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?

Self and other @ HOPE 2009

Gerome_Dance_of_the_Almah_1863Mild and cozy are the attributes of most conferences I go to these days. My peer group is deficient in Messianism: historians of economics generally do not proclaim themselves world saviors. You don’t get big speeches or melodrama, or wolfish competitiveness. The faces repeat and so too the conversations. Then, what you lose in novelty you get back in friendly admiration.

Exceptions to the rule come by design. For some years, the History of Political Economy Group at Duke University has run annual conferences, where by invitation, open call or a cocktail of the two, they have brought historians and practitioners to converse with our tribe. This year the topic was “The Unsocial Social Science? Economics and the Neighboring Disciplines since 1945”, organized by Philippe Fontaine and Roger Backhouse. Doubling as whistleblower and anthropologist I don’t want to rerun the good fare of the meeting (buy the book when it comes out, or rent the DVD).

Here is some stage setting. The meeting was held in the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy. The building resembles a closed courtyard with the meeting rooms and offices squaring an inner core, whithin a set of stairs level with sofas and tables halfway between floors. To me it evokes the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. (I once saw it full, all the way up, into the corridors, as people crowded to hear Paul Krugman.) In the conference meeting room were about 20 conference participants, discussants and observers. The attendance was made up of historians of economics and historians of social science. The proposition of the meeting was that everyone would speak authoritatively about the social sciences with special attention to economics’ place in post World War II dynamics.

Here is what happened. They danced. (Ok, i am writing this late while listening to remixes of Shakira!) That is the best analogy I can find to describe the mood in the room. The historians of social science were careful not to step on the economics, mostly they avoided making any moves that direction, waiting for historians of economics to lead and fill in. The historians of economics were equally prone to immobility in swinging into other social science histories. This conference opened up the realization that “neighboring” historians need to practice the dance. In the politeness hid a deeper estrangement. What held them up was a sort of Orientalism. Historians of social science from their historiographic vantage point saw economics as the other, monolithic, right leaning, authoritative, isolationist and imperialist; the Other. Historians of economics saw it as a Self: diverse, layered, complex, alive.

In the twentieth century, the social sciences have scraped, overlapped, intersected, in think tanks, in government offices, in rhetorical scripts and cultural imperialism. Historians look at snapshots of contact and contrast. The questions tend to be ones of difference. Why this won and that lost? Why this is turquoise and that one pink? My suggestion is to divert our gaze from the boundaries parsing economics, psychology, sociology. Abandon the case studies. Look at the social sciences in narratives as a cultural force shaping public life. The identity game is expelled, projected out. We are left with science and society.