by Gene Callahan
I was recently asked about a good textbook to use in teaching the history of economic thought. Well, last year I had used William Barber’s book, and found it wholly adequate. But as I was teaching the course, I became somewhat uneasy about the textbook approach. I started to feel I was giving what Michael Oakeshott referred to as a “museum tour” of that history: “Over there, on your left, is Aristotle… he held exchange should take place when values exchanged are equal. There, on the right, is Adam Smith. Do you see the extensive division of labor in his diorama? Just past him is David Ricardo…”
If I were to teach such an introductory course again, I think I would take a different approach. If I had, say, fourteen weeks, I would have three four-week modules with two weeks to transition between them. The first module would cover Smith, and the transition week would touch on the Classical Economists, highlighting Ricardo’s labor theory of value. Which would bridge to Marx. Then the transition week would introduce the marginal revolution and how it served as an answer to Marx for many. Finally, that would bring me to the Keynes versus Hayek debate, where I would note how, whatever their differences, the marginal revolution had succeeded: they were both clearly marginalists.
I believe a plan like the above (of course the major modules might be different!) would allow more time to actually get a grasp of a few major figures’ thoughts, while still allowing students to get an idea of their place in a larger history as well as at least know the names of major figures not getting their own module.