The failure of the department of Economics

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This May, nearly two-hundred students will saunter across Duke’s graduation stage with degrees in Economics. Yet ask these students what they know of Say or Ricardo, or of Marshall or Walras, and you will have them at a loss. Ask them of the Neo-Classicals or of the New Keynesians, of the “Critique” by Lucas or of the Saltwater-Freshwater rift that he spawned, and they will be scratching their heads.

“Do you prefer Keynes or Hayek?”


In spite of all of their hard work, most undergraduates at Duke who study Economics leave benighted, knowing nothing of the luminaries of the history of the field, and in most cases, nothing either of its great ideas.

It is no different than if students of political philosophy were to graduate without ever hearing of Hobbes.

The trouble is that the present state of Economics can only be understood if it is considered in the light of the intellectual forces of history—Smith, Say, Ricardo and their descendants. Most students of Economics at Duke have been deprived of intellectual foundations; they have no means of appreciating the present.

The root of the problem is the poisonous idea that curriculums need not—nay ought not—entail the Great Books, the canonical texts of the Western intellectual tradition. The idea first stole over the minds of educators in the early part of the 20th century and corrupts them to this day. As Robert Hutchins reminds us in “The Great Conversation,” “Until lately the West has regarded it as self-evident that the road to education lay through great books. No man was educated unless he was acquainted with the masterpieces of his tradition.” The failure of Duke’s Department of Economics can be attributed directly to this great scourge of education.

In fairness, most other departments around the nation are equally reprehensible, including those with such illustrious histories as Chicago and Harvard; however, this does not exculpate Duke’s department. The department is culpable, and a sharp rebuke is in order.

This, then, is the long-overdue demand for the Department of Economics to overhaul its so-called “core” curriculum.

To reverse the decay in the Department of Economics, the “History of Economics” and the “Philosophy of Economics” ought to be instituted as the first two courses of the curriculum. In each, the principal instrument of instruction should be the Great Books.

This is not to advocate that students read each of the Great Books of Economics in full and in order.

Rather my proposal is that these courses use a syntopical anthology, much like that created for Duke’s Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) program. Each chapter of the anthology would explore a different theme of Economics using a selection of vital passages from the Great Books.

Students would emerge with a genuine foundation in Economics as well as an appreciation for the intellectual tradition of which they are a part—two things that today cannot be said of most students, who spend years mired in the core classes (none of which discuss history or philosophy) and then totter, unmoored, between classes on specialized subtopics.

Most never open a single Great Book of Economics.

Most never critically evaluate the central assumptions and methodology of Economics.

And most never learn about the evolution of thought in Economics—those ideas that have been jettisoned, and those that are still held as originally conceived.

How backwards this is! The history and philosophy of Economics are the indispensable rudiments of the discipline. And yet the Department of Economics spurns them.

A friend of mine who does not study Economics but did take Alexander Rosenberg’s class, “Philosophy of Economics,” has remarked that it is futile to try to discuss Economics with students of the department. Of course it is. These students possess no contextual knowledge of the discipline.

Before asking students to solve even the simplest of Langrangian problems of optimization, or foisting the textbook of Robert Barro upon their callow minds, the Department of Economics has an imperative to introduce them to the history and philosophy of Economics.

The sensible among us do not take off on airplanes without confirming first that their tanks are filled with fuel. This is not a profound insight. It is common sense. Yet systematically it is shunned by the Department of Economics at Duke.

Negligence in education seldom goes unpunished. Ill education has ill consequences.

My suggestion is simple: stop conferring degrees on students who, through no fault of their own, are unfit to receive them. Accomplish this by instituting a core curriculum steeped in the history and philosophy of Economics.

Jonathan Stern is a Trinity senior. Carter Duncan (’17), Stuart Barr (Trinity ’64, Law ’67) and Harrison Ferlauto (’17) contributed to the column.

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