Why economics should be concerned with disappearance of teaching of economic history and history of thought?

It is all so ironical really. Post-2008, there has been a rise in interest in economic history and economic thought.

This is because of two reasons. One, people are beginning to understand that much of economics today is a result of series of events in the past. So, to understand today or forecast future, you need alteast some understanding of past matters. Two, as economics profession has lost a lot of credibility, it is increasingly looking at past for some credibility, This is especially the case for central bankers who are increasingly trying to justify their decisions bringing some connections with the past.

Ideally, the rise in interest should be based on first but even second is fine as atleast there is some discussion on these issues.

So what is the irony bit? Well, economic historians are not getting their due. Worse is that few remaining departments which encourage historical work are struggling to remain open.

David Warsh of economicprincipals.com laments the issues:

The phrase “thought leader” is sometimes heard in economists’ conversations, a tag for someone whose work is especially influential, often within and between particular departments. It’s an elusive concept, popularized in a larger sphere by TED talks to the point of brutal parody. Yet I know a thought leader when I see one, at least in the fields that I cover. Among historians of economics, the thought leader of the last generation wasPhilip Mirowski.  The thought leader of the next is Beatrice Cherrier.

Mirowski burst upon the scene in 1989, with the publication of More Heat than Light: Economics as Social Physics, Physics as Nature’s Economics (Cambridge), a deeply original and learned comparison of various conceptual tools in thermodynamics and neoclassical economics.  Thirteen years later came Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science (Cambridge, 2002), a similarly imaginative study of shared preoccupations of geopolitics and technical economics in the years during and after World War II. He is completing The Knowledge We Have Lost in Information: A History of Information and Knowledge in Economics, with Edward Nik-Khah.

Cherrier, of the University of Caen, has, on the other hand, only just begun her scholarly career. With Roger Backhouse, of the University of Birmingham, she organized a  conference volume on economics since the 1970s, Becoming Applied (Duke, 2017), and wrote the introductory essay for another, MIT and the Transformation of American Economics, (Dune, 2014). A thick file of other work contains many related papers in various stages of preparation, including a history of sunspot literature, a heretofore rearguard action against rational expectations that recently has come to the fore. Like Mirowski, Cherrier is fearless, undaunted by the difficulty of the material she studies.  Unlike Mirowski, she exhibits tough-minded curiosity instead of reflexive mistrust.

Alas, there are hardly any places for them:

The history of economics occupies a precarious position in university curricula: it receives less attention than in the past yet it has never seemed more important to those seeking to understand the place of economics among fields of human knowledge. Organizations have always written their own histories; in recent years universities, their schools, departments and their spin-offs, all have gotten into the act, usually compiling oral histories. Usually these amount to little more than public relations. Journalists may sometimes provide dispatches, but only professional historians can serve as independent auditors of the disciplines and their technologies. Much rests on getting a larger supply of these valuable citizens into universities, both historians of intellectual economics and the students of tastes and technology whom we call economic historians.

Mirowski and Cherrier show that gifted historians can come from anywhere. Cherrier is a native of Corsica; she did her graduate work at the University of Paris, Sorbonne and Nanterre.  Where they are spending their careers is a different matter. Mirowski, no longer prepares graduate students at Notre Dame; the Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values he directs was spun out of the economics department. Much will be lost if Charrier remains at Caen, in northwestern France.

To this point much of the responsibility for history of economics since the legendary Harvard University professor Joseph Schumpeter died, in 1950, has rested with Duke University and, since 1970, with its History of Political Economy. Those were the years of what Evelyn Forget, of the University of Manitoba, calls “the blessed generation,”  a cohort too young for World War II, too old for Vietnam, who went to school after Sputnik and hit the academic market at a time “when good graduate departments allowed highly prized recruits to specialize in their own fields of interest and to develop unique and personal courses.”

They’re not making jobs anymore like those of Duke professors Craufurd Goodwin, Neil de Marchi and E. Roy Weintraub, Forget says, so the young should get over it.  She told a session last spring on teaching the next generation that there are plenty of jobs for would-be historians in out-of-the-way corners of professional schools.  Forget is her own best exemplar, having become the sought-after curator of the database of a Canadian field experiment in on the health effects of a guarantee annual income while continuing to do teach and do her own research.

The mood at Duke has been gloomy since its economics department failed to make a place last year for Steven Medema, of the University of Colorado at Denver, in a quarrel over resources.  Both sides became the loser. Medema, an expert on the law and economics movement and a stalwart of the discipline, was expected to join professorsBruce Caldwell and Kevin Hoover in the core faculty of the Center for the History of Political Economy, from which Goodwin, de Marchi and Weintraub had retired. His appointment may not be dead yet, but both CHOPE’s bright future as a finishing school for the best historians of thought, as well as the Duke department’s reputation as a cosmopolitan training center, are hanging by threads.

Really sad to read all this..

The marginalisation of history has been going on for a while now. One was hoping that this crisis will shake things a bit and restore the case  for historical research and teaching. But it seems it has only shaken history even further…

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