Over the last ten days, Harvard students twice stopped business as usual at this richest of all US private universities. An Occupy Harvard encampment of tents followed a large march of many hundreds through the campus protesting Harvard's complicity in the nation's extreme inequality of income and wealth. A week earlier, some 70 students walked out in protest of Harvard's large lecture course in introductory economics. They, too, explained that they were acting in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movements. They specifically criticized the narrowly biased economics they were learning that both reflected and reinforced the inequalities and injustices that fuel the OWS movements. The walkout in the economics lecture deserves our special attention
That walkout responds to (1) the quality of capitalist development in the US for the last quarter century, (2) the complicity of university economics departments in systematically hiding or rationalizing that development, and (3) the new space and support for long-overdue criticism of capitalism opened by the OWS movements.
In the early 1960s, I sat as a student in that same Harvard large lecture class. With many fellow students, I grumbled then at its narrow, technical celebration of the status quo. The interests we brought to the course – to understand the causes of economic instability (recessions, depressions, inflations, crises); how economic change shapes political and cultural history; why so many are poor and so few rich; and what alternative economic systems might be preferable – were largely evaded, ignored, or trivialized. Without an OWS movement, we did not walk out. We sat and endured. Most of us resolved to avoid further economics courses. Introductory economics mass lectures turn few students into economists or even economics majors. They are one-semester immersions in the ideological celebration of capitalism. Harvard's introductory course was and is no exception.
The professor who prompted the student walkout, N. Gregory Mankiw, is a well-known, mainstream celebrant of private capitalism. He dutifully opposes government economic intervention (except when needed in crises to re-establish conditions for resumed reliance on private capitalism and its wondrous efficiencies). He evidently found the alternatives to capitalism so uninteresting that he wasted no time or effort to learn or teach about them. The profession rewarded Professor Mankiw with a prestigious Harvard professorship. The political establishment made him an adviser to President Bush and now candidate Romney. The economic establishment blessed him with a lucrative contract to write a major introductory textbook.
Professor Mankiw lectures in a huge hall to many hundreds of students. They also attend small classes taught by graduate students. This arrangement – typical at many universities – involves one or two weekly lectures by the professor and one or two sessions with graduate student instructors. Besides being a student in such a class at Harvard, I later served as just such a graduate student instructor at Yale. Over the last 35 years, I also taught exactly such a large introductory economics lecture course at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, almost every year. It is a pedagogical nightmare that I know from every vantage point.
What students learn in a huge anonymous lecture course is far, far less than could occur in a small classroom with intensive interaction between a skilled teacher and a few students. Imposing teaching duties on graduate students struggling with their own courses, dissertations etc. leads to very mixed (I am being polite here) educational results. Remember, too, that neither professors nor graduate student instructors in the US system are ever required to study the subtle art of teaching. Most professors are rewarded far more for publishing and university administrative services than for teaching effectiveness. Graduate students are likewise rewarded far more for their coursework than for assisting in the teaching of undergraduates. The enduring pedagogical failure of these large lectures does lower the university's cost of “teaching.”
This system's utterly predictable result is that large introductory lectures are awful compared to what introductory courses could and should achieve. The few exceptions depend on rare individuals who care and learn how to teach even under such adverse lecture conditions. We usually remember them.
Whether consciously or not, the 70 Harvard students were protesting the failures of their education as well as of the larger society. They balked, for example, at how Mankiw's economics handles the inadequacy of their lecture course itself. In the Mankiwian view, one high-priced professor teaching hundreds is much more “efficient” than having him interact with a few in a seminar setting. The bottom-line driven desire of Harvard to save the costs of the small classes actually needed for quality education is neatly obscured by concentrating on quantity: counting “educated” students as so many beans or peanuts produced by one professor. Such fetishizations of quantity are hallmarks of mainstream economics.
The protesting Harvard students also found Mankiw's economics minimally useful for understanding the actual economy they and their families engage daily. Celebrating capitalism is not the same as understanding it, let alone evaluating its strengths and weaknesses. In this, the protesting students ironically share the view of business. Long ago, business in the US also realized that the celebration of capitalism performed by economists like Mankiw was not very useful for (and often contrary to) teaching how capitalist enterprises and markets actually work. So, they developed a second, alternative track for studying economics. It would focus on analyzing the actual workings of the economic system and leave the celebratory work to the economics departments. That alternative track is called Business Schools.
It is a good sign that today's Harvard students include many who recognize the important political and ideological breakthrough accomplished by the Occupy movement. It is an even better sign that they are determined now to join and further its central goal of exposing and opposing the profound inequalities and injustices of the current system. And it is perhaps best of all that they take the struggle to one of the chief ideological apologists for that system, mainstream economics.