Wednesday, June 17, 2009

"not so fast: to teach economic history you must first define what you mean both by 'economy' and 'history'": part I, 'economy'

In the last week or so, I've given some more time to thinking about my syllabus for 362. I've received two textbooks from publishers: Atack and Passell and Hughes and Cain. While neither have been particularly helpful in their content, they have allowed me to compare and contrast what I see as widely differing views of economic history. On one side, we have these texts and on the other, the way I learned it here at UMass.

Initially, I found myself thinking that if I were to teach it the way I learned economic history here, I would be doing my students a great injustice by not exposing them to the mainstream methodology of current research in economic history. Thus, how could those students actively engage with that sphere if they wished to do so? The problem extends to heterodox approaches in general, but that does not mean the problem is unsolvable. Rather, it means that we, as part of the heterodox field of the profession, must craft our courses in such a way that we are able to accomplish two goals:

1. We must be rigorous in our own field, in our study of the heterodox texts. By "rigor" I do not necessarily mean "mathematical" (and in most cases for economic history, I will never equate rigor with the use of mathematics). I mean using logic, reason and evidence to evaluate the theories presented in class. By using rigor, we are putting our ideas up to the spotlight and testing them, as though we were debating our theories with some mainstream economic historian. Thus, we become more firmly wedded to our own theories.

2. We must gain a thorough understanding of the mainstream. Luckily, my students are required to have taken Intro to Micro and Macro and in some cases will probably have taken other upper level courses (possibly intermediate micro and macro, which would be excellent... note to self: ask them what econ courses they have taken). While this is not as necessary as 1, it is nevertheless important in case students are interested in this approach and want to pursue it at an advanced level later on in their studies. It also helps when debating the mainstream, but as I mentioned above, a critical approach to heterodox study is more important.

At first, I was unsure that I would be able to accomplish either of these in my class because the majority of readings I want to assign could barely pass for economics per se: a lot of it is legal and social history and political science. Someone looking at the syllabus (say, an employer!) may question whether students actually will learn any economic history in this class.

There's a catch, however, that saves me. It's all buried in what you define "economic history" to be. What is the history of the economy? Well, what is the economy? (What is history is a much more difficult question for me and I'll leave it for another blog post.) If you see the economy as primarily composed of individuals interacting in markets according to the laws of utility maximization and rationality, then economic history is the study of the market mechanism through time. One would study how markets operated at approximate efficiency. Since GDP growth is, in a sense, a measure of the expansion of value of commodities in markets (things not traded in formal markets, such as care labor, are not part of GDP), then economic history is the study of that GDP growth over time and what things influenced the markets to promote GDP (product, labor, financial).

On the other hand, if you view the economy as defined by a set of social relations that are partly to do with the market (but also partly to do with non-market activities), then you study GDP growth but you also study social history. Study of the legal system expands to study it as an institution which doesn't necessarily approximates efficiency and which therefore may be influenced by social or political variables. Thus, not only does social history become important but so does political science. And as soon as we admit of these additional fields, we must become more open to their ideologies and methodologies, expanding the toolkit which we use to study economic history.

What this all boils down to is that how you teach economic history depends on how you think about the economy. This is where the "new economic history" dovetailed nicely with the economic theory of the time. But, this is also why Marx spent so much time in Capital on the history of the British economy. Both methodologies were approaching history through their different understandings of the economy.

And how does this relate to my teaching methodology for 362? If I present the heterodox methodology, I must be relentless in my criticisms of it and not take anything for granted. Doing so will allow both me and my students to develop a firm grasp of this view of the economy steeped in historical study. Of course, I'm getting a bit out of control of myself, because there are merits to both approaches: there do exist fruitful insights to be made by the mainstream economists. For example, it is sometimes useful to think about the rational, utility maximizing case as a point of central tendency and to ask why there are deviations from it -- what factors are driving fluctuations or other differences around the equilibrium? Thus, part of my job as teacher is to recognize those points and to explore them.

Well, these are just some basic thoughts on syllabus methodology, and I am beginning to develop the first weeks of the syllabus which will most likely contain some of these debates. I will keep the blog updated on how I deal with them. But, until then, do you, reader, have any thoughts on these points?


  1. Regarding the two goals you list in teaching anything from a heterodox perspective:

    1. "harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment" Webster's online definition of rigor.

