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Political Economy to Economics Via Commerce: The Evolution of British Academic Economics 1860–1920

  • Keith Tribe
Part of the Sociology of the Sciences Yearbook book series (SOSC, volume 15)

Abstract

The story of the development of economics as a systematic body of theoretical knowledge is routinely held to begin with Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776). The work of Ricardo, so the story goes, then constitutes the first significant intellectual advance on Smith; his Essay on Profits (1815) and Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817) build upon Smithian foundations but develop a systematic theoretical core for economic theorising. Following a simplified linear account of the discipline, during the years from 1830 to 1870 it is thought that there is much work done that is of lasting interest; but only in the 1870s does a genuine theoretical shift take place with the so-called ‘Marginal Revolution’, leading on in Britain through the work of Jevons and Marshall to the elaboration of economics in its modern guise.

Keywords

Political Economy Economic Science Extension Teaching Educational Provision Popular Education 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    See M.M. Augello et al. (eds.), Le cattedre di economia politico in Italia, Franco Angeli, Milan, 1988; N. Waszek (ed.), Die Institutionalisierung der Nationalokonomie an deutschen Universitäten, Scripta Mercaturae Verlag, St. Katherinen, 1988; W.J. Barber (ed.), Breaking the Academic Mould. Economists and American Higher Learning in the Nineteenth Century, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, 1988. These collections arose out of an international project on the institutionalisation of political economy jointly managed by the King’s College Cambridge Research Centre and the University of Florence from 1983-1986.Google Scholar
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  5. 7.
    In the same months that Jowett wrote to Trevelyan, Trevelyan wrote to Gladstone concerning his “Thoughts on Patronage”, which he described as “… the greatest abuse and scandal of the present age … It is proposed to invite the flower of our youth to the aid of the public-service; to encourage the rising generation to diligence and good conduct by a more extensive system of rewards than has ever been brought to bear upon popular education, and to make a nearer approach to disinterested political action by removing one prevailing temptation from Electors and Representatives.” (letter of 17 January 1854, cited in Hughes, “Sir Charles Trevelyan”, p. 70). As the more conservative critics of the report pointed out with justice, a conflict inhered in establishing scholastic qualification as the criterion for entry to an occupation which demanded no scholarly talents whatsoever. J.S. Mill, no conservative critic, recognised “… the fact that the great majority, numerically speaking, of public employments, can be adequately filled by a very moderate amount of ability and knowledge …” (Papers relating to the Reorganisation of the Civil Service, P.P., 1854–5, Vol. XX, p. 97); other respondents to Trevelyan’s orchestrated campaign noted that the introduction of highly-qualified recruits into the lower reaches of the Service would promote apathy and resignation among them when confronted with the routine nature of the work they were to perform (P.P., 1854–5, Vol. XX, pp. 101–2, 128,134, 315, 351,386).Google Scholar
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    Letter from Jowett to Trevelyan, January 1854, P.P. 1854, Vol. XXVII, p. 27. Jowett followed this remark with suggestions for the reorganisation of school education in which “Political Economy, Law and Moral Philosophy” formed the third of four groups (p. 28).Google Scholar
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    First Report of Her Majesty’s Civil Service Commissioners, P.P., 1856, Vol. XXII, Appendix I, Table B, p. 4. The qualifications for Ceylon Writerships also made mention of political economy, but this is simply a reflection of the continuation of the syllabus established at Haileybury.Google Scholar
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    First Report, Appendix I, Table B, p. 6. The Treasury added “1. Exercises designed to test Handwriting and Orthography. Good Handwriting to consist in the clear formation of the letters of the alphabet” (p. 6). The First Report also includes all the examination papers set under its jurisdiction, from which it can be judged what kind of abilities were being assessed. No questions in political economy were included until the Sixth Report in 1861, where they are included in the Irish Department (P.P., 1861, Vol. XIX).Google Scholar
