A bathroom case for teaching the history of postwar economics

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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?
  3. 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”
  4. Kids, isn’t it time to write a textbook on postwar HE?

What else?


15 thoughts on “A bathroom case for teaching the history of postwar economics

  1. Beatrice, I’m sure your toothbrush, moisturizing lotion and lens solution were all very impressed with your grandiloquent musing on the history of economics and its teaching. So am I!
    You mention several important points and I agree with them. For instance, on the issue of teaching HET to economics majors, I share with you and many other historians the view that we need more courses (and research) on the history of postwar economics. Such a course will surely be fragmentary in its effort to make a broad overview of major developments in postwar economics. Another option would be to tailor a course towards students’ interests: once I had a group of graduate students that were taking a macro class with me asking me if we could have a HET course. What I did then was to offer a course on postwar economics guided by the macro literature of fluctuations (so, no growth theory, international macro, etc). But this did not mean that I would not try to tell them major changes that happened in economics in general with world war two. However, the course did not offer the broader view you want.
    For undergraduates, I find that Backhouse’s book, The Ordinary Business of Life/The Penguin History of Economics, has by the end very nice chapters that make an overview of some recent developments in economics. One wishes more of this, I guess.
    With respect to the issue of getting economists’ attention to HET, I believe that the crisis brought a lack of confidence that may stimulate economists to look for the past in search of new ideas. I think historians can engage in productive exchange with those folks, but there will always be a tension in the air, as the understanding of science that economists have conflicts, to some extent, with that of the historians (see an earlier post that touched on this matter in relation to the strategy of historians looking for a closer engagement with economists by trying to publish in the latter’s journals: https://historyofeconomics.wordpress.com/2008/11/25/publishing-elsewhere-a-strategy-for-the-future/).

    1. When I wrote on the issue of diverging scientific standards and peer reviews, I was actually thinking on your previous post and intended to link it. Omission corrected.

      My suggestion that students should be offered a menu of topics to choose from is in exact agreement with your suggestion that courses should be tailored toward student’ interest. Taking into account student’s interest would also lead to claim that graduate student in development economics/industrial organization/theoretical econometrics/ risk and insurance/international macro etc., should systematically be proposed to attend a conference on the history on the origins of his subdiscipline I would even advocate whole sequences if I was certain we had enough knowledge to share

      The effects of the crisis are not very clear to me. It seems to trigger economists’ interest for their PAST (past theories). Which does not mean they’re seriouly getting interested in their HISTORY.

  2. All great points (Beatrice and Pedro), though I do not think I would qualify as a good teacher on the history of postwar economics textbooks. Not yet, at least.
    I think that our field is better taught using examples than by trying to write THE ‘history of recent economics’ textbook. For this reason, I believe that the best HET textbook would be a reader that would include some of the most notable papers that have been published over the past two decades. These papers would differ in scopes and methods, and would reflect different views on the discipline – more or less critical – but what would be important is that they be representative of the various trends that appeared in recent years in our field : the rhetorical turn, the archival turn, the SSK-inflected turn, etc.
    I am struck by the fact that a number of ideas that seem quite “standard” in our community are not widely known by others, For instance the ideas that there are three neoclassical schools, that McKenzie must be credited with Arrow and Debreu as the co-inventor of the general equilibrium theorem, that the Cowles Commission and RAND corporation have played a crucial role in the funding of economics, that American Keynesianism owes much to the prewar institutionalist tradition, that Samuelson’s theory of demand is influenced by both operationalism and behaviorism, etc. would probably baffle my colleagues at the University of Cergy or the typical high school economic teacher, yet we take them as granted. They are published here and there in books and academic journals but they have not yet made their way into the popularization literature. In France, a lot of students still rely on the kind of HET textbooks such as Henri Denis’ Histoire de la pensée économique, where it is taught that Walras’ general equilibrium approach is the result of a French capitalistic class conspiracy and in which the most recent economic theory that is studied is Leontief’s Input-Output model. They deserve better accounts.