    It seems that this is the last possible thing you would want when studying history while being methodologically aware. You can take history seriously, and perhaps even give more weight to it than other subjects but rigorous economic history is nothing more than mainstream economic history....

    I know I am just arguing schematics and twisting the meaning of your words here; this point was a little sarcastic, but it brings me to number 2 which is my more serious point.

    I feel that in many heterodox economics classes that I have taken my education has suffered because focus and time has been given to the mainstream. If I thought that a thorough understanding of mainstream economics was worth while for me then I would take a mainstream class, or attend grad school in a mainstream department for than matter. The more time we spend trying to thoroughly understand the mainstream the less time there is to study alternatives.

    As a teacher you have the power to have studied and rejected the mainstream ahead of time so your students do not need to take the time to struggle with this in their first semester of economic history. If you believe the heterodox perspective holds more merit then you should teach only that. Otherwise you are placing heterodox theory at a natural disadvantage because mainstream courses do not take the time to go beyond a bare mention of Marx, Keynes, Kafka, etc.

    It is within your job, hell it is your duty as an instructor to teach your students what YOU feel is the best course you can offer on economic history, using the best methodological approach from your perspective.

    If this means not doing the mainstream justice, so that you can spend the limited time that you have with your students giving a more thorough (non rigorous)course in economic history from a heterodox perspective, I would encourage you to do so. Plurality has many benefits, but within the confines of a single semester in an undergraduate course I would think you are better off teaching history from the perspective that you prefer.

    That is unless you want the course to be a methodological survey of economic histories....which would a fantastic course but....maybe not at the undergraduate level, and the university may question why you have an s on the end of the word history in your course description.

    As non-mainstream economists, beyond a basic understanding of the mainstream, why study in depth something that we think is "wrong"? We have rejected the mainstream without learning its nuances, certainly learning the finer points within the any theory just makes its contradictions come even more to the surface?

    There are only so many hours in the day (even fewer for those of us who blog). I would encourage you to spend the few you have with your students teaching things that they cannot get from any cookie cutter text on economic history.

  2. is a thorough understanding of creationism necessary for evolutionary biologists?

  3. Joe,

    No, a thorough understanding of creationism is not necessary for evolutionary biologists, but I am unwilling to accept your analogy so quickly.

    Creationism and evolutionary biology are clearly not competing theories on any level of analysis. On the other hand, as my second-to-last paragraph notes, the language of mainstream economics can be useful in analyzing certain aspects of an economy. Our understanding of a tornado sweeping through the midwest is not sometimes enlightened by God getting angry at the pro-same-sex marriage factions of Iowa. But, sometimes it's helpful to think about how fish markets in a coastal town in India can improve their operational efficiency through the introduction of cell phones.

    I'm sure that not even creationists would admit their theory is scientific. They would argue that it is based on faith instead. I guess you could argue nc econ requires leaps of faith as well but that's a pretty radical claim. Is that indeed what you were getting at with your question?



  4. Hey Dan,

    Some creationists do claim to be "scientific" and have a long list of supposedly scientific claims and objections.

    But that is not the real issue. And I would hope you wouldn't accept my analogy so quickly. Mainstream economics is not to heterodox as creationism is to Darwinian evolution.

    My real point - perhaps I should have been explicit instead of provocative - is that I'm concerned about blanket statements that "We must gain a thorough understanding of the mainstream." Who is the we? What is a thorough understanding? Who decides who has studied enough mainstream economics in order to criticize? Who decides who has studied Marx enough in order to dismiss him? What kind of a must is this? A moral ought? A practical ought? Well, to what end?

    There are various reasons for various people to study mainstream economics. Some of those reasons I might accept - and indeed have spent plenty of time trying to understand it for my own reasons - and others I wouldn't but I think it is important to state these reasons. We can't ignore the hegemony of a certain type of economic thinking but we don't need to play into it either...which is what I think the blanket claim that "we" should spend X amount of time on mainstream economics ultimately does.

    And while I don't actually want to challenge the idea that there are some reasons for some people to study mainstream economics I guess I'm not convinced we need it to talk about fish markets. My initial assumption, admittedly knowing very little about fish markets, is that (1) much mainstream economics is not necessary and (2) would carry along lots of welfarist baggage I don't have room for.

    At the same time, some knowledge of the mainstream could be useful for understanding the particular framing, and performative effects, of using a certain model to understand a fish market.