November 7, 2011

We Didn’t Go to Harvard

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The classroom has finally been “occupied.”Last Wednesday, 70 Harvard undergraduates staged a “walk out” of their introductory economics class, Economics 10, to protest a purported bias that “detrimentally affects students, the University and our greater society.” In an open letter to their professor, N. Gregory Mankiw, the students claimed that his course teaches biased economics that are to blame for the financial meltdown, growing income inequality and “economic injustice.” Unsurprisingly, these students failed to provide a single example of how such a bias manifests itself in the course, let alone how the course or purported bias therein “symbolizes the increasing economic inequality in America.”

In fact, the protesters’ unsubstantiated claims even led one self-described liberal student and alumnus of the course to pen a defense of Mankiw’s class. In it, the alumnus puts to rest the accusations of bias and explains how, among other things, Mankiw’s course draws on both Adam Smith’s economic theories as well as Keynesian thought. Having used Mankiw’s textbook in an Introductory Economics class at Cornell, I can attest to the fact that the book lays a thorough and necessary foundation upon which to continue the study of economics and outlines the basic economic principles through which we understand much of our economy and society. Moreover, as a Harvard Crimson editorial points out, Mankiw’s textbook is both peer reviewed and widely used — it is hardly considered a paean to conservative economic thought or a grossly biased work.

But you wouldn’t know that from talking to the protesters. One organizer of the protest framed the “walk out” as an attempt to fight “some of the worst injustices of recent years” and a pledge to “use our education for good.” Another organizer remarked that the course “is a symbol of the larger economic ideology that created the 2008 collapse,” and continued that “Professor Mankiw worked in the Bush administration, and he clearly has a conservative ideology.”

It seems, then, that the “walk out” was aimed at Mankiw — a former Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush — as much as it was the course material or the way it was presented. Indeed, after failing to provide any proof of bias making its way into the classroom, the protesters look more and more like students who simply don’t agree with their professor’s personal beliefs, associations or “ideology.” That is hardly a reason to stage a “walk out” of a class. Imagine if students walked out of every course taught by professors who held liberal ideologies; there wouldn’t be many students left in classes.

But what if the course truly is biased? What if, despite Mankiw’s high esteem as a professor of economics, the widespread use of his book and the praise for his course by thousands of its successful graduates, the course actually — somehow — exacerbates income inequality in America? Even in such a case, the protesters’ actions should still be considered anathema to the free exchange of ideas that characterizes a liberal arts education. Because instead of wrestling with ideas they might not agree with, these students effectively left the debate. And instead of challenging the professor with their own ideas, they simply walked out.

Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of this whole debacle, though, is the degree to which the protesters exhibited intellectual laziness. The students wrote in their open letter: “as your class does not include primary sources and rarely features articles from academic journals, we have very little access to alternative approaches to economics.” Harvard University has the largest academic library system in the world. How could these students not have access to alternative approaches to economics? In no way can Professor Mankiw, or anyone else for that matter, prevent students from engaging with any alternative approach to economics. Whether students choose to do so is, of course, a choice that is all their own, but blaming a professor for limiting one’s ability to explore alternative academic perspectives is as fallacious as it is petty. That this is the sort of shoddy thinking that passes for “intellectualism” and critical engagement at America’s top university should give us all pause.

On one count, though, the protesters have a point: “If Harvard fails to equip its students with a broad and critical understanding of economics, their actions are likely to harm the global financial system.” Self-aggrandizing though that statement may be, there’s probably some truth to it, which is why the students should get back to class.

You never know, maybe they’ll even learn something that will help them fight for causes they care about — causes like income distribution, which was, ironically, the topic of the lecture they skipped.

Nathaniel Rosen is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at nrosen@cornellsun.com. Bringing it Home appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.  ­­

Original Author: Nathaniel Rosen