Jacob Viner as early as 1950 presented "A Modest Proposal for Some Stress on Scholarship in Graduate Training" at the Brown University Graduate Convocation. Rather than training technicians, the PhD process in economics would do well to acquaint students with knowledge of the "history of the working of the human mind" in that discipline as revealed in the published record.
Needless to say, graduate programs did not follow Viner's proposal. Instead, graduate training moved in the diametrically opposed direction and focused on training economists as technicians. Viner just wants young economists to be not only competent teachers, skilled technicians, and prudent practitioners, but also scholars.
There has been some backlash against the exclusive emphasis on training technicians through the years. David Colander and Arjo Klamer's The Making of An Economist as well as Anne Krueger et al "Report on the Commission on Graduate Education in Economics," JEL (1991). And, of course, Deirdre McCloskey has led an almost one person campaign to try to right what is wrong about the way we teach and do economics since the 1980s. Sensitive individuals within the profession may lament, but the practice of graduate education in economics did not bend in the direction desired by those who want to see a broader educational focus in graduate training and in particular a modest return to some emphasis on scholarship in the training of PhDs.
I was on the faculty at NYU, and in fact the teacher of the course, when History of Economic Thought was killed as a requirement. The pivotal figure in the faculty vote was none other than William Baumol, who himself had made significant contributions to that field. His argument was straightforward --- the opportunity cost of learning history of economic thought had simply become too high for young economists to justify the trade-off in the curriculum. That happened about 15 years ago, and NYU was late to the process. I joined the faculty at GMU, and within a few years the same decision was made about the history of thought requirement. But given our student population at GMU, the decision did not eliminate the demand for the courses for history of political economy.
And over the past 15 years, the History of Economics Society has continued to grow as a vibrant academic society. International societies have grown in membership, and new journals have been established. At GMU, e.g., the opportunities to study history of economic thought/history of political economy has grown as in addition to our two course offerings in history of thought, students can also take courses in Smithian political economy, courses in constitutional political economy, and of course, Austrian economics. None of these are part of the required core, but they represent part of the wide variety and diversity of elective course offerings. Students can also participate in the Summer Institute that David Levy and Sandra Peart run, which for many years was held at GMU and now at the U of Richmond.
Outside of GMU, opportunities to study history of political economy have expanded as well both in programs in the US and even more so overseas.
Bruce Caldwell has helped establish the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University a few years ago, and last summer ran a program in history of thought for college teachers and graduate students. Duke has long been the established intellectual center for the study of history of economic thought --- both the home of the main journal in the field, History of Political Economy, and the economists' papers project which provides primary source material in the library archives. CHOPE is located in the right place, at the right time, and lead by the right person.
So it is with great excitement that I read the announcement from Duke University the other day, that CHOPE was awarded a $750,000 grant from the Soros funded Institute for New Economic Thinking. As reported, Caldwell will also join the board of INET, as the CHOPE program is one of only 4 initial center's internationally for the INET initiative in graduate education and research in economics.
“There’s much to be learned from the history of economics,” says Bruce Caldwell, an economics researcher at Duke and founder-director of the center, which was established in 2008 with a mission of promoting and supporting the teaching of, and research in, the history of economic thought.
“While a better understanding of history provides no silver bullets, it does provide perspective and insight.”
The teachers trained through programs at the Duke center “will be key assets in restoring the history of economics as a fundamental part of economic training and academia,” Robert Johnson, executive director of INET, said in a statement.
Congratulations to Bruce, to Duke, to the history of economics/political economy faculty at Duke, to INET for making the wise decision to support a "modest proposal for some stress on scholarship", and I want to wish you all much success in your endeavor.