Arnold Kling  

Bleg 1: Economic History

Carroll, Wilkinson, and Four D... Bleg 2: Science Fiction...

Suppose that you were going to teach an economic history course to high school students. The goal is to offer a better perspective on economic growth and macroeconomic issues than one gets from the usual ahistorical approach.

What eras/episodes would you highlight? What might you ask students to read (remember, high school students)?

Obvious choices for eras/episodes:

1. The agricultural revolution

2. The Silk Road

3. The industrial revolution

4. The Communist experiment

5. The Great Depression

6. The 1970's.

7. The financial crisis

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (29 to date)
Shangwen writes:

My nominations:

1. The Black Death (1346-1351). There were areas where over 50% of the population was wiped out, causing huge changes in agriculture, labor markets, and productivity. Kind of an extreme Broken Windows scenario.

2. Contrast the economic impact of the Great War with Spanish Influenza of 1919 (I know, I'm bringing up some grim themes). Again, macro in terms of huge population shifts.

3. European discovery/conquest of the Americas. Mercantilism and colonialism, slavery, huge resource discoveries, etc. etc.

david (not henderson) writes:

How about the Italian renaissance? - banking, tension between markets and "official" morality, double entry bookkeeping, guilds, economic growth, competitive government (city states) and private sector military.

James writes:

The opium trade and the Saharan gold trade would be interesting. Maybe as single-reading things.

agnostic writes:

Guns, Germs, and Steel

A Farewell to Alms

Tim Worstall writes:

"The goal is to offer a better perspective on economic growth and macroeconomic issues than one gets from the usual ahistorical approach. "

Forget macro entirely. Teach that (long term) growth is entirely a function of micro....pricing, incentives etc.

Actually, in more detail, I'd show them that graph that DeLong likes (and Greg Clark etc). Something happened about 1750. If growth is the thing to be explained, then it's that that has to be.

We're talking high school....everything else is detail. There's something that got the species out of the Malthusian trap . Concentrate just on that.

Anonymous writes:

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Dave writes:

Tulip Mania would be fun and easy to understand. Might be an opportunity to bring some themes full circle when you get to the recent financial crisis too.

Todd Kuipers writes:

My memory of economics and history in high school always goes to the stories around the Hanseatic (Hansa) League and the system of reputation that the league maintained reasonably well for a time. Those that were fraudulent in one Hansa port quickly found that they could not trade in another. The league also provided/facilitated banking, insurance mechanisms and mutual security agreements among its members. (problem is that decent readings on Hansa tend to be old or translations).

I agree with @Worstall - skip macro (almost) entirely except as an aggregate of micro with significant moral hazard problems thrown in.

I like viewing the step changes in history in terms of what the core innovation was - i.e. simple environmental management (agri), harnessing non-human/animal energy (industrial), computing (information), showing how those discoveries altered human interaction/trade/etc. Diamond's Guns Germs and Steel can be paraphrased nicely to illustrate some of these points - as I've done with my nephews at times.

Ignacio Concha writes:

I would talk about the origins of trade and how it allowed specialization, with the immense productivity gains that that entailed, and promoted peace.

I would even show them that scene from the beginning of the movie Apocalypto where the main characters (a Mayan tribe) are hunting in the forest and run into people from another tribe. They are terrified because, from past experience, they know that the only time someone from a tribe goes outside their territory is because they do not have food. And in the absence of trade, the way of getting food from other territories is fighting the neighboring tribe.

You can explain that, with the advent of trade, tribes could exchange goods and allow those with comparative advantages to specialize, become more productive and trade their wares with others, who would also become more productive through specialization.

I hope this helps.


Vivek Jacob writes:

The history of money.

Blackadder writes:

Tulip mania is good. The effect of gold and silver flows from the New World into Spain would be another.

Alex J. writes:

I suggest mentioning Robin Hanson's notion of "jumps" in growth due to agriculture, industry and, presumably, artificial intelligence. His use of Malthusianism during the pre-agricultural and pre-industrial eras I think is profound. Population could grow faster than technology improved living standards, since technology growth was very slow. With AI, "population" growth can become very high.

You've mentioned before the percentage of the population involved in agriculture. During the Age of Exploration, international trade didn't matter much, despite its place in the history books, because most people, most places were growing food almost entirely to feed themselves. Once people were freed from the land, there were more brains available for innovation.

JF Sullivan writes:

The rise of 19th century whaling based upon the use of those oils as the engine of manufacture (before the use of petroleum). It could be supplemented with the Ric Burns' documentary "Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World".