    1. Yann, I completely agree with you: history of postwar economics (to a greater degree, but not exclusively, than the history of pre-20th century economics) is fragmentary because there were “too many things happening”. Thus, teaching by a few examples is indeed very nice. Which leads to the conclusion that a reader would indeed be very helpful (instead of one book on THE history of economics, as you said). Still the reader would be fragmentary and hard to be made, but certainly useful. There are already a few publications that go in this direction, but are still different in some respects: the “Companions” (to Keynes, Chicago, to the History of Economic Thought, to Marshall, to Methodology, etc). The problem is that some of them are really expensive for libraries outside top-US universities to have (not to mention young scholars)…

    2. Yes, the history of economics reader is a good idea. But in my opinion, relying on this sole kind of material to teach HE to undergraduate is not sufficient. I began studying economics when I was already in junior year, and my fist HE courses dealt with subtle distinguos in Smith, Turgot, Schumpeter and other economists’ thinking and distinctive environnements. I did not even knew at that time who these people were, I didn’t even have a rough chronology in mind to organize the wealth of information I was listening to. I totally missed the point of the course. The point of this post really is that we should emancipate from the classical syllabus that tries to cover 3 centuries and doesn’t give the student the sense of ho economics is being done. Yet, case studies have to be studied together with a broad narrative (doesn’t matter if partial or fragmentary), otherwise the student will not make sense of them. When I was sitting in Roy Weintraub’s class last year, I understood why he asked them to read both a selection of the most recent research on each subject AND a chapter of Backhouse’s textbook. Those students were in constant need of being reminded about transition, how to we get from Keynes to the Cold war, how can we compare what is going on in UK and in the US at the same time.

      Yann, I’m glad you bring up the issue of historigraphy/ methodology. I was first excited to imagine that one day I’ll have an audience to discuss all methodological debates. Then I made my best to kill such enthusiasm. If I was sitting in an introductory course on a subject I knew nothing about, such as recent development in industrial economics, and that the teacher was beginning his course by arguing that industrial economics don’t agree on such and such matters, I’ll immediately tell him « wait a minute. Couldn’t you begin with what you agree on so that I can understand what that field is about? » And that’s where your vision of a reader is interesting. The best way to introduce the student to methodological issues in the writing of HE without creating unecessary « noise » is to have him read paperd adopting different perspective on a subject. He will necessary note that Mirowski, Leonard and Giocoli don’t really seem to agree on the history of game theory, which would create the opportunity to introduce methodological debates.

  3. Dear All, I agree wholeheartedly with the above points. But: 99 out of 100 students in my HE course are not like Beatrice. They are best served with a clear time line, chronological ordering, and they need to be told about the big guys first. If this is the last thing they’ll ever learn about the history of their field, I want it to be about Smith, Mill, Keynes, Friedman, Kahneman. If it’s only the first thing, it doesn’t hurt either. You can’t start by introducing opposing historical views, without first giving som sort of account of what it is they disagree on. Plus you have only a precious few hours per course, and you also want to teach students how to write a paper, how to present their work. And so on. Landreth and Colander really isn’t so bad for a bachelor course in HE.

    1. Floris, I don’t think it contradicts my experience. As I said, being introduced to HE with advanced research on Smith and Schumpeter, I was completely lost.
      Three questions on your comments, however.
      1) With which material do you introduce your student to great guys from Friedman? My prejudice is that there is a daunting lack of material for bachelors (but as I said, I never taught HE to economists)

      2) Because of your PhD research, you are probably able to come out with a simple narrative that tells the essence of why Kahneman is important and what he has done. But I haven’t research on Kahneman. And I haven’t the Colander and Landreth here at home with me to check, but I don’t remember they say much on him (do they even say anything? ). Is there any existing textbook that I can use to teach on him? And if not, would your advice be that I read your phd and articles an Kahneman (I have) and try to turn them into a short appealing biography for freshmen (which is anything but easy)?

