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An economic historian says the cost of neglecting history is huge

Historians in the News
tags: economics, Richard Vedder



Richard Vedder is Distinguished Professor of Economics Emeritus at Ohio University. 

As I begin my 54th year of teaching American economic history at Ohio University shortly, I despair how abysmal ignorance of the roots of American economic and political exceptionalism has contributed to much of the current decline in civility and the quality of public discourse and policy outcomes in modern times.  Almost all of my students have heard and probably consumed Sam Adams the beer, but few know about Sam Adams, the American patriot who is one of our founding fathers.

Our historical heritage is the glue bringing residents of the United States together as citizens, progeny of extraordinary individuals whose wisdom, hard work and entrepreneurship made us a great unified nation. As that glue’s adhesiveness deteriorates with growing historical illiteracy, we morph from being less “Americans” to being more members of myriad identity groups that view others as rivals, rather than as part of the same “tribe,” individuals with varying viewpoints and physical attributes but part of an extended national family. Family members argue, but they love and respect one another, something increasingly missing in today’s corrosive political environment.

This is particularly shameful since Americans have such a marvelous story to tell. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes said in The Leviathan published in 1651, “The life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” At the time life expectancy in the American colonies was certainly well under 40 years and per capita income in today’s dollars was almost certainly under $2000; today Americans typically earn more in two weeks what it took a year to make when Hobbes wrote.

With some lag, the fruits of the Renaissance, England’s evolution to law-based constitutional monarchy, and the European Enlightenment provided an environment where freedom loving Americans could do their own thing, innovating, forming capital, and prospering. And we excelled more than anyone else in the world, politically by creating and living peacefully under the world’s longest serving Constitution and economically by allowing individual entrepreneurial initiatives informed by markets to work, creating by far the largest economy the world has ever seen. And our scientific, literary and artistic accomplishments have not been too shabby either.

Yet the academy has neglected this spectacular story. We have one-half the proportion of bachelor’s degrees conferred on graduates in history and the social sciences today as we did in 1970. In 1970, there were 100 history/social science graduates for every one majoring in parks and recreation; now there are fewer than four. ...

Read entire article at Forbes

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