INET and reforming economic education: can history help?

One INET project is to “reconnect the teaching of economics with the working of the actual economy,” which is to begin with a reform of the undergraduate curriculum. For this purpose, a two-legged task force was established, with Robert Skidelsky chairing the British committee and Perry Mehrling the American one. Both committees reported on their progress at the Bretton Woods conference (see the videos of the sessions)

The purpose here is not to discuss the task force’s proposals. Nor is it to argue for the reintegration of history of economics to the curriculum. Some historians and economists alike have repeatedly advocated such reform since the current crisis broke out. The only problem being that the “history” economists have in mind doesn’t seem to be the “history” historians are writing. But I shall elaborate on this in future posts.

My concern is that, while I have something to say about reforming economic education as a former student and a teacher, I’m not sure what my contribution could be as a historian – assuming that economists need historical insights to devise their reforms.

Perry Mehrling began his Bretton Woods talk with the idea that “things (e.g. economic education) are the way they are for a historical reason and they stay the way they are for an institutional reason.” He then proceeded to a one-slide account of the development of american economic education as a methodological shift from the “T Ely” way of doing and teaching economics to the “Samuelson” way, before jumping to the present state of affairs and possible reforms. The task force seems to have a documented view of where we are (in the US, as well as in the UK), but very little notion of how we got there, and why. There are a few elements though that historians are – or rather, I’m afraid, should be – able to throw into the discussion.

On the idea of helping undergraduates grasp reality (with both hands, ten tentacles or a prehensile tail). What are the similarities and differences between our present situation (social and economic context, students’ demands, criticisms against the economic profession) and the crises economics have experienced over the past decades? In the seventies, for instance, introductory courses were substantially reformed in response to a demand for greater relevance emanating from students who, as it happened, remained worryingly illiterate at the end of their curriculum. This is what Jean-Baptiste Fleury relates in a recent paper on the origins of the “economics-made-fun” movement. “Relevant” meaning relevant for the then burning real world issues such as racial discrimination, the energy crisis, etc. He details economists’ reactions, from the institutionalization of the emerging field of economic education, through the creation of the Journal for Economic Education in 1969, to the decision to focus introductory courses on the application of a limited set of economic principles to relevant issues. Several textbooks illustrating this “issue-oriented approach” were published. In the eighties and nineties, professionals continued to complain that economics lacked relevance, e.g. lacked connection to observation and empiricism, and for students, lacked reference to situations of the everyday life. As the concentration of the publishing industry entailed a standardization of introductory textbook, pedagogical innovations flourished in the kind of popularization books which had already proved successful in other fields such as physics or biology. This “economics-made-fun” movement, which culminated with the publication of Freakonomics, was an inspiration for those economists who worried about the apparent decrease in the enrollment in economic major and who, by the end of the nineties, attempted to reform the curriculum again (rather unsuccessfully).

Today’s reformers may find some interest in a clear identification of what past challenges to undergraduate education and past responses have been. Though I’m not familiar with the JEE literature, I wonder whether a review of the knowledge produced in its issues would provide a sense of what the forces driving the evolution of economic education have been in the past thirty years. Finally, there’s no explicit mention of these pop-economics books in the current discussion. Is it because this literature is considered already integrated to undergraduate education? Or irrelevant?

→ One way to think about economic education is to identify the questions we want our students to answer at the end of our courses. In other words, what the appropriate exams and assignments should be like. Hence this question to historians: how did the form of econ exams evolve over time (and if you’re in a cynical mood, is economists’ claim that their science is progressive warranted, are today’s students able to answer an exam given by Marschak in the twenties, one given by Samuelson in the forties, or the tricky and much reality-based questions Friedman was used to asking in the fifties ad sixties.) A parallel set of questions deals with the practices of past education leaders, from Friedman to Solow. How did those famous economists teach? What made their success? During the INET session, Axel Leijonhufvud pointed to those economists who could not do or teach theory without history of thought, such as Jacob Viner. If there are any lectures notes in the archives, they might be worth studying.

→ Another important issue is that of textbooks/ teaching material. Some proposals have been made for the development of online material, videos, reading lists and text anthologies. And when Merhling mentions Samuelson as the one who changed the way economics was not only made but also taught, Economics pops up in our mind. Except that, as explained by Samuelson and contextualized by Yann Giraud, Economics was not written for an economic audience. In the late forties at MIT, most engineering and science students had Ec11 and Ec12 (introductory econ) on their curriculum. Made compulsory. They hated it, and Ralph Freeman, then chairman of the department of economics, asked Samuelson to write a textbook to correct this. Yann and Loïc Charles are currently investigating how, during the Great Depression, visuals such as Neurath pictorial statistics were used as a major vehicle to spread information and opinion on economics in textbooks, professional periodicals and by US administrations. Much more narratives of that kind is needed on how and why influential textbooks were written, and how they spread.

