Northwestern econ profs discuss Harvard walkout, teaching styles

Jillian Sandler

Harvard University students in an introductory microeconomics class have charged their professor, the author of a widely-read introductory economics textbook used by Northwestern students, with leading a biased course.

Several dozen students in the Harvard course taught by Greg Mankiw, author of “Principles of Economics,” walked out of the class in November. In an open letter to the professor published in the Harvard Political Review, students in the course said they found the course to present a “specific- and limited-view of economics that (they) believe perpetuates problematic and inefficient systems of economic inequality in our society today.”

“We were getting a very narrow, one–sided view of economics,” Harvard freshman and walkout organizer Rachel Sandalow–Ash told Remapping Debate, a twice-monthly publication that covers national public policy issues.

Remapping Debate is currently in the midst of publishing a four-part series detailing the consequences of how economics is taught to students in the United States. Part one explores the negative aspects of teaching from a purely neoclassical view, which says that all market participants will have full and equal information and can thus engage in perfect competition. Walkout organizers say Mankiw teaches from this perspective, which they view as too narrow-minded and unrealistic for today’s society.

But NU economics lecturer Mark Witte, who also serves as the department’s director of undergraduate studies and knows Mankiw personally, said the Harvard students’ walkout was unfounded.

“It’s not a particularly neoclassical textbook,” Witte said of “Principles of Economics.” “I think the students who walked out were perhaps looking for publicity as opposed to taking a particularly measured look at what’s done.”

Harvard sophomore Hannah Mayer, an economics major who was in Mankiw’s class, said she did not participate in the walkout because she did not see any bias in the professor’s teaching.

“I definitely think it was a well-rounded class,” she said. “Professor Mankiw definitely gives both sides in (an) argument,” she said.

Mayer said she was also intrigued by the fact that students decided to leave the class during which Mankiw talked about societal inequality.

“It was interesting to see they walked out on that day, ” she said.

NU economics Prof. Todd Sarver said while teaching, he strives to stress to his students that no economic model is perfect.

“One thing I emphasize is that in economics, we’re trying to make models to describe a complex situation and it’s good to point out limitations to those models,” Sarver said. “I think it’s good to show people a variety of perspectives, but I think it’s also acceptable (to focus on one perspective) if your course is emphasizing a particular approach.”

Sarver added that the free and equal information-based neoclassical model of which Harvard students were critical is an important part of economics, but it must be adapted appropriately for an undergraduate class.

“I think it’s a really important thing to incorporate, but it requires in-depth treatment so I think it has to be a class in and of itself,” he said. “It’s an involved topic and one of the most important developments in economics, so it takes a lot to boil this down to an undergraduate course.”

Weinberg sophomore Matt Shuman, an economics major, said despite the controversial nature of some economic topics, he thinks the professors in NU’s economics department do a good job of presenting the principles objectively.

“Everyone realizes that economics is involved in so much and it’s hard not to have a specific opinion on a specific matter, but I think the professors have done a good job in presenting the material in a fair and objective way,” he said. “They give us the tools and basic foundations so we can use that to form our own opinions.”

Shuman added that even with this objectivity, he believes some bias is inevitable in upper-level courses, which deal with contentious topics such as health care.

“I think it’s hard to be biased in courses that are presenting basic concepts,” he said. “But the upper-level classes are probably more biased because it’s hard not to have an opinion on that type of material.”

Witte said with the abundance of economics models that have been developed, it is not possible to teach all of them. However, he also said the department strives to hire faculty members who will convey broad forms of information.

“There are many, many models and we’re not going to teach everything,” he said. “We essentially try to hire very smart, well-trained people and trust them to do what is the best way of conveying knowledge.” [email protected]