A number of soon-t0-be exquisitely credentialed Harvard students staged a walk-out of Professor Greg Mankiw’s Economic 10 primer last week, in expression of solidarity with the OWS crowd. They wrote an open-letter explaining their actions to an admiring world:
A legitimate academic study of economics must include a critical discussion of both the benefits and flaws of different economic simplifying models. 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. There is no justification for presenting Adam Smith’s economic theories as more fundamental or basic than, for example, Keynesian theory.
The authors ask that Professor Mankiw “take their concerns and walk-out seriously.” Which would be easier to do, if one sensed that the students were in any way serious. Because one of his previous students – one that had actually bothered to sit through the course for its full term – authored a response, proving that some people, at least, understand the value of an education:
(The) authors of this letter are in for a treat: there’s plenty of Keynesian theory to come in the second semester of Ec 10. In fact, Mankiw is a great Keynes admirer, and once wrote, “If you were going to turn to only one economist to understand the problems facing the economy, there’s little doubt that that economist would be John Maynard Keynes.” The only reason that these students have not yet studied the father of modern macroeconomics in Ec 10, of course, is that the first semester of the class is devoted to microeconomics.
He goes on to say that the first-years don’t have as full an appreciation of the coolly analytical elements of the “dismal science” as well as they do their feelings:
(They) seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding of what economics is. One lesson from the first day of Ec 10 that will stick with me for the rest of my life is learning to separate positive questions from normative ones. Most of the economics that we read about in the news involves normative questions (eg. Should Congress raise the marginal tax rate on the highest income bracket?) whereas most of what economists actually study involves positive questions (eg. What would happen if the marginal tax rate on the highest income bracket were raised?). Ec 10 is an introduction to the academic discipline of economics, and the vast majority of the course focuses on teaching students how to answer positive economics questions. Economics is not philosophy, and the primary goal of Ec 10 is not to teach students how to make the world a fair place.
The quest to cure cancer is a laudable goal, but the prospective oncologist does not start that journey with little more than a sense that cancer is, in and of itself, somehow unfair:
You can’t hold informed positions on these normative questions without being able to answer the positive ones, and you can’t answer the positive questions without a fundamental understanding of the principles of economics. But building this foundation takes time. Premeds don’t grumble that Life Science 1a does not qualify them to practice medicine; Ec 10 students should understand that the class will not equip them to fully understand the vast complexities of economic policy. Ec 10 builds a foundation to begin to answer these questions intelligently, but as in all academic disciplines, if you want to be an expert, you’ll have to invest more than one year of study.
Study, by the way, that ought to do more than reinforce adolescent preconceptions (especially at the rates that Harvard charges):
(Perhaps) what is most objectionable about this walkout is that students should not be opposed to being exposed to ideas that might conflict with their prior held beliefs. Indeed, this is largely the point of a liberal arts education, and if you go through college and never change your mind about anything, I would question how much you got out of your college education to begin with. But the very best courses are not merely ones that change our minds on specific issues; they are ones that change our understanding of the world and cause us to approach problems in novel ways.
Those walking out of Professor Mankiw’s course are expressing solidarity with the OWS squatters. They are all too successful in that goal:
Remarkably, these protesters have managed to connect their complaints of the pedagogy of Ec 10 with the Occupy movement and “the increasing economic inequality in America.” Because the protesters do not explicitly state their complaints, it is impossible to reconstruct their argument for this bizarre claim, so I can do little to refute it. Suffice it to say, one major criticism of the Occupy movement is that protesters do not generally seem to be well-informed on the economic issues they care so strongly about. Walking out of an economics lecture will do little to quell this stereotype.
Well, there are all kinds of stereotypes. The protestors have actually reinforced one; that too many Ivy League students believe that their policy preferences ought to be academically reinforced merely because they happen to hold them, regardless of how well they are grounded either in the real world of marketplace competition, or indeed in rational analysis.
Their respondent, on the other hand, has done his bit to demonstrate that for every rule, there is at least one exception. And that not every Ivy education is necessarily wasted on its beneficiaries, so long as university students are sufficiently careful to keep an open mind.