The Future of Economic History
Economists think historians are teaching it. Historians think it is being done by economists. But in truth the study of economic history is almost absent from the university curriculum. Economic history has fallen through the cracks. And economics students are suffering because of its absence.
Our contention is that our economic past should play a far more central role in the education of economists today. Because we think the study of economic history will make economists into better economists. The aim of a workshop we held at Queen’s University Belfast in January was to make academic and professional economists – and, more broadly, the interested general public – aware of the key problems associated with the absence of historical learning. And then, once the problem was acknowledged and understood, to discuss possible solutions.
We think that economic history is vital to the study of economics and the economy. Crucially, history provides students with the necessary context to understand economic decisions being made today. Lessons from economic history also provide invaluable insight into the big global challenges of today’s world – whether it is trade wars, financial crises, migration pressures, climate change or extreme political uncertainty.
For example, if you wish to study the inner-workings of cartels, why not take a period of history where cartelisation was legal and well documented? If you want to look at the incentive effects of unemployment benefits, why not look at a period when they were first introduced? And if you are interested in the socioeconomic impact of migration, why not measure the consequences of the arrival of previous mass migrations?
Economics degrees have long ignored economic history. Contributors to a series of conferences held the Bank of England from across academia, government and the private sector repeatedly lamented the absence of economic history from the training of new economists (Coyle, 2012). Research conducted by the University of Manchester’s student-led pedagogy reform group the Post-Crash Economics Society clearly demonstrates the degree to which economic history is absent across the UK’s university economics curricula (Earle et al., 2017).
Wendy Carlin’s CORE project has made great inroads into re-inserting the economic study of the past into the first year syllabus (The CORE Team, 2017). But economics professors across the country are unfortunately ill-equipped to re-introduce economic history unassisted in other places on their syllabi, even if they were willing to do so. This is because they were never themselves exposed to the field in their own education. And we fear there are precious few resources available to them to assist in their “re-education”.
We think the absence of supply of economic historians is no excuse for not engaging with a field that is clearly in demand. Yes, economic history is a separate field of study. But our contention is that it can also be integrated into other fields, from macro and labour, to finance and econometrics. With a little help, every economist has the potential to become an economic historian.
We have started the task of generating new economic history teaching and learning resources aimed specifically at academic and professional economists and their students. This ongoing project has already resulted in a new edited volume involving 50 scholars, An Economist’s Guide to Economic History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). We now wish to expand the initiative into a broader movement of academics and practitioners, to make it even easier for economists to engage with the field of economic history in their teaching and research. Please get in contact with us if you share our desire to Make Economics Great Again!
Matthias Blum and Christopher L. Colvin, authors of An Economist’s Guide to Economic History, are economic historians based at Queen’s University Belfast, UK. Blum has research interests in measurement, health and wellbeing, and economic development in the long-run. Colvin works on historical banking crises, corporate governance and the economics of religion. Besides teaching and supervising students in economic history, they always make a point of incorporating historical thinking into the other field courses they teach, including econometrics, development economics, industrial organisation and managerial economics.
Blum, Matthias & Christopher L. Colvin (2018), An Economist’s Guide to Economic History, Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.
The CORE Team (2017), The Economy: Economics for a Changing World, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Coyle, Diane (ed.) (2012), What’s the Use of Economics: Teaching the Dismal Science After the Crisis, London: London Publishing Partnership.
Earle, Joe, Cahal Moran & Zach Ward-Perkins (2017), The Econocracy: On the Perils of Leaving Economics to the Experts, London: Penguin.