Occupy Wall Street is spreading to colleges, starting with one of its least likely champions: last week, around 70 Harvard University students walked out of an intro economics course and sent an open letter to Professor N. Gregory Mankiw, expressing anger over the conservatively biased curriculum and Harvard's role in the current financial crisis.
The student demonstrators walked out of Economics 10 on Nov. 2 to walk with an Occupy march, and to express solidarity with the upcoming National Day of Action on Nov. 24. Some 70 Harvard students walked out of Mankiw's course last week in protest of what they saw as a bias toward right-leaning economic policies, especially the promotion of unfettered capitalism and a perceived unwillingness to discuss capitalism's flaws.
In a statement by organizer Rachel Sandalow-Ash, and a corresponding open letter to Mankiw published in the Harvard Crimson, the connection between Harvard University and the Occupy Wall Street movement became clearer.
Harvard graduates have been complicit, have aided, many of the worst injustices in recent years, Sandalow-Ash told a crowd outside the classroom. Harvard students will not do that anymore. Instead, the open letter expresses a desire to lend support to a movement that is changing American discourse on economic injustice. The students demanded the right to learn about alternative theories to laissez-faire capitalism, and for Harvard students to take action.
We will use our education for good, and not for personal gain at the expense of millions, Sandalow-Ash told the crowd.
Curriculum or Resume?
Students in the demonstration criticized Prof. Mankiw's curriculum, which they said they had expected would promote critical discussion of current economic models, for influencing Harvard graduates who went on to bring about the current financial crisis on Wall Street. They also rebuked the professor for using very little primary sources or alternative approaches from academic journals, arguing he presented a limited and biased approach to economic studies.
NPR's Morning Edition, covering the event last week, suggested another reason for the students' objections: namely, Mankiw's resume.
Prof. Mankiw served as an adviser to President George W. Bush, whom many blame for the current financial crisis, and is now advising the campaign of Republican primary candidate Mitt Romney. He has also criticized the Wall Street protests for their apparent lack of cohesion and Occupy demands, and warned in one class against the politics of envy.
At 700 students, Mankiw's introductory economics class has the highest enrollment of any undergraduate course at Harvard, The Mail reports. When the students got up en masse, some of their peers began to boo. Many on campus however, gathered to hear the demonstrators speak, and to cheer them on.
In Mankiw's Defense
Some former students have since come to Mankiw's defense, as Harvard demonstrators begin to plan more events leading up to the National Day of Action at the end of this month. Harvard Republican Club Secretary Aditi Ghai, who took the class last year, felt the class was as unbiased as it could be, since ideology will always have an effect on economic policy.
Another student, Randi B. Michel, disagreed but felt the walk-out was ineffective. [There is a] constant underlying layer of extreme conservatism, Michel said, but it would be more effective to meet with the faculty to express any grievances.
One student, Jeremy Patashnik, was particularly vehement in Mankiw's defense. Incidentally, he said in a statement, noting the protestors' frustration at a lack of Keynes in the curriculum, 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.
Describing Mankiw as a great Keynes admirer and blasting demonstrators for failing to specify what, specifically, they found biased about the course, Patashnik ended on a blistering note: 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.
In Makiw's Own Words
The professor in question, whose textbooks are also studied at Princeton, Yale and Brown, was more diplomatic than his defenders, praising the students for their activism even as he begged their indulgence to disagree with their views.
In an interview with The Financial Times this weekend, Mankiw said he believed he taught a mainstream economics course without any political agenda, but added that he had significant respect for his students' activism, despite refusing to cave to demands for radical changes in the course.
Over recent years, I've seen Harvard students becoming increasingly pre-professional. They are sitting back and thinking broadly about social issues, Mankiw said. Those are good questions for students to be asking, and to the extent that Occupy Wall Street sparks debate, that's good.
As for questions of economic inequality, Prof. Mankiw says there's no question it has been on the rise for the past 70 years. He noted, ironically, that the day students chose to stage a walk-out was the very day he had planned to lecture on these disparities.
Asked whether he felt this was a problem the government should address, the professor said it was largely dependent on one's political philosophy. I think the liberal position is more to try to address the outcomes through a progressive income tax, he said, and I think the conservative point of view is to try to address the causes. One of the causes is the educational system.
In an interview with the Harvard Crimson, Mankiw repeated his admiration for the students, and his happiness at being an impetus for discussion, even if he was the movement's target.
While I do not share the specific views of the Occupy Wall Street movement, he said, I am delighted to see students engaged in thinking broadly about social and economic policy. I hope that Ec 10 can help contribute to [that] ongoing discussion.
Open Letter and Walk-Out
Below, a video of the Economics 10 walk-out, and the full text of Harvard demonstrators' open letter (with its Occupy-esque demands) to Professor N. Gregory Mankiw:
Dear Professor Mankiw-
Today, we are walking out of your class, Economics 10, in order to express our discontent with the bias inherent in this introductory economics course. We are deeply concerned about the way that this bias affects students, the University, and our greater society.
As Harvard undergraduates, we enrolled in Economics 10 hoping to gain a broad and introductory foundation of economic theory that would assist us in our various intellectual pursuits and diverse disciplines, which range from Economics, to Government, to Environmental Sciences and Public Policy, and beyond. Instead, we found a course that espouses a specific-and limited-view of economics that we believe perpetuates problematic and inefficient systems of economic inequality in our society today.
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.
Care in presenting an unbiased perspective on economics is particularly important for an introductory course of 700 students that nominally provides a sound foundation for further study in economics. Many Harvard students do not have the ability to opt out of Economics 10. This class is required for Economics and Environmental Science and Public Policy concentrators, while Social Studies concentrators must take an introductory economics course-and the only other eligible class, Professor Steven Margolin's class Critical Perspectives on Economics, is only offered every other year (and not this year). Many other students simply desire an analytic understanding of economics as part of a quality liberal arts education. Furthermore, Economics 10 makes it difficult for subsequent economics courses to teach effectively as it offers only one heavily skewed perspective rather than a solid grounding on which other courses can expand. Students should not be expected to avoid this class-or the whole discipline of economics-as a method of expressing discontent.
Harvard graduates play major roles in the financial institutions and in shaping public policy around the world. 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. The last five years of economic turmoil have been proof enough of this.
We are walking out today to join a Boston-wide march protesting the corporatization of higher education as part of the global Occupy movement. Since the biased nature of Economics 10 contributes to and symbolizes the increasing economic inequality in America, we are walking out of your class today both to protest your inadequate discussion of basic economic theory and to lend our support to a movement that is changing American discourse on economic injustice. Professor Mankiw, we ask that you take our concerns and our walk-out seriously.
Concerned students of Economics 10