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?