Why study Economic History?

Today I gave the first lecture for a new course I’m teaching at King’s College London, The World Economy and its History. It’s a compulsory first year course for a brand new BSc in Economics. Which means they will be getting an exceptionally well-rounded Economics education, including, in other modules, the evolution of economic theories from Smith through to Marx, Hayek, Keynes and others. It’s a degree I’m very excited to be a part of.

Here is what I told my students in the opening lecture about why studying Economic History is worthwhile. It’s rather grandiose, but I hoped to get them excited to study a topic that I personally find so enthralling:

What is Economic History? It is about asking some of the biggest and most interesting questions imaginable. Why are we, today, so rich compared to our ancestors? Why are some countries so rich and others so poor? Why were a handful of European countries able to conquer much of the rest of the globe? Those are just a few of the questions we will explore this year, together.
You see, Economics is not just about money, or exchange, or the distribution of resources. It is about human action, and interaction. It is a science of society. And History — the record of human experience — provides us with the raw data. It is the source of all of the models, all of the theories of how society works. And it is their test. History is the evidence — it is the rock upon which an economic theory survives, or is broken.
But humans are complicated: we are diverse and unpredictable. The challenge for a social science is thus far greater than that for the physical, natural sciences. We will thus be asking big questions, but we will not always find answers. This is something I hope you will get used to at university, where we hope to push at the boundaries of human knowledge, not just to learn what is already known.
I have also tried to make the scope of this course as broad as possible — I have tried to be ambitious! We will not only be looking at the West, and we will not only be looking at the recent past. The course will take us as far back as the Neolithic — to over ten thousand years BC — all the way to the present. And the breadth of subjects will be vast: from looking at the causes of the Great Depression in the 1930s, to investigating the institutions that sustained long-distance trade in medieval North Africa. We will look at sweeping theories of Economic History covering entire continents; and we will look at studies of very specific instances that still shed valuable light on the biggest and broadest of questions.
At the same time, we will use economic principles to understand history. This will not be history as you know it — one king or queen after another, one politician after the next. Instead, we will explore the fundamental forces that give rise to empires, and destroy nations; the institutions that give rise to trade, and the fundamental sources of human prosperity.
I can’t wait to get started.

Should you be interested, you can read the course syllabus here.

*Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed it, please do check out my other posts about the history of innovation. And please share!

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