Synopsis of the course

Karl Marx once said that “history repeats itself, first as a tragedy, then as farce.” To avoid the tragedy, we must study our history. To avoid the farce, we must study it very hard.

Course Description

This course is designed to introduce students to the evolution of economic thought from the ancient world to the twentieth century. It is an intensive study of the ideas of the great economic thinkers that have shaped our discipline and, more or less, the world that we live in today.

We will start our study in ancient times, move quickly through the Middle Ages, and then stop to examine the first attempts for organized economic thought in the early modern days (late Renaissance) by Mercantilists and Physiocrats (Thomas Mun, Richard Cantillon, Fransois Quesnay). This will set the picture for the next couple of weeks when we will discuss the works of classical economists (Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, Jean Baptist Say, David Ricardo, Karl Marx, and John Stuart Mill). We will cover a range of different topics—what is economic value and how prices are determined, what causes economic growth and development, what is the proper role of the state, and how social inequality affects economic life.

We will then spend a lecture studying the works of neoclassical economists: Jevons, Menger, Marshall, Paretto, and Pigou. Most of the ideas in this section are what is taught in principles and intermediate courses, so it will be a good way for students to test what they have previously learned and compare original texts to modern ones. Next, we will look at the “Socialist Calculation” debate that emerged at the end of the 19th century, and examine the main ideas of thinkers from the Austrian School (von Mises and Hayek).

In the final third of the course, we will look at selected economic schools from the twentieth century. We will start with Institutionalism (Thorsten Veblen), then examine the birth of modern Macroeconomics (Maynard Keynes), its opposition by Monetarists and Public Choice scholars (Friedman, Stigler, Downs, and Tullock), and finish with some more recent trends like Behavior Economics (as time permits of course).


A. Identify the key ideas of major economic thinkers, trace their evolution, and relate them to contemporary economic thought.

B. Place those ideas in a variety of historical, cultural, and intellectual contexts, so that students can gain a better understanding (and common sense) of the basic principles of economics.

C. Discover that most modern ideas are not modern at all, but the end-product of a long history of intellectual development. (Indeed, see how economics got where it is today.)

D. Recognize that even though economic ideas are often abstract and ideologically driven, they are nevertheless the foundation on which our social rests (which makes them a powerful tool for social change).

E. Discredit some common myths about the ideas of the great economic thinkers that are often taught at the undergraduate level.

F. Challenge the existing economic paradigm by exploring theories that are radically different from modern mainstream economics.

G. Develop appreciation (or not) for the modern progress by studying some of the challenges of the past.

H. Finally, this course fulfills the reading, writing, and speaking intensive requirement for undergraduate students. It is organized in the form of a seminar, so an important goal of the class is to help students improve their reading, writing, and presentation skills.


Weekly Quizzes (10%)

Your success in this and any other class depends on your systematic studying the book and the assigned readings. Therefore, weekly quizzes will be given to assess your progress in this respect.

Presentation (30%)

Since this course fulfills the requirements for a speaking intensive course, you will have to give a short 15-20 min presentation on the life, ideas, contributions, or selected work of an economist, school of economic thought, or a journal article. Presentations will be assigned during the first day of class.

*Note: Failure to show up for your presentation will result in an automatic F for the course.

Short Response Papers (20%)

You will be required to read Robert Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers and write two short response papers (3-4 pages each) to chapters 3-6 and 7-10. This book is supposed to be a light reading and introduce you to some of the main ideas of the economic thinkers we will study. For both papers, you will have to review one or two major ideas from the economists discussed in the assigned chapters (i.e. one or two ideas per chapter; not overall). You will then have to put the ideas into their social and political context, explain their importance, and how they relate to economic theory today. The first paper is due on Jan 24th; the second one on Feb 28th.

Research Paper (30%)

The largest component of your grade will be your final research paper. There will be no topic for this assignment. It is supposed to be an independent and creative research project on a subject in the history of economic thought that you find particularly interesting. This is also your opportunity to contribute to the development of the course. Your research should make use of both primary and secondary literature. The final 12-18 pages research paper will be due on Apr 10th. Ideally, you will also present your findings in front of the class during our final two lectures (this requirement could be waived due to time constraints).

Class Participation (10%)

This course is organized in the form of a seminar. In addition, the emphasis in this class is on learning not what to think, but how to think; not what kind of arguments to support, but how to weigh those arguments and make informed decisions. Therefore, class discussion is an important component of the course, and respect for the ideas of others is a quality you need to bring to the classroom. You will be expected to come to class prepared and ready to thoroughly discuss the assigned readings.

Your final grade will be a weighted average of the above items according to the following grading scale.

A+ (96-100) A (93-96) A- (90-93) B+ (86-90) B (83-86) B- (80-83) C+ (76-80) C (73-76) C- (70-73) D+ (66-70) D (63-66) D- (60-63) F (60-)

Course Policies


If you do not plan to attend lectures and participate constructively in class discussions, then you should withdraw from this course. Liberal arts education is by its nature aimed on careful self-examination and discussion. Such are the goals of this course too—by studying the history of ideas to challenge our own preconceived notions about the realities of economic life. While missing class will not affect your grade directly, a great deal of your grade will be determined by in-class assignments. There will be no make-up for these exercises. In addition, experience shows that students who miss more than two lectures finish with a grade significantly below average. And students who do not attend lectures regularly fail the course.

Should you decide to attend class I will ask that you do it the way it has to be done – no text messaging, no sleeping, try to be on time, etc … The following penalties will be enforced in the case of: Sleeping: You will lose a letter from your final grade; Text-messaging: You will lose half a letter from your final grade. Being more than 5 minutes late:  You will lose 10 pts on your final research paper. To be fair to you, the same rules will apply to me as well. Only I will award the same amount of points in case I happen to violate THE rules.

Cheating and Plagiarism

University policies regarding academic dishonesty will be rigorously enforced in this class. It is your responsibility to familiarize yourself with these policies and to follow them strictly (refer to pages 46 – 47 in the Undergraduate Catalog). Pay particular attention to the policy on plagiarism as plagiarism is not limited to word-for-word copying of another’s work. You are expected to complete all assignments for this class independently unless the assignment specifically states otherwise. I reserve the right to penalize dishonesty with sanctions up to and including an F in the course.

Available Help

I encourage you to talk to me after class, to stop by my office or to email me if you have questions regarding assignments, readings etc. I will be happy to explain material and help you prepare for assignments.

Grade Disputes

If you want to dispute a particular question(s) that you feel was not graded fairly do this in a civilized manner by turning your request in writing, explaining the reasoning behind your answer, and why you should receive points back. However, if you wish me to re-grade a question, keep in mind that the revised grade may go in the opposite direction you wish it to.

 “Flat Tire on the Day of Exam” and “Crashed Operating System the Night before Paper Is Due” Policy

As the name of this policy suggests, no excuses of this type will be accepted. Make sure you back up your work regularly and have a contingency plan to get to school if your car breaks. It is your responsibility to complete all assignments on time.