Home > The Economics Profession > Death of the history of economics?

Death of the history of economics?

from David Ruccio

Is the history of economic thought dead?

Yes, in the sense that all the mainstream doctoral programs in economics in the United States long ago eliminated courses—whether required or elective—in the history of economic thought. Most academic economists receive no training in the history of the discipline (or, for that matter, in economic history). Therefore, in their view, the history of economic thought is dead.

David Warsh did detect one “portent of change” at the recent American Economic Association meetings in Denver, in a session on “rethinking the core” of graduate education.

James Heckman, of the University of Chicago, endorsed the possibility of restoring to the graduate curriculum high-level elective courses in the history of economic thought. “People in the past were smart and they made mistakes and had insights,” he said afterwards. “We have sometimes forgotten the insights and we have sometimes repeated the same mistakes.”David Laidler, of the University of Western Ontario, among the foremost historians of thought of the present day, noted that since ideas periodically disappear and reappear according to the self-estimate of the times, it might be a disservice to give students the impression that all they needed to know was contained in the pages of a current text.

But then at the end of his post he drops a bombshell: the University of Amsterdam has announced it is closing its Program in the History and Methodology of Economics.

That decision certainly represents the triumph of the death of the history of economic thought.

  1. January 16, 2011 at 5:18 pm

    it is not surprising as, I suppose, the intention was that the students would not realize that there are other schools of thought than the Neo-classical school. Even the Keynesian appraoch was regarded as a Marxist one by some of the scholasrs in the USA!!

  2. Danny L. McDaniel
    January 16, 2011 at 5:34 pm

    I would think that a college course on “the history of economic thought” would be required at the beginning of a one’s college experience, not in graduate school. This would mean most people graduating with an undergraduate degree in economics would know nothing about the history of thought that lead to their degree in the first place. Moreover, college economic degree programs should be extended to five years instead of the current four year programs.

  3. January 16, 2011 at 5:50 pm

    The key to controlling humans does not lie in building fences around them, but to steer their minds away from unwanted questions.
    Horses pull well when you put blinders on their eyes, bits in their mouths and feed them some hay at the end of the day.

  4. January 16, 2011 at 6:30 pm

    Economic history is taught at the undergraduate level. As very few PhD Candidates havent coe up through the ranks of undergraduate economics, your conclusion, while perhaps narrowly correct, actually doesn’t hold water. At the PhD level, if you are not familiar with the history, you might be in the wrong field.

    • January 16, 2011 at 8:04 pm

      Economic history is taught at the undergraduate level. …

      And, after all, whether or not it is a mandatory class in the undergraduate major, in a large number of economics departments a large portion of income is from non-majors, and if they’ll enrol in economic history, it can easily make financial sense to offer the class.

      Indeed, my bachelor degrees were in Latin American Studies and Mathematics, and I doubt that I would have learned more useful economic history for development economics if I had instead taken an economics major and economic history or history of thought courses at the undergrad level rather than the regional history courses that I in fact took. On the other hand, I was in an economic program in the early 90’s where history of thought was a required course and the Economic History sequence was taught by Institutionalists, so the graduate coursework I took was also more useful than the norm for understanding the economic history dimension of the history that I already knew.

  5. January 17, 2011 at 4:24 pm

    History? History? We don’t need no history. Economics is a timeless science of timeless truths. It’s all the same stuff, over and over, with better and better mathematics. Yeah, that’s the ticket. Don’t need no ethics, neither, ya know. Neither history nor ethics is scientific, ya know.

  6. Keith Wilde
    January 17, 2011 at 8:50 pm

    I was in a professor’s office this morning, looking idly books on the shelves. I pulled out a newish looking principles text, the familiar one from the sixties-seventies by Lipsey, Purvis and Steiner. This was a French translation, dated 1992 or ’93. I was amused by the opening line in the Preface, which said said that “economics is a constantly evolving subject, which is why we have to keep revising our texts” (!)

  7. January 19, 2011 at 6:39 pm

    This a rather long process. While studying for a Ph.D. at Cornell in the late 70´s the area was already defunct. Later at Leicester University (UK) Prof. Ronald Meek advised on the minimum interest within the profession in this field. The minimum culture of an economist about his/her own concerns require a knowledge of how it was formed. It brings very satisfactory rewards.

  8. Alice
    January 20, 2011 at 10:17 am

    Such a shame the profession discarded the material of most interest to students.

  9. Alice
    January 20, 2011 at 10:23 am

    Perhaps its not just the history of economic thought that is drying or dead…but thought itself is dying in economics.
    Pretty mathematics and following the rules set down by one’s mathematical precedents doesnt necessarily make for an articulate thinker (and so sorry – no matter how fast the mathematics…where are the thinkers who led, by ideas and with english (or foreign grammar) in a way they could actually be interpreted by more tha five people?

  10. Alice
    January 20, 2011 at 10:25 am

    So much nonsense passes for economics these days… its no wonder students have grown listless and disinterested in it and speak about economics with glazed eyes.

  11. August 30, 2016 at 4:27 am

    Part of the problem lies with the way history of economics is taught. The idea that economics is a “science” and that there has been a gradual evolution from pre-history in which people made many mistakes to the modern era where we have learned everything — this is fundamentally flawed. Furthermore, this idea automatically implies that there is no need to learn the history of old wrong ideas, when we have already moved past them.
    History become exciting and interesting when we study it as a battleground of ideas. Each economic idea is a weapon used by one class to gain advantage over others. Economic theories cannot be understood without placing them in historical context. For example, Says law must be understood in the context of an era where huge amounts of surplus production became possible due to the industrial revolution. With this premise, one can write an interesting and vitally important history of economic ideas. I am engaged in the project of writing an economics textbook based on this premise. One needs to show that history is important and relevant, in order to make it part of the curriculum. Current texts that I have seen dont succeed in doing so, for the most part.

  12. robert locke
    August 31, 2016 at 12:26 pm

    People who study medicine, don’t study the history of medicine; they study the current state of medical knowledge. That is the “scientific” assumption economists follow when throwing the history of economics and economic history out of their curricula. Makes sense, until you discover after studying the history of economics that it has never made any progress as a science. Just watch the Feds try to figure out whether to raise the interest rates or not. Its a zoo.

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