→ Finally, econ education everywhere in the Western world seems nowadays modeled on the curricula proposed by leading American econ departments, in particular MIT, Chicago and Harvard (unless you have an alternative narrative). Have historians anything to say about how economic education was developed at these leading institutions?

On Chicago, a quick search brought a much more meager harvest than I expected. A few reminiscences (for instance Deidre McCloskey’s remark that the undergraduate and graduate curricula were strictly separated), vague statements on the large number of students accepted in both programs, and on the thus large number of students failing exams. The importance of the graduate price theory course taught by Friedman, then Becker, then Friedman again, to socialize the Chicago graduate into the proper way of doing economics. Friedman as a teacher. And thanks to Ross Emmett, the role of the workshop system in ensuring that the right tools were used the right way in thesis writing and research. Fragments.

On MIT, I know a few stories. Some of which make sense to understand the current state of affairs.

At MIT, before 1965, there was no economic major. No undergraduate students in economics. Undergraduate students took 80% scientific or engineering courses, and 20% humanities courses, with a core humanities sequence during the first two years, and a major sequence in economics (or psychology, or political science, or literature or else) in the subsequent two years. A few dozens students enrolled in a course XIV, a sort of double major which allowed students to pursue a standard science or engineering curriculum AND an economic undergraduate major. 50%-50%. Three options were offered: general economics, labor relations, and quantitative economics (from statistics to Operation Research). According to the faculty reports, none of these students subsequently chose to specialize in economics. They either became engineers, OR specialists or worked for a trade union. Therefore, the curriculum economics undergraduates were presented with in the next decades, the lectures Lawrence Summers attended as an MIT student in 1973 or 1974 were designed to introduce physicists and engineers to social issues. The tools, the methods and the approach were designed for them.

The best way to get greater exposure to economics at MIT in the fifties an sixties may have been to go to the business school, where economists and business scientists were working hand in hand (they were located in the same building at the far end of the campus, away from other hard and social sciences): people at the Sloan business school were applying new methods for quality control and transportation optimization. They were obsessed with trading and they developed models to account for stock behavior. They also recruited Franco Modigliani.

At MIT in the sixties, elementary macro was taught before elementary micro. The order was reversed in 1974 when, in the context described above by Jean-Baptiste and in response to repeated students’ protests and petitions, introductory economics courses were reformed under the leadership of Peter Temin. It was decided that “micro will precede as to introduce economics through problems that are most apparent to the non economist and to the engineer in particular.”

At MIT, in the late sixties, the use of problem sets was developed. In 1968, the “Committee on the undergraduate economics program” chaired by Duncan Foley reported that :

“Students at the Institute seem to prefer subjects in which homework assignments are required to be turned in at frequent intervals. There is also some evidence that they work more consistently under such arrangement. Therefore, it seems desirable that “problem sets” be required frequently – probably every other week. Student reaction to the workbook has been negative for the most part.

It is important that these problem sets do not degenerate into routine mechanical algrebraic exercises. Some of the problem sets may well be manipulation of models, but others should be short essays on the sort of questions which are used for examination.”

Six years later, in his revision of introductory courses, Temin suggested that:

“The use of problem sets will be increased. While problems are used currently in 14.01 and 14.02, there are only a few problems sets given during each term. In the revised courses, there will be problem sets every week or two weeks. These problems will provide practice in the use of economics to analyze particular questions and an opportunity for the student to think about some of the problems raised in the readings outside of class time. They are the beginning of independent thought on economic problems.

….In general, 14.01 and 14.02 aim to introduce to the student a new way of looking at some aspects of his environment. The traditional way of accomplishing this end is through the examination of historical ideas. Considering the needs of MIT students, a different approach is suggested here. Through a sophisticated look at current economic concepts and problems, the student’s appreciation of his surroundings should be enhanced.”

I have been unable to decide how this evolution relates to Jean-Baptiste’s account of the implementation of the “issue-oriented approach.” Possibly because I don’t have the cultural background. Or because we don’t have enough material to understand exactly what these two pedagogical practices covered in the seventies.

 I don’t know any articulated account of the development of curricula at Harvard and other relevant places.

Thoughtful reforms of undergraduate education requires a knowledge of how economic education was shaped at least in the XXth century. It’s thus a pity (and a shame) that we, historians of economics, are unable to provide at least fragments of such history. Oh, but wait…. We’re busy debating -again- on “Adam Smith, the ‘Founding Father’ of Modern Economics?

Cartoon borrowed from techno converging zone blog.

Alternative Summers

Before academics wiggle their toes in baked sand, and pull out the novels set aside during the working year, they always find some time for one last bout of schooling. It seems school is NOT out for Summer.

