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What Role (If Any) Should Economic History Play in the Training of an Economist?

Paper Session

Friday, Jan. 4, 2019 10:15 AM - 12:15 PM

Atlanta Marriott Marquis, International 4
Hosted By: American Economic Association
  • Chair: Peter Temin, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The Vital Tools: How Economic History Complements and Completes the Training of an Economist

Claude Diebolt
University of Strasbourg
Michael Haupert
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse


We look at the role of economic history in the graduate curriculum over the course of the past century, focusing on the changing nature of economic history and its changing emphasis in the curriculum. In regard to the former, we focus on the evolution of economic history from its German school beginnings through the Cliometric revolution and how that translated into its perceived pedagogical value. In regard to the latter, we look at how the teaching of economic history has changed in the graduate curriculum in the top economics programs.

Economic History and Big Questions

Daron Acemoglu
Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Economists have understandably shied away from tackling some of the bigger questions of social science because these do not have clean answers nor do they typically enable sharp, credible empirical designs. But we cannot as a profession abandon being motivated by and tackling big questions such as what causes economic growth, why countries have diverged sharply in the 19th century, why political and economic freedoms have increased during certain periods and declined during others, what are the major causes of international conflict and civil war etc. Economic history has an invaluable and critical role in keeping such questions alive and motivating economists to anchor their works to them. But this also poses a challenge to economic history which has to reorient itself to combine state-of-the-art techniques of economics together with historical and institutional knowledge to study such questions most fruitfully and develop a new set of unifying principles to stand as a separate field.

The Economic History Requirement: Past, Present, Future

Robert Margo
Boston University


Virtually all PhD programs in economics require students to take core courses in microeconomic and macroeconomic theory, and econometrics, but only a small fraction have an economic history requirement. I summarize the post-WW2 evolution of and rationale for the requirement. Special attention is given to the discussion in the AEA’s early 1950s report “Graduate Education in Economics” (Bowen 1953); and to a memo prepared by Robert Fogel in the early 1980s, which argued for a strict limitation on the range of qualifying courses and their content. Lastly, I examine the requirement in practice today by studying the reading lists of courses offered at various departments.

Today’s Economic History and Tomorrow’s Scholars

Matthew Jaremski
Utah State University-Logan


While first highlighted by Romer (1994), economic history has only continued to become more integrated into the broader discipline over time. This paper starts with a survey of recent articles in top economics journals to understand how economic history is contributing to fields across the spectrum. A closer look at these articles also helps assess whether the techniques and questions of modern economic historians are distinguishable from other economists and what (if any) uniqueness economic history brings to the profession. By examining the required classes of each author’s graduate program, the paper concludes by addressing the role that economic history can play more broadly in the training of economists and whether a required economic history course is important for the field itself.
Paul Rhode
University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
Price Fishback
University of Arizona-Tucson
Martha Bailey
University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
Petra Moser
New York University
JEL Classifications
  • N0 - General
  • A1 - General Economics