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    M. Wiener’s English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1981, devotes a mere four pages to the general issue of education and industry (pp. 132–5); as will be indicated below, the reform of the educational system and the foundation of the new colleges is in fact a product of a strong relation between provincial culture and * industrial spirit’ which runs counter to the literary evidence assembled by Wiener. The best outline of English educational provision at this time can be found in Ch. 3 of Sidney Pollard’s Britain’s Prime and Britain’s Decline, Edward Arnold, London, 1989, pp. 115–213. Pollard argues convincingly that, while British educational provision was more diffuse than that of our major competitors, its performance was broadly similar.Google Scholar
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    T. Kelly, A History of Adult Education in Britain, 2nd. ed., Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, 1970, p. 119.Google Scholar
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    Kelly, Adult Education, p. 120. The Mechanics’ Institution movement is import to an understanding of the development of British economics not because it was a major propagator of political economy to new audiences, but because it contributed to the establishment of a cultural and institutional basis for wider educational opportunity. This basis then, later in the century, formed the route through which political economy entered college and university syllabi. It is misleading to assume, as does for example Maxine Berg in her Machinery Question and the Making of Political Economy 1815–1848 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1980, Ch. 7) that there was some kind of inevitable link between the demand for practical scientific education and the propagation of political economy as a’ science’.Google Scholar
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    See for example Alon Kadish, “University Extension and the Working Classes: the Case of the Northumberland Miners”, Historical Research 60 (1987), pp. 188–207.Google Scholar
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    Welch, The Peripatetic University, Cambridge University Press, London, 1973, p. 48. The organisational committee at Derby was chaired by the local MP and mill-owner, its secretary was the head of the local grammar school, and the committee, which numbered thirty-eight, included seven clergymen and eight members of the town council.Google Scholar
  19. 22.
    At Derby the rate for morning lectures and classes was fixed at 10/6d. per term, while the fee for evening lectures and classes for artisans was 2/6d (Welch, Peripatetic University, p. 48). In London during the 1880s a fee of 5s. was usual for the evening lectures on political economy.Google Scholar
  20. 23.
    Kelly, Adult Education, p. 224. Quite what is meant by ‘political economy’ in this context naturally requires consideration, although as will be seen below in the case of London the level and content of teaching was ratified by leading contemporary political economists. The discussion of London which follows is intended primarily as an indication of the nature and context of extension teaching, and has itself to be supplemented by a treatment of the Cambridge extension movement, which is more directly relevant to the subsequent foundation of provincial colleges.Google Scholar
  21. 24.
    London Society for the Extension of University Teaching, Report of the Council (1877), ‘Table giving Particulars of Lectures and Classes held during the Winter of 1876–77”.Google Scholar
  22. 25.
    London Society for the Extension of University Teaching, Report of the Council (1878), pp. 5–6. Foxwell and J.N. Keynes commented in similar terms in their roles as examiners, implicitly emphasising the distance between the level of extension teaching and all previous non-university courses.Google Scholar
  23. 26.
    London Society for the Extension of University Teaching, Report of the Council (1886), p. 11.Google Scholar
  24. 27.
    Report from Armitage-Smith, 23 December 1886, Birkbeck, University of London Library Mss. EM2/23/3. J.N. Keynes remarked as examiner that the students had an “even and sound grasp of the subject”.Google Scholar
  25. 28.
    This division was acknowledged at the time, cf. R.G. Moulton, The University Extension Movement, Bemrose and Sons, London, 1887, p. 7.Google Scholar
  26. 29.
    A.C. Wood, A History of University College, Nottingham, 1881–1948, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1953, pp. 6–14.Google Scholar
  27. 30.
    Wood, History, p. 25. Lecturing on political economy was carried out by the Rev. J.E. Symes, Prof, of Language and Literature. The other chairs were in physics, mathematics and mechanics; chemistry and metallurgy; and natural sciences.Google Scholar
  28. 31.
