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Harvard Undergrads Protest Economics Class

3:03 PM, Nov 3, 2011 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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Earlier this week, a group of Harvard undergraduates aligned with Occupy Wall Street protesters made a statement yesterday by staging a “walkout” of an introductory economics course taught by conservative professor Greg Mankiw. Mankiw, who chaired the Council of Economic Advisers for President George W. Bush, says in a phone interview that about 5 to 10 percent of the 700-person lecture class (Harvard’s largest) walked out “very politely” just after noon on Wednesday.

“Some of the students [who remained in the class] booed them,” says Mankiw. 

The protesting students penned an open letter to Mankiw, explaining their outrage at the “bias inherent” in the course. Here’s an excerpt:

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.

Mankiw explains that his fall semester Economics 10 course covers microeconomics, a field in which Adam Smith is an important and fundamental figure. Mankiw’s spring course on macroeconomics, he says, will focus more on John Maynard Keynes, considered the founder of that branch of economics.

“I think Keynes is quite an important figure,” says Mankiw, who is known as a “New Keynesian” for his academic work in macroeconomics.

As Mankiw points out on his influential economics blog, other Harvard students responded to the walkout, including a self-described “liberal” economics student who had taken the course previously and defended the curriculum. The editorial staff of the Harvard Crimson weighed in with a defense of academic freedom, saying the protesting undergrads showed “ignorance and a lack of self-awareness.”

Mankiw says he assumes things will “return to normal” at the next meeting of his class. But for those who walked out of his lecture to protest a view which they believe “perpetuates problematic and inefficient systems of economic inequality,” the professor points out that the students ironically missed an opportunity to learn something.

“It was a lecture about the distribution of income,” Mankiw says.

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