In late 2011 seventy economics students walked out of their professor’s class in order to draw attention to the course’s neoliberal inclinations and perceive short-sighted approach. The walkout raises questions around the relative scarcity of public intellectuals who are willing and / or able to discuss inherent problems in current economic practice. Students themselves may increasingly become our de facto public intellectuals — creating a headache in academic institutions that are traditionally too slow to adapt to changing economic and social climate.
The letter describes how, “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.”
The incident has sparked a great deal of debate around the intentions of the students and the perceived failings of academia. Economics-focused media organizations showed mixed reactions, ranging from hostility and sympathetic indulgence. Bloomberg, for example, wrote how:
“Economics 10 is a defined and therefore limited course. As taught by Mankiw, a great talent, it conveys modern macro- and microeconomics mostly through the prism of capitalism, rather than through socialism or communism. It’s also true that there is a gap in the U.S. between rich and poor; although whether that’s a problem per se has to be debated. Third, and most important, macroeconomic theory did fail to predict the most recent recession. At Harvard in 2007, many professors and students took for granted that we were in an era of “great moderation, ” and that life should henceforth progress smoothly down the decades.”
Perhaps more interesting than the walkout itself is the wide support it has enjoyed from the general public. Public response was largely supportive of the walkout, many of whom added very useful insights:
“Higher academia is rife with intellectual dishonesty. Our system has basically gone from educating (somewhat) to indoctrinating young people on whom we depend to make pragmatic choices. Where are the case studies on the enclosure movements and their impact on urbanization, the maritime commerce industry wages, urban growth, interest rates across the significant cities of the time (Antwerp, London, Goa, Paris, Lisbon, Madrid). Where is the study on currency itself? We are still taught that money, even though sardonically referred to as a “tool of exchange” has a value in and of itself without elaborating on the subject of real value of money much beyond the topics of inflation, deflation, and central banking. Where is the study on central banking itself — its history, its successes and failings, and its moral hazards. It’s not there. These kids seem to understand that. Good for them.” (Reikoku Jaken)
A slightly more conciliatory poster wrote:
“I think some of the posters are being a little harsh on the students. Youth and idealism have prevailed throughout history without regard to financial wealth or the lack thereof. Additionally, university professors are notorious for presenting one-sided ideas, whether they be liberal views or conservative. A true educator inspires students and ignites curiosity to expand knowledge beyond textbooks. Perhaps Mankiw is a true educator because he inspired his students to take action. Hopefully he has enough wisdom to not fail the students.” (Patti OPinion)
Whilst the details of what exactly should be taught in introductory courses is an important matter, the walkout raises larger questions: where were the academia-trained public intellectuals who should have led such a movement in the first place? Where are the individuals — the public bridges — who could have raised these concerns long ago? Why did the walkout spark such media interest and enjoy so much public support?
Either way, it seems that young people are becoming increasingly aware of the problems caused by the present economic system. They are beginning to think beyond what they read in their textbooks — and are not afraid to express their concerns in the public domain.
That should be a comfort to us all.