how important is it to know your discipline’s history?
If we base our answer on the material covered in the first year of core courses in economics graduate programs, then it would seem to not be very important in my discipline. Yet, this is an unfair way to approach the question. The next question should really be: “Important for what?”
Let’s try a different route. It does not seem very important to know the grand history of your discipline to be a contributing member because your contributions are made at the research frontier. You only need to know the other relevant literature also at the frontier. (Or maybe the cynic would say it matters a little for establishing credibility with reviewers who want you to at give at least cursory mention to famous papers/books in your introduction.)
I remember learning this lesson as an undergraduate when I saw the list of references in one of my professor’s papers. I naively asked him how he could have neglected to cite Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. He chuckled and said that he’d never cited Smith in any of his papers. I was shocked. I wondered how it was possible to do economics without relating your work to Adam Smith.
Although I left this sweet innocence behind years ago, I often find myself revisiting my discipline’s history. Doing so gives me insightful perspective into how my own work fits into the overall discipline. It also aids in teaching because students love stories; if you can teach them a little history behind ideas and controversies, they are more excited about the material. But even better than these practical reasons is the thrill of encountering the evolution and synthesis of ideas. Living in the world of ideas is one of the best perks of our profession.
How important is it to you to know your discipline’s history? In what ways?
And while I have your attention, I should say that my few weeks as a guest blogger are up. Sincere thanks to the orgtheory crew and commenters for the experience. But you haven’t seen the last of me; I will regularly appear with snarky comments to prevent you from forgetting me. Alas, if I never acheive greatness as a researcher, I can always obtain five minutes of fame for timely put-downs and insults. Oh, and by the way, I have cited Adam Smith in exactly one of all of my papers. So far.