I came across an interesting article in the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy out of North Carolina. The title is “UNC Chapel Hill’s Economics Program Lacks Historical Perspective,” and it can be read here at http://www.popecenter.org/commentaries/article.html?id=3386 (sorry, I haven’t mastered the art of just a “here” to click on—primitive computer skills). The upshot was not just that UNC lacks much in the way of a historical approach to economics, but that most colleges and universities do. The author, Alex Contarino, cited some statistics that since 1975 the percentage of faculty members specializing in “economic history” has shrunk from 5% to 2%. Now as one commenter pointed out, the author sometimes uses the term “history of economic thought” and sometimes “economic history,” which are actually two separate types of courses and programs (I am focusing here on history of thought, not the events of economic history, though they are also important). But I do know, since I have recently finished a fellowship in the history of political economy (really the history of economic thought) that numbers have fallen considerably. Moreover, students are not generally required to take a thought course, even when their major is economics. Instead—forgive me, economists—they require courses that (1) simply present material as if it had always been believed as presented and (2) use models quite a bit. In neither case does one get a sense of how we got to where we are now, or what might, in light of the past, be wrong with where we are now. The lack of historical perspective tends to make one complacent as to current ideas, except over long periods of time (I note that the Keynesian Revolution lasted some 40 years before it was effectively challenged in the 1970s, and then as a result of its obvious failure to explain what was happening then).
I might go one step farther than the author and suggest that we need some sort of historically sensitive history of economic thought course (or part of a course) for all students at colleges and universities. That is bold I know, but our woeful ignorance of the past—in every area—has made us myopic and stunted our perspective on the present.
Moreover, at a Christian university, this perspective can be even more valuable if done correctly. It can add the important historical dimension of Christian thinking on economics through the ages. This history has not always been good, but we need to see that too, and contrast it with what Scripture actually teaches or allows to be done. Did you know by the way that until the early to middle nineteenth century, economics was part of moral philosophy, which was originally part of theology. Roots have signifiance here–let’s return to them.
Let’s bring back the history of economic thought. And let’s bring it back especially in connection with a genuine liberal arts education.