Last week I spent two days serving as an external reviewer for an economics department in a small Liberal Arts College. It was fascinating in part because the department is eclectic and the students know and appreciate that. Also, the college plans to reduce teaching loads by one course in the future and there is a great deal of uncertainty associated with how that change will be effected. Without additional lines, upper division -- topics -- class offerings may be cut. As at many Liberal Arts Colleges, the economics faculty rarely teach topics classes as it is. (I taught only required courses for my first six years at my own institution.)
A couple of findings interested me, in the light of declining offerings in the history of economics:
We met with about half of their majors, in a voluntary, "drop in" setting. Almost all made two sorts of comments: i) since they appreciate learning about context and competing perspectives on economic problems, they'd like to see a regular history of economic thought course offered; ii) they want to see more technical courses offered.
These are usually thought of as substitutes so it was interesting to hear students wanted both. At least three of the students had been accepted into good PhD programs in economics. But the comments came from others, too. It appears these students regard technical training as a complement to, not a substitute for, training about the historical context of economic problems. This doesn't get us any closer to the question of what to give up for such courses. But it does bely the sometimes-spouted notion that the history of economic ideas is a specialization for students (and teachers) who can't do the hard technical work of "real" economics.