      3) and what about the other big guys from, say, the sixties on? How do you choose them (we’re back to our discussion about partiality and fragmentary account)? And how do you provide biographies with, say, a bit of “flesh”?

    2. Dear Beatrice,
      A much belated response. Yes, you’ve got an important point there. The Landreth and Colander book works well for the period up to WWII, afterwards it gets more sloppy, less-informed, and not up-to-date. What I have done is use some review articles from the Samuels/Biddle/Davis handbook, as well as two of my own. However, for second year students, those proved a bigger challenge already than I expected – presuming for instance much more implicit knowledge than I had realized. So I think I would either need more time per topic (but what do I leave out?) or need to find a LC for the post WWII period. So, well, yes you’re right. Fancy writing a post WWII undergraduate textbook?

  4. I am sorry that this thread seems to have quietened down a bit, because I am intrigued by the idea of putting together a text-book for the first year undergraduate economist, and I think we are on a good track here.

    I think the discussion between Floris and Beatrice highlights the point that there are some very interesting things which are currently missed, as we desperately try to teach people the exciting value theory embedded in Smith vs. that of Ricardo… (I say that having taught and attended HE courses, and, like Beatrice, I think it can be done better). Yann raises a whole list of things we take for granted which could usefully be distilled into chapters of a HET text (plus some readings) for undergraduates to understand where the current theories are coming from.

    Perhaps then there are two courses for undergraduate courses to introduce: A compulsory course in the first year, “HET to understand modern theory” and in the second year “HET as the inspiration for economics” – with the latter covering Smith, Ricardo and all our other friends who those post-war economists ultimately read and drew upon. Personally I have done a good chunk of work on the classics, and would miss them, but I see the point of teaching HET as an explanation to all the other courses a first year economics student takes. That said, there are already (to my mind) good texts for the second year course, with Heilbroner’s ‘Worldly Philosophers’ and Backhouse’s ‘Economists and the Economy’ giving context to theory nicely.

    Does that sound sensible?

  5. Benjamin: to be honest, I don’t get this “HET to understand modern economic theory” / ‘HET as the inspiration for economics” distinction. For me, it is all clear that HET as a form of economic theorization has been a ‘research program’ (for lack of a better term) in the 1970s and the 1980s and that it has gradually declined over the past two decades. It is the kind of History of Economics that is published in the EJHET or that is promoted on the SHOE list (yet, I am not conflating the two), and it is precisely that kind of attitude toward economists that got us in disrespect from the mainstream. My greatest fear is that the current economic crisis is going to nourish the historians’ overconfidence and the discourse that mainstream economics got everything wrong and that HET is going to teach everyone how it could have gotten it all right. I know that many people in the profession share this feeling right now but here is my take on the situation: if some people in the world think that HET may shed light on the reasons for which we got stuck in the “worst depression since 1929”, it is fine and if some of them are wealthy enough to want to fund research in HET for this very same reason, it is even finer. But though I don’t have too much grief with the idea of HET as a kind of critique of mainstream economics, I have much more problems with the idea that HET could serve as a way of reviving certain traditions that got lost in the making of mainstream economics, for the most obvious issue it would raise is that to know which of these traditions would deserve being revived more than the others: the Marxian? the Austrian? the Post-Keynesian? And this is where the reasons of the failure of our predecessors start to emerge. In sum, while your freshman year might look sparkling to some extent, the sophomore year might well turn to be better titled “The Discomfiture of the History of Economics”. I think that historians of economics who want to set up a class in their field should rely for that on the historians’ toolbox rather on the economists’. And what the recent history of the history of economics has taught us is that we do not even know what history of economics is about! So why trying to impose such kind of string reading of HET to our students, whereas the simplest way would be to provide them with a sample of the most representative recent literature on the subject and let them decide to what extent such literature is helpful to understand current issues? This is the way I was taught HET and I would tend to stick to it.

