Should the history of economic thought be included in undergraduate curricula?

This paper has been included in the publication
“The Economics Curriculum: Towards a radical reformulation”

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The mainstream view about the irrelevance of HET is illustrated, and the reasons for it are indicated in the hidden assumption of a positivist idea about the cumulative growth of knowledge. HET is however very important when existence of different approaches to economics is recognized. As an illustration, classical and marginalist conceptualizations of the economy are briefly discussed.

7 responses

  • I totally agree with this raised question. The todays economic theories are not the final answer, I would say.

    Because of that it is very important to follow the full track of the paths of the building up of our todays theoretical framework – and to check where the flaw is.

    And i would direct put my finger to the point that we do not have any kind of real world linked definition of the economic theories.

    How much is “one unit” of “economy” in our very real world?

    As long you can not give an answer to this very simple question there is no way of discussing any kind of real world growth (which is the main goal at the moment).

    As long you define any given economy by a money value in its size – how can you say “overload, overload”?

    There was a dicsussion about this in HET, but poorly there was no final answer for today.
    But, as i said in the beginning: The HET is raising these kind of questions up again.
    Today i see no one else asking about a real world linked definition.

    HET will help this discussion.

    Thanks for your paper!

  • As a young business student decades ago, I was required to take two courses in economics — macro and micro. The sense at the time was that economic science had advanced to the point where “the managed economy” would achieve a steady rate of growth with minimal inflation. My studies outside of economics and the unfolding of history demonstrated just how far economics still had to go.

    The study of the history of economic theory is essential but essential in a broader context than is suggested by the author of this paper. Economics is but a sub-discipline of its predecessor political economy. And, political economy embraced debate and discussion of moral principles, recognizing that politics does indeed dictate economic (distribution of wealth and income) outcomes.

    Over the last century there have been a small number of economics professors who, after obtaining the necessary academic credentials and for peer acceptance, have ventured out of the discipline to adopt the more interdisciplinary methodology of classic political economy. Some in the era prior to tenure protection (e.g., Scott Nearing at the University of Pennsylvania) were removed from their faculty positions for advancing social reforms. Others, such as Harry Gunnison Brown, openly questioned the objectively of the research by some economics professors. In the course on the history of economic theory and policy I teach (as part of an adult education program) I read the introductory pages of Brown’s 1955 economic textbook, in which he describes the pressures placed on economics professors to defend the status quo in their teachings.

    My experience teaching adults confirms that their life experiences are valuable to an understanding of the evolution of economic theory and how such theories stood up against real world trends and outcomes. In this sense, most undergraduate students of economics are ill-prepared coming out of high school. I know of only one program in political economy taught at the high school level; this is in a small number of California high schools. This program has a long history, going back to the early 1970s, developed by the director of the Henry George School of Social Science in southern California. This type of program, if expanded across the nation, would not only better prepare 19-year old students for college-level study in the social sciences but also help prepare all students for the responsibilities of citizenship.

  • Haiyun Zhao says:

    It is a good idea to include History of Economic Thought is undergraduate curricula. However, I would like to see a more detailed explanation as to how we can put this idea into practice.

    Haiyun Zhao

  • Alessandro Roncaglia says:

    Thanks to you for your comment!
    I think that there is no absolute standard of measure for the economy; as with the Index of human development developed by Unctad, we should consider a variety of elements, depending on the specific issue we are considering; the choice of such elements and the method of aggregation may vary.
    By the way, there is an important social element also in ‘physical’ units of measure, as a beautiful book by Kula shows (Measures and men, Princeton University Press)

  • Alessandro Roncaglia says:

    Dear Edward, thank you for your comment. Unless economics develops an interdisciplinary character, which is necessary if it wants to be considered a social science, it risks losing ground to sociology and history while as a ‘technical’ subject it risks giving wrong answers whenever confronted with real world issues

  • Alessandro Roncaglia says:

    Dear Haiyun, I do not think introduction of HET in undergraduate curricula is difficult in principle (unless in those countries where curricula are decided on by the central government). In Italy, in my university (Sapienza University of Rome) I have been teaching a first-year introductory course for a degree in Statistics, society and economics under the course title of History of ideas in demography, sociology and economics. The course had the purpose to provide students with the basic concepts of social sciences plus an idea of ther common origins and interrelations. As textbook I adopted my book on The wealth of ideas, Cambridge University Press, also available in Spanish and Chinese.

  • Dear Alessandro,
    Thanks for this interesting paper.

    As you correctly point out, the importance of HET grows within the context of a non-mainstream point of view. HET is indeed a particularly helpful tool in refuting the myth that there is only one correct approach to economics which incorporates all previous contributions in an improved way, and that economic theory moves forward by a steady line of progress in the understanding of economic reality. This “cumulative view”, to use the term you have coined in the paper, can only subsist if mainstream economists apparently succeed in incorporating and improving certain concepts and insights of previous schools of economic thought. Of course, the improvement consists mainly in reformulating them in mathematical terms and models, in order to present them in a modern way, as mainstream economists like to say. What they often do is depriving these concepts and insights from their original meaning and context.

    To illustrate this point you could also use David Ricardo’s original demonstration of the comparative-advantage proposition in chapter seven of the Principles. The famous numerical example is a remarkable achievement in terms of elegance and simplicity. I’m currently using the tools and techniques provided by HET in order to prove that it has very little in common with the so-called Ricardian trade model of contemporary economic textbooks.

    Ricardo’s comparative advantage is deeply rooted in the classical school of economic thought. It is built upon the insights of previous exponents of this school, mainly Adam Smith. The “Ricardian” trade model, on the other hand, is firmly based on the neoclassical paradigm. Its current popularity resides in the fact that it offers an alternative explanation to the one in the Wealth of Nations regarding the origins and benefits of trade.

    With regard to the implementation of HET in undergraduate curricula, I agree with you that the best way to do it isn’t necessarily through a specific course of HET. It can be accomplished more effectively by an introductory class which shows the different approaches and schools of economic thought by means of analysing selected and popular economic concepts like the invisible hand, comparative advantage, etc