Bretton Woods, Past and Present: 4. The Teaching of Economics

This one is different. Tiago, Benjamin and Floris have asked a dozen economists in the Bretton Woods hotel hall to reflect on the way their teaching has been affected by the current economic crisis and their answers, taken collectively, are quite puzzling.

While Anatole Kaletsky argues that what has been taught in universities and colleges might be responsible for the narrow-mindedness of current economists, who happened to be unable to predict the crisis, there is not much reflection on the way teaching should change in the future. Those who have predicted the crisis like Philippe Aghion, Jean-Paul Fitoussi or Ha-Joon Chang argue that their teaching need not change, while Stephen Ziliak says that his way of teaching is already so esoteric and remote from the mainstream canon that it has not been affected by the current events. Finally, Brad De Long admits that historical inquiry should be a bit more present in the teaching of economics whereas existing macroeconomic models that did not account for the negative effects of price bubbles should be abandoned. Besides, it is notable that some of the other interviewees did not answer our question because they stopped teaching economics long ago or they conduct research outside of teaching institutions.

This is puzzling because while everybody agrees that teaching matters, it does not seem to be something economists have much reflected upon. Though it is arguable that the tasks consisting in teaching graduate and undergraduate students, preparing course materials and making and revising curriculums is, after research, the most time consuming activity in one’s academic career, economic education appears as a neglected aspect of the discipline. As historians, we ought to wonder why it is so and, more importantly, whether it has always been the case. In fact, when we study what happened between the interwar period and the early postwar period, we learn that economists of the 1920s and the 1930s thought education was one primary aspect that could not be entirely dissociated from research. In many universities and colleges – for instance at Columbia or at the University of Wisconsin, two of the most important centers of what Malcolm Rutherford calls the Institutionalist movement in economics –, the philosopher John Dewey had a profound impact on the way social scientists conceived their field of expertise. Social science, Dewey argued, should be rendered more scientific but should not be separate from normative issues. In other terms, science should be both objective and purposive and its purpose should be to reform society. To do so, it was important that citizens be involved in the making of social science itself. Dewey insisted in the role of real-life experiences in education. Borrowing from these conceptions, Roy Stryker, an instructor at Columbia University, thought that it was useful to take students out to the fields, to factories and to the stock market so that they would be conscious of how an actual economy worked. In American Economic Life, the textbook he co-wrote with his supervisor at Columbia Rexford Tugwell, pictures, drawings and charts were used as a substitute to these experiments – my colleague Loïc Charles and I have a paper on this topic. Stryker became well known for heading the Farm Security Administration project, which produced the photographs by Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and others that became so entrenched in our culture that we usually have them in mind when we think about the Great Depression today. After WWII, however, this way of conceiving economic education was rendered obsolete. As the discipline evolved – it became more abstract, more formalized –, so did the way it was circulated among wider audiences – another important factor in these changes was the GI Bill, which dramatically affected students demography. Nevertheless, economic education was still an important concern. Béatrice Cherrier – who, as a regular contributor to this topic here and elsewhere, worked with me on the arrangement of the video above – has shown, for instance, that the building of MIT economics department was primarily an educational project and that the making of the curriculum there is what justified the hiring of many well-known researchers beside their scientific achievements. The same concern for economic education existed at the graduate level at the university of Chicago, Ross Emmett has argued, where the system of workshop was established to instill the methodology of Chicago price theory into PhD students and to reinforce a common vision in the school. At the disciplinary level, economic education became increasingly discussed in various American Economic Association sessions. Several committees were appointed and a Joint Committee on Economic Education was created, and even later a Task Force. In the 1960s and early 1970s, it was thought that economic literacy was one of the most important questions the discipline should take into consideration. George Stigler’s famous assertion that introductory economics courses were most useless in the understanding of basic economic issues raised the question of “relevance” – my colleague Jean-Baptiste Fleury has a nice paper on these issues. Tests in economic literacy were showing that people who had never taken an introductory course in economics had better results than those who had! The Journal of Economic Education was founded in the wake of these discussions. Still, as economic education increasingly became more like a specialized sub-discipline in economics, the profession as a whole became less interested in this domain. Discussions of economic education still pop up from time to time in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, in the Journal of Economic Literature or in books like David Colander’s The Making of an Economist, but apparently they hardly raise the attention of general economists.

This is roughly what we know about the history of economic education in the United States over the past 80 years or so and as you will have noticed, it is not much. Many questions are left unanswered: how did the core of the economics profession become uninterested in the various aspects of economic education? How were curriculums in US universities conceived? Are economists alone responsible for the making of economic education and if not, what are the respective roles of publishers, editors, educationists, politicians, foundations, boards of trustees, etc. in this process? Was the development of economic education solely related to the development of economic research or was it determined by other concerns? Economic education is not the mere communication of “scientific” results towards a larger audience. It is more largely an emanation of the way the discipline wants to interact with the society at large. It is therefore a crucial feature of economics, and to understand that, a more accurate history is desperately needed.

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