The content and pre-requisites for the ideal economic history course

A homage to my teachers in the distant past

James Foreman-Peck is Professor of
Economics at Cardiff University .
He was the president of EHES 1999-2001

The most exciting course I have ever followed was Peter Lindert and Keith Trace’s final year undergraduate ‘Topics in Economic History’ (I am not certain now that this was the title). It still seems to me to have set out an agenda for many of the themes that are most worthwhile in economic history. Motivated by inspirational teaching, we began by getting our teeth into whether there was a fourteenth century Malthusian crisis and romped through time from there, touching on Hicks’ Theory of Economic History.  We savoured the origins of sixteenth century inflation and surged onwards towards the then present day, with the triggers for the West German post war miracle and Japanese super growth in the nineteen sixties. You could not get more contemporary than this last because the course was taught at the end of the sixties! Apart from the Japanese, and the US (surely the Great Depression as seen by Friedman and Schwartz?) case studies, most of the subject matter was European.

How could such a course be developed if there were suitable customers available today? With almost another half century of economic history behind us since this epochal pedagogic event there must be a wide range of candidate case studies. European de-colonisation is perhaps one. The Russian and/or East European transition is certainly ripe for the mature reflections of members of the European Historical Economics Society and therefore for lively undergraduate study.

Globalisation and shifting centres of economic power have changed Europe’s position in the world. Europe in the last half century is much more likely to be an ‘effect’ than a ‘cause’ – as with OPEC and the oil crises of the 1970s or through the competitive effects of the economic rise of post Mao China.  But the origins and consequences of the European common currency will surely provide many insights for the whole world.
A drawback of such a course on the supply side is that it is unlikely to appeal to the specialised academic country expert. It is much more suitable for an ‘ ideas’ teacher, who in adjacent disciplines with the appropriate technique perhaps might be sought among economists. But would they be found? At the time I was being delighted by the Trace and Lindert course I suspected most of these economics practitioners of being analogous to the glass bead game players of Thomas Mann’s eponymous novel. Either that or they were simply fascinated with ‘intellectual rigour’, which smelled of Freud’s Theory of Money. From these economists’ point of view to teach such a course they would need to find out about history, but this was professionally unnecessary because they could deduce it (and the present) from first principles.

If this is still the case (assuming it was ever) then there may be a gap on the supply side for such a course, always supposing that there is a demand. For the economic history entrepreneur the task is to create such a demand, as well.

Blog post written by: James Foreman-Peck, Professor of Economics at Cardiff University where he does not teach economic history.