Occupy the Classroom?

CAMBRIDGE – Early last month, a group of students staged a walkout in Harvard’s popular introductory economics course, Economics 10, taught by my colleague Greg Mankiw. Their complaint: the course propagates conservative ideology in the guise of economic science and helps perpetuate social inequality.

The students were part of a growing chorus of protest against modern economics as it is taught in the world’s leading academic institutions. Economics has always had its critics, of course, but the financial crisis and its aftermath have given them fresh ammunition, seeming to validate long-standing charges against the profession’s unrealistic assumptions, reification of markets, and disregard for social concerns.

Mankiw, for his part, found the protesting students “poorly informed.” Economics does not have an ideology, he retorted. Quoting John Maynard Keynes, he pointed out that economics is a method that helps people to think straight and reach the correct answers, with no foreordained policy conclusions.

Indeed, though you may be excused for skepticism if you have not immersed yourself in years of advanced study in economics, coursework in a typical economics doctoral program produces a bewildering variety of policy prescriptions depending on the specific context. Some of the frameworks economists use to analyze the world favor free markets, while others don’t. In fact, much economic research is devoted to understanding how government intervention can improve economic performance. And non-economic motives and socially cooperative behavior are increasingly part of what economists study.