Contrary to some historiographical accounts and my own personal ordeal, I think we are living a golden age of the history of economics. For more than a decade there have been two summer schools on the history of economics, growing in followers and wealth. Initially at George Mason University and now at the University of Richmond, the Summer Institute for the Preservation of the (Study of) the History of Economic Thought counts 11 years (link to photos and videos of 2010). The Europeans were first off the blocks, and their Summer School on History of Economic Thought, Economic Philosophy and Economic History is in its fourteenth edition. The names suggest they are different venues. The former more focused than the latter, only history, but also more defensive, with its stated role of preserving. The Europeans don’t much need preservation of history of economics, since there are across Southern and Central Europe plenty of graduate students and programs. The European event even grants you ECT credits for equivalences with your home institution. They have similar formats, a blend of senior scholars giving papers (see the 2011 here), and students presenting their work. Then academic cultures matter. In the Virginia version the distinction between students/young scholars vs faculty is less marked, the informality makes it like a relaxed but intense conference experience.

Since last year there is a third summer event, hosted from Duke’s Center for the History of Political Economy. In its first edition it was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and was directed at teachers in liberal arts colleges that wanted to teach history of economics subjects. The 2011 version is a slight more adventurous: three modules of two weeks each; thought primarily to attract graduate students in economics who have no background in history; generously funded. While other summer events cater to the student writing a thesis on the history of economics, this summer event is dedicated to everyone else (even if the HET student may apply and will likely get in). For full disclosure, I am more than a bit committed to this one. I am listed as co-director of it and have spent the best of the past couple of months advertising and working through the details of the program.

Supply creates its own demand. Or in a more cinematic version, as in Field of Dreams: “Build it and they will come.” If you give economists the chance to learn the history of their discipline, from some of the best historians around, and you pay them to boot, will they come?

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?


It has become a ritual of self punishment to review the state of our discipline; named History of Economics, History of Economic Thought, History and Methodology of Economics, History and Philosophy of Economics, catering to the tastes of the crowd. It is ritual because it invariably concludes all associative meetings, like the one held in Coimbra, early in the month, of the Iberian Association of Historians of Economic Thought. It is self flagellation because the news are never good, that no one cares for us and there is no future.

With one exception at the ESHET meetings in Porto, where the depression was outsourced to Young Scholars, the bearers of bad news are Full Professors, at the height of their intellectual and institutional powers. Having witnessed these moments since 2002, I am beginning to tire. In Coimbra, I was happy to hear from Ana Maria Bianchi of USP that keeping History of Economics in the curriculum takes vigilance, as she so aptly described it, a “foot in the door” and everyone “taking turns at the watch.” I was unhappy to hear from others that History of Economics should be a hobby, or hear the unsolicited complaints of how historians doing history of economics are getting the economics all wrong. It is blame the other and conform.

The future of the history of economics surely depends on us: our inventiveness, energy, enthusiasm and cooperation. But what I hear the most from people of authority is that we should give up, that they have given up. I still come to these sessions hoping for the good news from the wise and prophetic, of maybe some project to join efforts, an appeal to ambition. But maybe this is my mistake. So I decided to attend no more, and announce that the kids will go it alone if needed…

Meet the author

PenguinThe author was Roger Backhouse. And the book was The Penguin History of Economics (UK ed., US ed.).

I teach with Harro Maas, a course “Contemporary Economic thought in a Historical Perspective” at a new venture, modeled on a liberal arts curriculum, the Amsterdam University College. They require the first year courses to have a textbook and since we both admire Roger’s Penguin history we chose that one. It was Harro’s great idea of inviting Roger for a meeting with the students. After discussing the book for 5 weeks, they could ask questions of expansion or clarification or make suggestions to the author on what to write in future editions.

From the 25 students came questions like: what is the best form of economic organization, markets or the state? what works best capitalism or socialism? should we adopt sociological approaches to risk analysis instead of relying on mathematical models? That’s right! Students querying the historian on what economics to believe, and if the past could arbitrate on these dilemmas. Roger did his best to answer and not answer the questions, but not far into the conversation he was politely labeled a Keynesian. The tone was always interested and there was no disappointment from either side, and some questions were properly historical such as why some ideas developed in some countries (often their own) and not somewhere else…

To conclude, a student spoke of a concern that many had voiced before. Roger’s text has too many names, too much happens and it is hence difficult to summarize. The student asked for the ten most important economists of history that would make a summary. Roger gave us then a “Hamlet without the Prince”. The history of economics as the history of its identity, as subordinate to morality, breaking out as a subject in political and moral philosophy, finally in the twentieth century the economic becoming its field of professional and academic expertise.

It was all good! A perfect way to motivate students giving them a sense of ownership of the content… they are on first name terms with the author, and they even drank a beer with him.

(on other reviews Backhouse gets three 4 star reviews on, and one 2 star and one 4 star reviews on, the American shopper is less impressed)