I wrote an answer to this question regarding how economists evaluate a specific subject in a given curriculum.

Subjects which develop skills that have labour market significance are valuable to a curriculum from an economic perspective. However as an armchair economist I find it difficult to argue a for a reason why to teach a country's history or any world history at all if it has no labour market implications.

However we find that many high schools and universities require students to take electives in history. Why is this the case?

Please provide sources for your reasoning.

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    $\begingroup$ "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." - George Santayana. $\endgroup$
    – Henry
    Nov 16, 2016 at 7:39
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    $\begingroup$ I'm voting to close this because it is primarily opinion based. Why does your question say history has no labor market implications? If there is a demand for learning history and a supply, there will be a labor market. If you are asking about why there "should" be a market in the first place, my very glib answer will be because that is generally an efficient allocation of resources. $\endgroup$
    – Kitsune Cavalry
    Nov 16, 2016 at 7:54
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    $\begingroup$ @KitsuneCavalry Who is on the demand side of this market though? Students electing to take history classes? Or university administrators requiring students to take at least one history class? Is mandatory military service also a market in some sense? $\endgroup$
    – Giskard
    Nov 16, 2016 at 8:52
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    $\begingroup$ People who care about the intrinsic value of learning history? Obviously not everyone who does history in like high school wants to, but learning history probably has some positive externalities that can capture the seemingly large market I imagine. $\endgroup$
    – Kitsune Cavalry
    Nov 16, 2016 at 10:25
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    $\begingroup$ Couldn't one make the same argument about virtually any subject? Why should we require people to learn science if it has "no labor market implications"? Indeed, even among those who major in a science fewer than 20% find themselves working as professional scientists (source: hecsu.ac.uk/assets/assets/documents/Science_2016.pdf). For those who are merely forced to take an introductory science course the number will be close to zero. $\endgroup$
    – Ubiquitous
    Nov 16, 2016 at 11:36

2 Answers 2


To understand why some countries are rich and others are not, we need to understand what happened to each of them in the past. How and why they developed depends to a large extent on events that took place decades or even centuries ago. This is what economists broadly refer to as path dependence. Brian Arthur was probably one of the first economists to point that out in the late 1980's.

Recently this type of arguing was appreciated again by mainstream economics. There is a growing number of scholarly articles that show how and why some countries developed the way they did. With huge implication for future economic development. Two good summaries are Nunn - The Importance of Economic History for Economic Development and Nunn - Historical Development. So the conclusion would somewhat be like that one can't ignore history if she wants to understand why some countries are poor. And more generally why some things are the way they are (one prominent example was the somewhat random event of why we have a QWERTY keyboard system that is a lot slower than other potential alignments of letters on a keyboard. It was determined once by "luck" let's say, and we never switched back...)

So all in all I would argue that knowing (and potentially understanding) some history is essential to understanding how our world works. It's certainly nothing that you can sell as a key feature in your CV (like a specific programming skill), but knowing sufficient history would certainly alter anyone's view of the world. And in order to not repeat huge mistakes that were made in the past (as a "society"), we actually need to know what they were and how and why they came about.


Your question links to the challenges of placing an economic value upon culture.

For example, what is the value of art?

For certain society would be impoverished without art and artists, yet simply creating and showing works is not economic activity - it adds nothing to a GDP.

There are all kinds of methods (like the link) that try to put a dollar value on culture - but it's a fundamental challenge.

Universities are not just institutions for teaching people skills to participate in an economy. They are the memory storehouses of our society. And so we teach ethics to lawyers, doctors, nurses, architects, even increasingly to engineers.

Teaching history in university should be considered in the same way as teaching ethics. It's hard to put a dollar value on it, but it's pretty obvious to an observer that a world with no knowledge of history is an impoverished world. To my mind the economics are something like vaccination - its a small cost to each individual that makes the collective that much stronger.

  • $\begingroup$ "Teaching history in university should be considered in the same way as teaching ethics. It's hard to put a dollar value on it, but it's pretty obvious to an observer that a world with no knowledge of history is an impoverished world. "- Do you have sources for this? It isn't obvious to me. $\endgroup$
    – EconJohn
    Apr 6, 2017 at 2:42

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