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Teaching Economic/Financial History

In the words of Graham Nash, “Teach, your children well, their father's hell, did slowly go by.”

Those words, and the accompanying music, may well resonant Down Under, given the debate  kicked up by the recent release of the “Review of the Australian Curriculum,” a final report after an independent review led by Prof. Ken Wiltshire and Dr. Kevin Donnelly. It results from a massive project, underway since the start of the year, inquiring into what “young people should be able to know, understand and be able to do following their time at school,” and whether the existing educational system in Australia is getting them there.

The result has a global quality to it, comparing aspects of the Australian educational system to those in effect in (among other locales): England, Singapore, and the United States.

What may interest readers of this blog, in whatever nation they reside, is the discussion of economics and economic history. Experts consulted generally agreed with one another that economics is not appropriate for the primary school curriculum, (and that the range of matters that must be covered in the earliest years has led to curricular overcrowding of late) but there was strong support for the view that economic education ought to be compulsory in the years 5 to 8, the “formative years” for “consumer and financial literacy” as the report says at one point (favorably referencing a paper submitted by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission.)

What Should Be Taught

After a brief discussion of the when, the final report’s discussion of economics proceeds to the matter of what should be taught. The subject matter experts that the reviewers consulted were very critical of the existing curriculum on three grounds:

·         Omission of key economics and business concepts and material;

·         Inclusion of not-so-key materials;

·         Incorrect or inadequate definitions of basic concepts.

Emphatically included among the key and unfortunately omitted material: economic history, such as “the rise of Europe and the US., … more recently the phenomenal rise of East Asia, India and other emerging economies” the dependence of the latter rise in particular upon ”market liberalization and increased international trade,” etc.   

It isn’t a bad short list. Personally, I would add to any list of economic history materials to which young people ought to be introduced quite early, some grounding the experience of hyper-inflation in Weimar Germany in 1923, and its replay in Zimbabwe in 2008.  Students would also benefit by some early experience with how bubbles happen: experience they can be given through simple in-classroom experiments with nobody-gets-hurt artificial money.

In other words, I personally would suggest, with due deference given my status as a complete amateur in all pedagogical issues, that economics be treated, from the start, as intertwined with finance.

Or perhaps … perhaps economic history should be treated as history rather than as economics. The Australian report follows the usual convention of treating “history” and “economics” as two quite different subjects. But the difference between them isn’t a difference in subject matter, its’ a difference in method. And even as a difference in method any effort at precise formulation becomes tricky.

The View from Wollongong

Simon Ville, a professor of economic and business history at the University of Wollongong (in New South Wales) has offered his view on the state of his discipline within higher education. He says that economic history is too often hijacked to one or another of two Grand Narratives, either triumphalism or doomsaying. In Australia’s case, the doomsaying narrative lends itself to the notion of the “resource curse,” i.e. that a nation that exports a lot of raw materials beggars its own posterity.

Ville doesn’t believe that such a curse exists, and he does believe that history teaches a contrary lesson. Despite the fact that in Australia natural resources have always dominated the export numbers, there have been successive “waves of innovation” and the country has developed a vibrant services sector.

Ville also makes the point that there is a widespread (and very presentist) notion that immigrants take jobs away from settled residents of a country or continent. He believes and clearly hopes that an understanding of Australia’s history will undermine this notion. “Migrants respond to economic vicissitudes rather than create them,” he observes.

So history shows then that neither exporting resources nor importing talent is the disaster it is often thought to be, and indeed (building forward from Ville’s observations) we should add that it shows that efforts at autarky are a disaster.  A hellish one, as Nash might agree.


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