How to teach the history of economic thought

I am actually becoming hopeful that my Defending the History of Economic Thought, which will be released at the end of July, may turn out to be a very useful book. Each time I have gone over it myself, I have found it surprisingly filled with nice ideas about the value and role of the history of economic thought to economists. And it’s because I started from a different question than most others: why does the subject matter of economics need the history of economic thought to be taught to economists. Anyway, the following question was posted by Howard Baetjer Jr at the Austrian website the other day:

Dear Austrian list members,

I get to teach History of Economic Thought next term! I’m eager but ignorant and looking for guidance.

  • What textbook (if any) should I use?
  • What outside readings should I assign?
  • If you have a syllabus that has worked well for you, would you share it with me and let me copy freely, giving you credit on my syllabus for what I take from yours? (Steve Horwitz did this for me years ago for Money and Banking; it has been immensely valuable.)
  • Do you have any particular approach to recommend?

I am very much aware of Larry White’s The Clash Of Economic Ideas; I’m reading it now, loving it, and almost finished. Peter Boettke’s Living Economics is next on my reading list:

  • Would you recommend that I use one or both? If so, along with a standard textbook or not?
  • Any sage advice for me as embark on these unfamiliar seas?

I would appreciate any suggestions, comments, warnings, recommendations of any kind. I’m not good at reinventing wheels.

Gratefully in advance,

Howie

And here is my reply:

It is good to see history of economic thought still on the curriculum. My Defending the History of Economic Thought is being published next month by Edward Elgar in which I devote a chapter to discussing how I think HET ought to be taught. And the approach I discuss is not just to use a modern HET text and then look backwards from today but to use actual mainstream textbooks of the time to explore how a typical economist would have looked at the various economic issues back then. As an example, one might choose a series of contemporary textbooks such as McCulloch 1825, Mill 1848, Taylor 1913 and Samuelson 1948, each of which can now be purchased in a cheap edition, and then examine various themes such as the notion of market adjustment, their theory of monopoly, their theory of value, the business cycle, or whatever else might be of interest to compare how these were approached in different eras. Looking only at the great names and the great discoveries has an interest of its own. But if you are also interested in understanding how economists looked at the world during different periods of time, this is the approach I would adopt. The book is out next month but if you are interested in a copy of the chapter on teaching HET, just let me know.

And the funny thing is that there is probably no other subject whose history can profitably be taught in that way. The controversies are still alive and almost no issue is ever settled for all time. A very funny subject, economics.

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