advisers (participation to the CEA, congressional hearings) and public intellectuals (Newsweek columnists, political activists, radio speakers, TV show broadcasters, bloggers). Historians’ interest has also spread to neighbouring sciences, from psychology to biology, to hitherto understudied academic bodies (such as MIT, Michigan), to non academic bodies (such as the Brookings, the NBER, the Office of Economic Opportunities, German unions, the CED, South American central banks, Quesnay’s workshop, the poverty action lab, the Bloomsbury group). And lately, HE has come to include the study of political figures, journalists, traders, bloggers, anonymous reader and reviewers from amazon, all kind of economic actors and audiences.
And this is just a tiny sample of HE subjects, one that reflects my narrow interests as a postwar historian, my recent readings, my communities, the interests of my close colleagues and of the people encountered along workshops and conferences in the past two years.
As a consequence, historians of economic thing now have a lot to say about past economic theories/ debates/ objects, both on their content and context. Ans this might be of interest for economic students. Yet, my perception is that, focused as they were on the construction of true/ plausible/ relevant narrative, historians have lost their pretension to show economists what they were doing wrong, to show them how their elders were so much better at reasoning. For the best.
OK, this may be the moment to stop hasty generalizations. So, some historians, among which the silly me addressing my toothbrush, do not seek economists’ agreement, maybe not even their attention, anymore (which doesn’t mean they don’t care about it). As I previously said, we have developed our own scientific standards. Yet, a problematic consequence of such posture, is that, while I claim that history of economics should be a crucial part of economics curricula, I refuse to take side on how students should use the stories we could tell them. While some point to the possible quiver of the beginning of a resurgence of an interest in HE, there’s not much I can say to advertise all the work we’ve done. Whether economists may be looking for inspiration, mistakes, reflexivity in their practices, social knowledge, greater breadth of vision, lineage, entertainment or else in their past, all I can say is “listen to us, we’ve fascinating stories to tell you, and these are your past.”
I’ve never taught HE to economic students. I’ve been sitting in such courses as an economic student in France, totally missing the point, and a HE postdoc in the USA, focusing on students’ reactions. I’ve been teaching a variety of economic courses at the undergraduate level (from applied econometrics to international economics to advanced macroeconomics), sometimes trying to instil a bit of historical sense and flesh in the succession of theories and equations I was unwinding. And i’ve ben teaching HE to humanities students. From these experiences, I retained a few directions for my -so far- dreamed future course in HE, but I still have difficulty justifying some of them, even to my unconvinced toothbrush. I need help, substance. Or objections.
a distinct course in history of postwar economics is needed. I am not arguing that there is no point reading and studying Smith and Marshall and Marx and Keynes. Or course not. I’m simply relying on a common intuition derived from many works since the 1997 HOPE book directed by Morgan and Rutherford, to argue that it is in the period around the Second World War that economics took a shape that is still visible today in undergraduate curricula.One that may surprise, disturb or repel freshmen. In other words, it may make sense to the student trying to identify the saddle point of a Hamiltonian trajectory to learn all these things about the military, the RAND, the ties between engineers and economists, the emigration of Jewish physicists, and the possible consequences of McCarthyism. And the one wondering whether such estimator is BLUE may find interest, if not comfort, in hearing the social project Marschak and other Cowles economists had in mind in the forties. Ok, I’m aware that this is a bit short. If only because I’ll agree with the idea that economics underwent dramatic changes at the turn of the eighties, some that gave economics its current shape. And that a distinct course in history of economics since the eighties is needed. But I have very little idea what such a course would look like.
- A least two sessions, and up to half the class should be devoted to a broad narrative on the development of postwar economics worldwide and its economic, social and historical context. Yes, it’s a bit like making the history of everything. No, it doesn’t mind if it’s only fragmentary. Yes, students are supposed to know some basics about poswar general history. But let’s face it, they’re unable to remember that the publication of Debreu’s proof and Arrow’s impossibility theorem coincide with the heydays of Mccarthy’s witch hunt, the beginning of the Korea war, and I can’t remember which rate of unemployment. Nor will they know that Becker’s work on discrimination was written against the background of the Brown vs Board case. What is needed, in my mind, is a kind of extended Backhouse Palgrave entry on “United States, economics in (1945 to present)” from the Palgrave, which I used so often during my doctoral studies. One that could be used to point out key dates in HE and general history, before entering more specific topics, one that student could return to at the end of the semester. And resources on such broad narrative are difficult to find. Any suggestions?
- Students could be presented with a menu of topics/ speakers so that the syllabus could be fitted to their home institution and disciplinary interests: “you can get Duarte on growth theory, Heukelom on the origins of behavioral economics, Giraud on how great textbooks were written, Levallois on the history of neuro-economics, Mitra Kahn on public accounting and the generalization of keys statistics such as GNP, Mata on the perceptions of the current crisis, you can have a conference on the history of your MIT/Chicago/ else department”, to mention only some of this blog’s members fields of expertise. I said: “dreamed course in HE”
- Kids, isn’t it time to write a textbook on postwar HE?