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Adam Smith? Whos He?

Its time to return the history of economic thought to the college curriculum.

By Bruce Caldwell


September 01, 2010

The college curriculum has been eroding in many fields. Students can major in English, for example, yet never read any Shakespeare. I’m sorry to report that my field, economics, is experiencing similar erosion--in particular, the demise of courses on the history of economic thought.

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. 

Studying the history of thought provides, by the reading of original texts and secondary material, a means of engaging the greatest minds on issues of great significance:  a fellow historian nicely described this aspect of a typical course as “sitting on a log with Adam Smith.” What are the causes of “the wealth of nations”?  Does the labor theory of value make sense?  Is the business cycle inevitable?  In most of their classes, economics students do not get to debate such “big questions,” and neither do they learn what some of the best minds in their discipline have had to say about them. The whole point of a history of economic thought class is to do so.

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.

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.

And they were a diverse lot, with diverse interests. Adam Smith taught the principles of rhetoric and moral philosophy as well as those of “expediency.”  Most people who know the name of John Stuart Mill think of him as a philosopher rather than an economist, but he was both, and much else besides. John Maynard Keynes wrote a book on probability theory, and Friedrich Hayek one on the theory of mind.

When I was the director of the University Honors Program at UNC-Greensboro, I participated in a weekly coffee discussion with colleagues and students in many different disciplines. I found that communication across fields is often difficult, due to the variety of unstated assumptions that people bring from their particular backgrounds, and to the difficulty of being aware of and articulating your own assumptions to others. 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.

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.

Fortunately, the decline of history of thought courses in economics is not the end of the story. Indeed, a revival may be on the way. Two years ago, supported by the John W. Pope Foundation, I helped to found the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University. The mission of the Center is to support and promote the teaching of, and research in, the history of economic thought. Its location at Duke is appropriate because Duke is known throughout the world for its program in the history of economics.

Five economists who specialize in the field are currently on the faculty.  The premier journal in the field, History of Political Economy, is published by the Center. The archival holdings in the Economists’ Papers Project include the papers of the American Economic Association, of nine Nobel laureates (Paul Samuelson’s papers are the most recent addition), and of many other luminaries.  The Center sponsors workshops, conferences, and an active fellowship program that brings scholars from around the world to Duke to work on their research.

The center also has programs to support undergraduate teaching in the history of economics. This past summer the Center, with a grant from the National Science Foundation, brought to campus 24 teachers from colleges across the country for a three week long “Boot Camp” on the history of economics.  They were taught by a distinguished group of faculty, among them four past Presidents of the History of Economics Society. The response from the students was overwhelmingly positive and we hope to expand the summer programming offered at Duke in the future.

Ours is just one program, but we intend to lead by example. At Duke, economics students can learn about the ideas of the great writers of the past as a standard part of their education. My wish is that other schools and other philanthropic institutions will see the importance of restoring history of economic thought to the place it deserves.

Bruce Caldwell is a Research Professor of Economics and the Director of the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University.  He is also the General Editor of the book series, The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek, published jointly by the University of Chicago Press and Routledge.


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