Phi Beta Cons

Economics Needs More Historical Context

As an undergraduate economics major, I took one course on the history of economic thought (it was an elective). During exams, I didn’t use economic models or math equations. I wrote essays explaining the intellectual contributions of, for example, Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes. Bonus points for demonstrating how the ideas of one economist influenced another. Besides that, the only other economic history I received came in an international economics course, when my professor showed us the 2002 PBS documentary The Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy.

It turns out that my smattering of economic history puts me ahead of the curve in comparison with many of today’s economics students. In today’s Pope Center feature, Alex Contarino, a rising senior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in economics, writes that in recent decades, many undergraduate programs have shifted away from the teaching of economic history. Instead, they’ve focused on teaching models and equations to prepare students for math-intensive graduate school. As a result, context and historical perspective are lost in the mix. 

Contarino says that undergraduate economics majors should be required to take one economic history course. But other key courses, such as Econ 101, should be tweaked to provide a stronger historical focus. Doing so would benefit all of those non-economics majors who take that course to meet general education requirements. “[Non-economics majors] are poorly served during the time it takes to memorize the equation for price elasticity,” writes Contarino. “Instead, a better economics foundation could be built by interpreting excerpts from, say, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.”

Read the full article here.

Jesse SaffronJesse Saffron is a writer and editor for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, a North Carolina-based think tank dedicated to improving higher education in the Tar ...

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