Teaching Economics Historically

Article excerpt


A common morning tea discussion topic at History of Economic Thought Society conferences is the declining possibilities for teaching history of thought courses in Australian universities. Similar trends overseas have been discussed by Cardoso (1995) and Blaug (2001). Typically in Australia the subject has been taught at third-year level as an option, and the number of universities offering such courses has been declining steadily. Sometimes courses have been kept going by dedicated teachers who undertake them in addition to their normal load. Contributing to the decline has been the reluctance of economics departments to hire young specialist historians of economic thought, and the retirement of older specialists is often the trigger for removal of the course from the degree program.

Not unrelated to the decline of teaching of history of economic thought is the falling interest in economics itself among Australian undergraduates (e.g. Lewis and Norris 1997, Alvey and Smith 2000, Lodewijks 2001). Explanations include the technical difficulty of economics courses, the bad reputation of economics after the controversies over economic rationalism in the 1980s, and competition from newer courses such as management, marketing, public policy etc. A common thread in all these explanations is the narrowness and irrelevance of economics courses. Narrowness feeds technique for its own sake, narrowness was a large part of the economic rationalism debates, and much of the attraction of newer courses is their breadth and perceived relevance.

The purpose of this paper is to describe an experiment at ADFA/UNSW in teaching first year economics historically. It is a response to both the decline of history of thought teaching and falling interest in economics. Most of the paper will be devoted to describing the content and teaching methods of the history of thought component of first year economics at ADFA/UNSW as well as student response. The concluding section will consider whether this approach to teaching first year can be generalised.

1 First-Year Economics at ADFA/UNSW


The aims of the first year economics course AECM1101 (from the course outline) include 'developing understanding of the nature of economics; how it is shaped by historical forces and its relationship to philosophy, theology and politics', developing 'a sound grasp of basic economic theory', 'developing skills in applying economic theory' and 'developing an appreciation of the limits of economics'.

The history of economic thought is presented as a foundation for the economics and management program--something students could reflect on in future economics and management courses as well as the first-year unit of which it is part.

Topics Covered

The history of thought component runs for the first twelve lectures and three tutorials. Topics were:

Topic 1 Introduction

* Changing conceptions of economics. We consider various definitions offered by Smith, Senior, Whately, Robbins, Becker, Mankiw and Viner. The Australian adaption of Mankiw's textbook is used for the remainder of the first-year course and this discussion contextualises his view of economics.

* Critics of economics, from Carlyle and Tawney in nineteenth-century Britain, to Michael Pusey in twentieth-century Australia.

* Why study economics? Keynes's views about the influence of economists, and the intellectual challenge of economics. Joan Robinson's view that we study economics to avoid being misled by economists.

Topic 2 Before Adam Smith

* Aristotle and the Medieval Scholastics

* Hobbes, Petty, Locke and some moral philosophers who grappled with the problem of self-interest and social order.

* Mercantilism

* Physiocrats

Topic 3 Hume and Smith

* The division of labour

* Value, distribution and growth

* The natural system of liberty and the invisible hand

* Smith on policy

Topic 4 Malthus, Ricardo and Mill

* The principle of population

* Ricardo's corn model as an example of an economic model, and its policy uses. …