Monday, October 25, 2021

Reading The Classics: Mathematics Vs. Economics — Brian Romanchuk

There’s been a fun (but silly) long-running debate on Twitter whether economists need to read canonical texts: Smith, Marx, Ricardo, Keynes, etc. What caught my eye is that a mainstream economist compared economics to mathematics — why don’t we learn calculus by studying the history of calculus? Why this is interesting is that is showed a lack of understanding of the situation in both mathematics and economics.

Please note that this article is a discussion of the philosophy of teaching at the university level, so do not expect any conclusions that will help make analysing bond markets easier. That said, there is an outline of a critique of the core methodological principles of neoclassical macro.

I will first start with mathematics....
As an aside, having spent a good deal of time as an educator, I think that teaching the history of all subjects is worthwhile, both individually and as a whole in terms of major periods. This should begin in grammar school when the study of history is introduced.

First, it makes a subject more interesting for students being introduced to a subject. Secondly, and it also shows the important of the heritage of knowledge upon which civilization is built. Thirdly, studying the history of the development of knowledge also reveals how social reproduction through culture in contrast to individual reproduction along with other animals makes humanity exceptional. Finally, it shows how different aspects of knowledge interacted with each other historically in a single complex adaptive system to contribute to this phenomenon involving not only human development but ecology. And it does a lot more.

Bond Economics
Reading The Classics: Mathematics Vs. Economics
Brian Romanchuk


Brian Romanchuk said...

To a certain extent, the history leaks into the lectures. If there were debates about some point, a prof might run through them. The issue is that is a discussion that is hard to translate into exam questions.

The other issue - which I forgot to note in my earlier draft, but I added later - is that a lot of the historical material applied to mathematics that is taught before university. Outside of history of mathematics courses - which are popular - you don’t teach the history of arithmetic at the university level mainly because you don’t teach arithmetic.

Tom Hickey said...

that a lot of the historical material applied to mathematics that is taught before university.

That is my experience, too. Not so much in grammar school, although I think it is an opportunity. I was an avid history buff in grammar school. Each year I read the entire history text in the first week and read a lot of other stuff on my own. Did did learn some history of math in HS, mostly Euclid in geometry class, which was my favorite math class by far. And of course, Pythagoras.

Not so much in college, although the only math class I took was Calc 101 using Thomas. The Worldly Philosophers was required reading in Econ 101 and that was a good balance wrt to Samuelson's text. But it was not really discussed in class.

But a quite a bit in grad school in logic, phil of sci and phil of math, as well as Plato, who was much influenced by math.

I think the big gap was in bring all the discipline together in history of civilization. Previously history of Wester civ dominated in the West, but now world civ. is coming into play.

Obviously, students can read all the "great books," but they can be exposed to selections.

So I think there are a lot opportunities in this regard, although I may be biased in the judgment owing to my interest in history, which other students might not share.

Brian Romanchuk said...

From what I saw, history of math was a popular course.

The realpolitik of academia is that a lot of good math students have the personality type that they find it easy to get close to straight A’s on technical math courses, but have a much harder time on humanities courses. (I was in that camp.) Being forced to take a particular “humanities” course would generate a lot of grumbling - they want to find a course that they are interested in and/or will not crater their GPA. As such, it would be suicide for a math faculty to force students to take too many non-technical courses without offering options for electives.

Tom Hickey said...

I think this is a problem. Some folks are number-oriented and others word-oriented, or at least have a pronounced preference for one over the other. The result is that STEM people tend to be lacking in non-STEM areas, and non-STEM folks in STEM areas. The consequence is a great deal of imbalance in a society as a system, which I see reflected in American society today.

As Matt says, there are few STEM people in government, and that seems to be a selection problem. But from what I can see, there are not many STEM people entering the process and making themselves eligible.

As an educator, I view this as both a challenge and an opportunity.

It's also an opportunity in teaching. I liked math when it was taught by a teacher that were good at it, while I didn't like math when I found the teachers lacking. Unfortunately, I had more what I considered poor math teachers than good ones. Even though the poor ones may have been excellent at math, they were just not good at teaching it and they catered to the number-oriented students.

This can be overcome, I think. I all my education from K to PHD including to master's degrees, I never had any instruction in how to teach. You were just supposed to pick this up along the way, I guess. Some do and some don't.

Matt Franko said...

“ there are few STEM people in government”

Government is conducted under a dialogic method which is not what STEM people train in…