Standard histories of economic thought portray Paul Samuelson’s 1948 Economics textbook as the first serious attempt at teaching economics to young engineers. In reality, many other professors, both in economics and engineering, had extensively addressed that issue before World War II. Throughout the 1930s, the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education, faculty, and engineering professionals analyzed the relevance of economics to their work and the best ways to help students appreciate its importance. The Depression attached urgency to such discussions, as popular commentary blamed technological change for unemployment. In response, engineers sought to instill undergraduates with a self-glorifying economic history that credited engineering for all civilized progress and prosperity. Their rhetoric positioned engineers as the embodiment of disciplined rationality, the problem-solvers who could straighten out the nation’s crisis if encouraged to assume greater influence in economic governance. A number of Depression-era schools experimented with curricula for teaching engineers more economics, though approaches varied. Such developments thus situate this key episode of Samuelson’s life, the authorship of one of the most influential textbooks in modern economics, within a broader academic framework and longer intellectual context.
The Wider Context of Samuelson’s MIT Textbook—Depression-Era Discussions about the Value of Economics Education for American Engineers
Amy Sue Bix is professor of history at Iowa State University. Her 2013 book, Girls Coming to Tech: A History of American Engineering Education for Women, won the 2015 Margaret Rossiter Prize from the History of Science Society, as well as 2015’s IEEE-USA Award for Distinguished Literary Contributions, and 2014’s Betty Vetter Award for Research from WEPAN (the Women in Engineering ProActive Network). Bix has written widely on many topics in the history of science, technology, and medicine, including Inventing Ourselves out of Jobs? America’s Debate over Technological Unemployment, 1929–1981 (2000). Her book in progress is “Recruiting Engineer Jane and Astrophysicist Amy: American STEM Advocacy for Girls, 1965–2015.”
Amy Sue Bix; The Wider Context of Samuelson’s MIT Textbook—Depression-Era Discussions about the Value of Economics Education for American Engineers. History of Political Economy 1 December 2020; 52 (S1): 31–58. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00182702-8717910
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