    Day enrolments at Liverpool for example did not exceed 100 until the third session of 1883–84, of which over 50% were women; students enrolled term-by-term, subject-by-subject, each course carrying its own certificate. Students could sit for London matriculation or Cambridge Local Examinations; London Intermediate Arts or Science and Cambridge Higher Locals; or London BAs or BScs. T. Kelly, For Advancement of Learning: The University of Liverpool 1881–1981, University of Liverpool Press, Liverpool, 1981, pp. 56–8.Google Scholar
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    Wood, History, P. 31.Google Scholar
  30. 33.
    Kelly, Advancement, p. 74.Google Scholar
  31. 34.
    A.W. Chapman, The Story of a Modern University. A History of the University of Sheffield, Oxford University Press, London, 1955, p. 14.Google Scholar
  32. 35.
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  33. 36.
    S. Caine, The History of the Foundation of the London School of Economics and Political Science, G. Bell and Sons, London, 1963, pp. 40–44.Google Scholar
  34. 37.
    The 1898–99 session was composed of the following courses in economics: Year 1; Descriptive Economics, The Meaning and Use of Economic Terms, Outlines of English Economic History, Elementary Methods of Investigation, chiefly statistical. Years 2 and 3: History of Economic Theory, The Economic History of England in relation to that of Foreign Countries, Modern Currency Standards. W.A.S. Hewins, “The London School of Economics and Political Science”, Special Reports on Educational Subjects, P.P., 1898, Vol. XXIV, pp. 88–89.Google Scholar
  35. 38.
    E.W. Vincent, P. Hinton, The University of Birmingham: Its History and Significance, Cornish Bros., Birmingham, 1947, pp. 61–5.Google Scholar
  36. 39.
    B.M.D. Smith, “Education for Management: Its Conception and Implementation in the Faculty of Commerce at Birmingham”, Faculty of Commerce and Social Science, University of Birmingham, Occasional Paper No. 5 (1965), pp. 6–8.Google Scholar
  37. 40.
    W.J. Ashley, “The Universities and Business”, Minutes of Proceedings of the Staffordshire Iron and Steel Institute, Dudley, 4 April 1903, p. 161.Google Scholar
  38. 41.
    W.J. Ashley, The Faculty of Commerce in the University of Birmingham, n.p., Birmingham, 1902, p. 1.Google Scholar
  39. 42.
    See for a detailed discussion of these and related issues Alon Kadish, “The Foundation of the Birmingham Faculty of Commerce as a Statement on the Nature of Economics”, paper presented to the History of Economic Thought Conference, Manchester, 1987.Google Scholar
  40. 43.
    In the light of the argument that follows, it can be argued that the account of the development of the Moral Sciences in nineteenth-century Britain that we find in S. Collini, D. Winch, J. Burrow, That Noble Science of Politics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1983 — a story culminating with Sidgwick and Marshall in Cambridge — provides an intellectual thread that leads us to the wrong point.Google Scholar
  41. 44.
    The Marshall Prize for ?15 to be spent on economics books; see for this and other details of Marshall’s activities in Cambridge Alon Kadish, Historians, Economists and Economic History, Routledge, London, 1989, chs. 5,6.Google Scholar
  42. 45.
    A. Marshall, A Plea for the Creation of a Curriculum in Economics and associated branches of Political Science, n.p., Cambridge, 1902, p. 4.Google Scholar
  43. 46.
    Marshall, Plea, p. 8.Google Scholar
  44. 48.
    Kadish, Historians, p. 233 and n. 53 p. 294.Google Scholar
  45. 49.
    Flux’s entry in the New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics (Macmillan, London, 1988) gives the reader to understand that his main contribution to economics is a review written in 1894 (entry by John Whitaker, Vol. 2, pp. 395–6). No mention is made of his work during the 1920s in the Board of Trade on the census of production and estimates of national income, for which he was knighted in 1936. Chapman was subsequently Permanent Secretary of the Board of Trade 1920–26, and then Chief Economic Advisor to the Government. There is no entry for him in the New Palgrave at all. This underscores my view that our present estimation of the pre-eminence of Cambridge and London in the development of British economics is more the outcome of our general ignorance of anything that happens elsewhere, rather than from any informed assessment of the relation of Cambridge and London to provincial institutions.Google Scholar
  46. 52.
    Economic Journal 20 (1910), p. 669.Google Scholar
  47. 53.
    Hence, despite the limited number of economics graduates (never more than two or three a year before 1914), a great proportion of them passed into teaching at Manchester.Google Scholar
  48. 54.
    See the account of F.A. Hayek, “The London School of Economics 1895–1945”, Economica n.s. 13 (1946), pp. 1–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1990

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  • Keith Tribe

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