  6. As a complement to previous suggestions about textbooks and readers in the history of recent economics, I was thinking about a lower cost/effort resource. What about a bibliographic wiki, possibly as part of the resource page that Tiago and others are working on for the Duke website? We (others) could create topics similar to those that Beatrice listed, and then people could add articles/books/etc that they think are useful or important. What would make this bibliography really useful would be annotations — 1 paragraph abstracts or comments. For most journal articles, the abstracts already exist, and could be cut and pasted. [and we can put LIKE buttons for voting 😉 — or not] Besides the lower cost and crowd-sourcing advantages, this resource has considerable flexibility.

    Most survey courses in HET don’t have room for much modern material, but an instructor could pick at least one topic from this bibliography. The topics could also be used in the context of standard economics course to provide perspective.

    Craufurd Goodwin has long argued that to make HET interesting to undergraduates, there must be more than one course offered, so students can explore the field more deeply or widely. Most schools don’t have that luxury. But instructors can sometimes create special topics courses that might draw on the bibliography.

    At lunch a few of us were musing about having a regular published source listing all recent articles/books in HET, organized by these specific topics, with abstracts, much like the JEL used to do (although organized only by JEL codes). That might require participation of the societies (HES, ESHET, …), although print publication is probably prohibitive. But an online only resource would be fine for this purpose.

    Speaking of crowd-sourcing, my request on SHOE for course outlines was directed to instructors. But there is no reason why STUDENTS who have taken HET courses couldn’t submit their teacher’s course outlines. Of course, if these were to appear on the Duke website, we will have to request permission. But I would find the information useful to improve the sample of topics/approaches in course outlines. You (good-looking) youngsters who have taken, but not taught, these courses can send to avicohen@yorku.ca.

    1. Avi: I like the idea of a kind of bibliographic wiki. Not only as a teaching tool, but also as a resource to help those students who want to go deeper in History of Economics, sometimes wondering about starting a phD in the subject. In the past years, several students, knowing I was a HE phD student myself, came to me asking for some HE introductory papers on such and such subjects, and it was not always easy to think immediately of that paper that would trigger their interest, be exciting and accessible at the same time. But this would suppose the wiki pages do link to a “free” version of these papers (final drafts?), since the students often don’t have access to research databases.

      And I’m sorry, the syllabi of the HE courses I attended are burried in an old cardboard in my cellar, waiting for the bright days where I’ll be teaching HE myself.

  7. Benjamin and Yann: I’m not sure what Benjamin is proposing in his “HET to understand economic theory course.” If it’s something like “understanding the development of contemporary economic theory,” I’m in, and I also agree with the idea with beginning with most recent figures. As a student, it would have helped me to learn about Haavelmo, Debreu, Arrow, Klein, before being introduced to Ricardo and Walras.

    If it’s more of a “HE as an inspiration for economics” course, I’d rather side with Yann, and to my behavior rule that I should not influence the economics student as to what he may retain from an HE course for his current scientific practice. If only because I don’t practice economics. I write history. Some of us do both. Most don’t. For the latter, let’s stay humble.

  8. Ah Yann, I see where we are missing each other (I think?). What I mean by those titles are course titles, not descriptions of the kind of History of Economics there may be or the intent of the course. I don’t see a distinction, and wouldn’t want to get involved in a debate about History’s role as you outline it in telling economists what to do – I agree Beatrice, it’s a dead starter.

    Rather, as Beatrice outlines I like the idea of having a textbook for a course which introduces the undergrad student to the history of the theories they are learning. Where do they come from, who were these people, and possibly peppering such a text with the methods for which the histories were extracted. That way it could combine a lot of contextualisation for the economics students of the theories they are learning, with the interesting methods that are used in HE and by Historians.

    Avi and Beatrice, on the idea of a wiki, Gonçalo L. Fonseca and Leanne Ussher built a massive starting ground for such a project at http://www.newschool.edu/nssr/het/ some years back – before ‘wiki’ was even a word. If nothing else, it’s a pretty good read and has a lot of references.

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