On Nov. 2, 70 Harvard students walked out of class in the middle of their introductory Economics 10 lecture to show solidarity with the Occupy Boston movement and protest the conservative bias they felt was present in their course.
Two weeks later, Rachel Sandalow-Ash, a Harvard freshman who organized the walkout with her classmate Gabriel Bayard, said it sparked discussion both during class sections and outside the classroom. “It can be easy for college students to exist in a bubble, and I believe that these actions have increased discussion and debate around some of the most important issues of our time,” she said. The university has not punished the students who walked out.
The students protested two main causes — the alleged bias in their economics class and increasing tuition and student debt. Students have also accused the professor teaching the class, Nicholas G. Mankiw PhD ’84, of showing a conservative bias. Sandalow-Ash believes that Mankiw, who acted as an economic advisor to George W. Bush, “was a key player in creating the very economic policies that led to financial instability and collapse as well as immense income inequality,” said Sandalow-Ash.
The students chose to walk out of Economics 10 (the Harvard equivalent of 14.01) because it is a large class (about 700 students) and because of problems students raised with the class, namely a “bias inherent in the class,” which was identified in an open letter sent to Mankiw from the students who walked out.
Students believe that several problems with the class itself contributed to that conservative bias. Some, including Sandalow-Ash, said that the class is “not mathematically rigorous” and presents a simplified view of the economic models. According to MIT economics Professor Jonathan H. Gruber ’87, MIT’s introductory economics courses, 14.01 and 14.02, differ from Harvard’s because they use more advanced mathematical models.
The other specific problem raised with the class is a lack of primary source material. “We just read his textbook. … We would rather read Adam Smith or studies by other economists rather than [Mankiw’s] interpretation of them,” said Sandalow-Ash.
Some question whether the walkout was the most effective way to discuss a problem with the course and to support the Occupy movement. Gruber, who teaches 14.01 this fall, said that “the Occupy movement has a good, strong message and I don’t want them to muddy it up … [by] protesting economics.”
When asked why the students chose a walkout approach instead of talking privately with Mankiw, Sandalow-Ash responded that “he’s not very accessible” and that they wanted to draw attention to their cause. According to an article published in the Harvard Political Review, Mankiw has only given three lectures this semester, while the rest of the material was presented in sections and by guest lecturers. Mankiw declined to comment for this article.
There is room for debate about whether or not Economics 10 has a conservative bias. According to Gruber, “basic economics is fundamentally right wing. … It’s not about bias; it’s how the free market works.” When it comes to teaching economics without bias, you have to “acknowledge [that fact] and … approach things even-handedly,” Gruber said.
He added that MIT professors try to keep their classes unbiased, and he has never gotten a student complaint about bias.
Freshman Audrey A. Sedal, a 14.01 student, said she has no problem with the class material. “They teach you that the market is most efficient by itself, which would lead you to a conservative view if you don’t take other factors into account that are more complicated,” said Sedal.
She added that her TA frequently reminds them of “real world” factors that affect economic policy.
Economics creates interesting dilemmas when it comes to a question of equality versus efficiency. “[Economics] is not a real and precise science. For a lot of things we don’t know what the right answer is,” said Gruber. The members of the Occupy movement, including those at Harvard, continue to protest for the right answer to inequality.