Educating Future — and Current — Economists About Their Past
Dr. Bruce Caldwell has established a world-class academic center at Duke University —the Center for the History of Political Economy (HOPE)— designed to teach the origins of one of the most essential disciplines of all time: economics.
It’s an important mission because the history of economic thought is all-too-often overlooked in the economics curriculum. Many recently-graduated economists understand current theories and practice, but lack a firm grasp of their profession’s history — where theories originated, and who originated them.
Caldwell is on a mission to push back that frontier of ignorance.
“We’re trying to change the culture of the economics profession, to get economists more interested in their history,” Caldwell said. “But you don’t change academic institutions overnight. It’s a long-term process.”
That process began in fall of 2008, when Caldwell launched the HOPE Center at Duke University with critical support from the John William Pope Foundation. The Foundation has committed over $800,000 to the Center since its creation.
The Center’s benchmark of success is measured by how many academics go on to teach and do research in the history of economics. Plus, how many graduate students cultivate a new appreciation for the history of the profession.
“All of the training in economics these days is quite technical, typically,” Caldwell said. “We help students to ask different questions and explore some of the big issues and see how some of the greatest economists have responded to them.”
The HOPE Center has a number of distinct components, including summer institutes, research fellowships, public lectures, workshops, conferences, and an academic journal.
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Each summer, Caldwell organizes a summer institute that attracts academics, including professors and graduate students, from across the country. The summer institutes allow learners to read the great philosophers of economics and then participate in discussions. Two of the summer institutes were separately funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, while the others were supported using internal funds.
Authors covered include Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Friedrich Hayek, and John Maynard Keynes.
“You can look at the debates that took place between Hayek and Keynes and gain a better appreciation for some of the debates that continue to take place today,” Caldwell said.
The summer institutes bring in graduate students from the top economists programs in the country, such as Harvard and Berkeley. Historians of economics from Duke and other schools give lectures and lead discussions on various themes.
“We’re trying to get these students interested in the history of economics, and I think we’ve been successful,” Caldwell said. “This is a way to learn about things that students won’t hear about in their regular classes.”
The Duke Center also funds a number of fellowships. These allow scholars to come to the Center for either a semester or academic year to work on a substantial piece of research in the history of political economy.
From Learners to Teachers
Simon Bilo participated in the summer institute in 2011 and 2012, and the “Summer in the Archives” program in 2013. As a native of Slovakia, Bilo discovered firsthand what it was like living in a command economy in a Soviet bloc country. He grew to appreciate the value of free economies and Austrian economics.
Bilo is now an assistant professor of economics at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. His experience in the Duke program was invaluable. “The Duke Center really helped me to start to build a network,” Bilo said. “You really build your career on a personal network. The summer institute brought in some of the best people in the country and helped me to get to know them.”
Lectures, Lunches, Workshops
Another important component of the Duke Center is the Hayek Lecture Series, named in honor of the key Austrian economist. The program is jointly run with the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics Program at Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill, and the Duke program on American Values and Institutions.
The lecture series, which is open to the public, has attracted speakers such as author Amity Shlaes and William E. Simon Foundation president James E. Piereson.
Additionally, each Friday during the academic year, the HOPE Center hosts a lunch where local academics meet to talk about their research projects, and a bi-weekly workshop where outside speakers present their research. The Center also continues to produce the well-regarded academic journal, History of Political Economy, in publication since 1969 and available for order through Duke University Press.
With a stories from the Pope Foundation administered by the Institute for Humane Studies, Caldwell spent a summer in the early 1990s researching and writing what eventually became Hayek’s Challenge: An Intellectual History of F. A. Hayek, a book that traced the development of Hayek’s contributions to economic and social thought. Years later Caldwell reconnected with the Foundation through the HOPE Center project.
Caldwell’s end goal is for economists to have some idea of what took place in the economics discipline in the past, knowledge beyond what they’re reading in the latest working paper.
“The Center is a way of reintroducing economists to their history,” he said.
To learn more about the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University, visit their website at: http://hope.econ.duke.edu/.