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

Surely there must be an "economics game", with students playing the role of govt, or a banker, or a capitalist, or a union, or a worker, or a teacher (all in an economic sense). Then have them role-play in response to various incentives. It would be hard to create a meaningful game from scratch but surely something like this must be available as an educator's resource?

Various writes:

Consider another chapter, something like 2.1 - Law and the Privatization of Property.

- The Wealth of Nations
- One of Milton Friedman's essays on the Great Depression
- Lords of Finance
- Liars Poker (they will enjoy this one!)
- One of Thomas Sowell's books on the topic of private property

I would also suggest you use excerpts from various books and articles on these subjects, as opposed to having them read entire books. I would include the Great Depression summary you blogged on about a month or 2 ago, which I thought was excellent. I forget the source, but it was a goodie. Others include:

- Some sort of articles on 1970s inflation
- Articles on Nixon's wage and price controls
- Articles on 1970s oil crisis
- Articles on 1970s Fed activities

ed writes:

I agree with Worstall that by far the biggest takeaway should be "something happened around 1750." It seems to me that is The Big Fact in world history since agriculture, yet most people are only dimly aware of it.

(And, can anyone recommend what book(s) I should read to understand what happened around 1850? I have a PhD in econ, but I feel I lack historical knowledge about the period. Looking more for basic historical facts rather than theoretical arguments, so I don't know if Clark, Mokyr, Landes etc. would be best.)

Maxwell writes:

Given that you are a GMU professor, you ought to ask John Nye to ask Doug North what he teaches (taught?) his college freshman in his Ideas, "Institutions, and Economics" course at Wash U. As a student who took North (and, later, Nye), I can say that the concepts in that course are not very far beyond most smart high school students.

Keith writes:

You might mention the disparities between large, unified, peaceful areas and politically fractured areas. Things with "Pax" in the name might be good, e.g. Pax Romana and Pax Mongolica. This would highlight the importance of infrastructure and transactions costs.

Amaturus writes:

Weimar Hyperinflation.

The EU, as evidence of an economic union providing for lasting peace.

The Hanse deserves a mention too.

nazgulnarsil writes:

origins of specialization followed by an overview of the invention of joint stock corporations and the role they played in the industrial revolution.

Alex Nowrasteh writes:

Fountain of Privilege by Root
-Describes rent-seeking and poor institutions contrasting France under the Ancien Regime being suffocated by increasing regulation while liberalizing England was booming.

The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective by Robert Allen
-Certain chapters of this tells the most interesting economic story for how, when, and why industrialization took off in England.

Granite26 writes:

The answer depends entirely on the students. Are they expected to be likely college-bound? In that case, case studies of interesting historical events to whet their apetites would be appropriate. If not, efforts to explain popular modern day economic myths might be a better use of your time. (It wasn't till I got to college that the effects of the minimum wage were explained to me, and it opened my eyes to a world of unintended consequenses.)

That said, some of the pop econ books might be more readable and better teach the principles of economic thought than books about historical economic events.

Biographies of the following:

Cornelius Vanderbilt

James J Hill

Chris Lemens writes:

I would assign parts of Douglass North's Structure and Change in Economic History. I recall reading it early in college and found it to be a very lucid book. At 240 pages, it is pretty short.

One of its great benefits is that it makes the reader take the long view. So much of economics seems focused on the politics of the day. When the opening chapter is about why nomads settled down, it really re-adjusts the scale of the inquiry.


JKB writes:

The Big Change by Frederick Lewis Allen provides a good overview of the changes in America from 1900-1950, with a good emphasis on the impact of mass production and the automobile. The book also tracks the conflict between socialism and capitalism and the rise of the regulatory state.

It ties together a the disjointed aspects taught as early 20th century history in high schools.

Seth writes:

I'd start with cavemen. I remember a big light bulb going on for me when I realized that they spent so much time chewing meat and that they too had 24 hours in a day.

Bill Conerly writes:

For monetary theory, I really like the 1890s and early 1900s. William Jennings Bryan, Cross of Gold, class warfare through monetary policy, problem solved by cyanide and Alaska. Great story.

Glen Raphael writes:

Why should the answer be significantly different for high school students than for college students? Are you assuming high school students can't read "college level" material? Or do you have to follow some sort of mandate to teach "at grade level", however that's defined?

Assuming this is an elective rather than required class and given a reasonably intelligent group of students I'd be inclined to pick the best answer generally and go with that.

I'd recommend Wealth of Nations. Maybe not the whole thing, but a suitable subset.

Robert writes:

I vote the agricultural and industrial revolutions.

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