The Use of Economic History in Introductory Economics Textbooks

By Giedeman, Daniel C.; Lowen, Aaron | Journal of Economics and Economic Education Research, September 2008 | Go to article overview

The Use of Economic History in Introductory Economics Textbooks


Giedeman, Daniel C., Lowen, Aaron, Journal of Economics and Economic Education Research


INTRODUCTION

As noted by John Ise more than eight decades ago, "... a good knowledge of economic history is absolutely essential to clear economic thinking." (Ise, 1922, p. 622) The passage of time has neither belied nor diminished Ise's argument. For students to fully appreciate current and future economic conditions, they need to understand the economy's development over time. Further, motivating and helping students to understand the wide applicability of economics to their everyday lives can be bolstered by showing how these concepts and theories have applied throughout history.

Unfortunately, evidence suggests that many incoming college students lack the substantive knowledge of history that would enable them to have a more complete understanding of economic issues. A 2006 National Assessment of Educational Progress survey found that the overwhelming majority of twelfth-graders tested had only basic or below-basic knowledge of US History. Only 13 percent of twelfth-graders were found to have proficient history knowledge and a mere 1 percent performed at the advanced level (U.S. Department of Education, 2007). One potential remedy to address this dearth of historical familiarity and understanding would be for students to take at least one course in economic history. Another, and perhaps complimentary, option that likely would affect a larger number of students is to present historical examples in other courses, especially introductory economics courses.

One way that history can be introduced in economics courses is through textbook references to historical material and events. In this paper, we evaluate almost two dozen prominent introductory economics textbooks to determine their use of historical references to motivate economic subject matter. The textbooks were chosen because the authors offer both macro- and micro-economics introductory texts, large circulation, and availability of recent versions from publishing companies. Twelve macroeconomics texts are included, while only eleven of the twelve microeconomics texts were available (the twelfth being available only as a "selected chapters" preview version). We categorize the textbooks' historical references in several ways of use to economics instructors: by historical period, economic subject matter and the amount of historical detail provided in each example.

Our paper joins a small literature that examines how introductory-level economics textbooks treat particular topics or subjects. Our work is somewhat similar to a series of articles that evaluate economics textbooks to determine the extent to which they discuss women's and minorities' issues (Feiner & Morgan, 1987; Feiner, 1993; Robson, 2001). This research measures topic coverage by the number of pages which mention the topic of interest, either by checking the index of each textbook or searching visually for terms and counting pages containing those terms. This research is also related to research that assesses textbooks treatment of entrepreneurship (Kent, 1989; Kent & Rushing, 1999). This second set of papers uses a similar technique to ours, in which a word count was used to assess topic coverage. We are aware, however, of no other research that has examined the presentation of history in introductory-level economics textbooks.

METHODOLOGY

In this paper we examine introductory-level economics textbooks to determine the extent to which they incorporate meaningful historical references and examples. To achieve our objective, we first had to determine what exactly constituted a meaningful historical reference. Our decision for including or excluding a reference or example among our list of meaningful historical references is based on two primary dimensions. First is the question of when history begins and ends or, perhaps more correctly, the boundary between the end of history and the beginning of current events. …

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