Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Thoughts on Econ 362 Syllabus - Fall 09

I'm debating with myself over how to structure my syllabus for Econ 362 (American Economic History) which will be offered Fall 2009.

In the process, I've been asking myself a couple of related questions: 1. What are the broad themes of U.S. economic history, as I see them? 2. What are the most important parts of U.S. economic history, to me?

As you can tell, I've quickly realized that syllabus writing is no objective science. There simply is too much material out there to assign all of it, so the teacher is compelled to mix what he thinks is the best and most comprehensive material out there at the suitable level of difficulty.

For example, the concept of class and its historical implications are, for me, a central part of the story of U.S. economic history. So, I want to include class analysis in as many periods of my syllabus as possible. Examples include:

-pre-Revolutionary colonial governments and the political economy which gave rise to them
-class in the American Revolution
-legal history and class, late 18th and early 19th century
-proletarianization as we move through the 19th century
-trade union politics and welfare states in the 20th century

Since I am interested in race and gender in history and how they relate to economics, I would also want to talk about:

-slavery from the 17th to 19th century, its effects on post-bellum labor markets
-women and work in the 18th 19th 20th centuries

I am also interested in macro history, so I would want to include:

-Chandler-esque industrial history of the 19th and 20th century
-the Great Depression and Keynes
-studies of more recent trends in U.S. history including post-WWII "golden age" and financialization

I encounter some problems as soon as I want to include this third set. When I took U.S. economic history with Gerald Friedman, he concentrates solely on class analysis, and integrates slavery and gender issues into this theme. This would leave little room for Chandler, serious analysis of the Great Depression, and financialization.

My current dilemma is: can I reconcile my strong interests in class (particularly with regard to the first part of the course) with my equally strong interests in macro histories of competition and investment? (Perhaps if I was familiar with vols. 2 and 3 of Capital some theoretical framework could be developed? -- just an idea I am throwing out there.)

Discussing this dilemma with my friend Zhun, he said that if I could find such a unifying framework for U.S. economic history I'd probably have a dissertation on my hands. But even if I don't exactly come up with dissertation material, it helps to know that by thinking through the problem in this way, I am addressing some important and exciting questions in U.S. economic history.

This post is therefore just a beginning. There is much more to come


  1. Zhun has understated...a unified theory of history would change the world my friend...I would suggest Hegel over Marx as a place to begin looking

  2. Hey James,

    Thanks for your suggestion. I wish I had the time to get through some Hegel this summer but I'm going to have to postpone it until at least after I get through this history comp. There is so much to read this summer!