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arvard attracts the brightest and most analytical minds in America. Depending on how you count their academic affiliations, the school has produced anywhere between 46 and 107 Nobel Laureates, 16 of them in economics. It even produced the most recent President of the United States. Many students who enter Harvard don’t ever fathom a Wall Street career in their future. But after a heavy dose of recruiting and Harvard culture almost half the student body find themselves on the other side of their degree, not chasing their youthful dreams of changing the world, but working at Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, Bank of America and the like.NPR reported that in 2010, a US college survey found 49 percent of Harvard grads went on to work in consulting and the financial sector after graduation. How does this happen?
The funneling starts in Economics 10, the most popular course in one of the most popular disciplines at Harvard, a pre-requisite for many degrees, not just economics. Gregory Mankiw, a former Bush tactician and current economic advisor to Republican Mitt Romney, teaches the course. His text, Principles of Economics, is the top selling economics textbook in the world. The class’s alumni disproportionately clutter the halls of the IMF, the World Bank, the White House and Wall Street; some, like Larry Summers, have worked at three of the four. The leading architects and planners of the 2008 financial crisis have all done their tours at Harvard, or similar Ivy League schools with similar econ curriculums, as students, teachers and presidents. Their influence ranges from the price of the shares in your mutual fund portfolio to the words on the pages of almost everything you’ll ever read in mainstream economics. Today, no matter where you are, if you’re interested in economics you’re only a few degrees of separation from Harvard’s Ec 10.
Nov 2, 2011, is the day that one of the most widely reported, poorly attended, protests in recent American history took place. Five months out of high school and two months into their Harvard education, teenagers Rachel J. Sandalow-Ash and Gabriel H. Bayard led a column of 70 students in a walkout on Gregory Mankiw demanding a more balanced curriculum.
“Sure I’m an introductory economics student, but I would like to get both sides of this,” says Bayard of the reasoning behind the protest.
“I was afraid that the students in the class, including me, who didn’t go on in economics and didn’t pursue deep understandings of this, were just going to get this cursory knowledge of economics but yet were going to become important players in the field of economic policy.”
For their concern they were heckled and jeered by their 700-odd classmates who remained behind. A handful of students waged a counter walk-in in support of their favorite professor. A chorus of “We love Mankiw!” serenaded the occupiers’ otherwise silent departure.
The walkout was reported in the mainstream media as a 1% protest of the 1%. Most of it vilified the protestors as spoiled and naive brats. Even Harvard’s own student newspaper, The Crimson, roasted it, calling the protestors ignorant, unaware and ideological. Their editorial was titled “Stay in School: Protesting a class’s ideology damages free academic discourse.” Fox News questioned why resume-polishing students were walking out of a balanced middle-of-the-road introductory course. The Huffington Post highlighted that the lecture topic of the day was income inequality and that this was ironic. And Mankiw himself, though impressed by the protestors passion, wrote in a New York Times editorial that he was saddened how “poorly informed” the students were and that “most” economists believe that mainstream economics is ideology free. As it turns out, the liberal use of the word ‘most’ in Ec 10 lingo is one of the student’s core complaints.
“There is debate in the economic community so why shouldn’t that debate be reflected in our education?” says Bayard.
The idea for the walkout was a hasty and impromptu affair, hatched about 48 hours earlier at an Occupy Harvard meeting to coincide with a much larger Occupy Boston rally. Once the action was agreed upon, organizers stayed up to the wee hours of the morning drafting a manifesto, “An Open Letter to Greg Mankiw,” which they sent out to theHarvard Political Review.
“Today, we are walking out of your class, Economics 10, in order to express our discontent with the bias inherent in this introductory economics course,” it read.
“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 letter highlighted Harvard’s connection to the current financial system, problems with the class textbook, the purpose of an economics education, a lack of diverse opinions and the monopoly Ec 10 has as a gateway course to further studies in economics at Harvard. The letter was also riddled with questionable examples from the course and the type of idealistic ramblings you’d expect from a handful of eighteen year-olds living out of home for the first time. These misgivings in the manifesto were attacked soon enough. But despite the follies, the intention was nonetheless rooted in an honest and undeniable suspicion: are we being taught science or ideology? That question is at the core of the debate that erupted at Harvard and around the world.
“People never used to discuss the content of Ec 10 before. They discussed, you know, what the answer was to question number five on the problem set and how stressed they were about the upcoming midterm. But now they’re actually discussing the substance, the ideas behind what was being said,” says Sandalow-Ash.
A decade ago, a similar protest by students in Europe, the Post-Autistic Economics movement, radically changed the curriculum and ideological stance of European economics departments. Now called Real World Economics, the movement made a brief foray into England and America too, but fizzled out at the gates of Harvard Yard. Could the Mankiw walkout be the beginning of a similar movement in America, one that this time could stick? Or is it just a flash in the pan?
“We are going to be fighting our peers as much as we are going to be fighting structures of power,” says Fenna Krienen, a member of Occupy Harvard and fifth year graduate student in neuropsychology.
Krienen sat in on Mankiw’s class that day and was part of the walkout. One of the more interesting caveats of the scene at Occupy Harvard is that the vast majority of their members aren’t undergraduates. And while the walkout was the brainchild of Occupy Harvard’s few undergraduate sympathizers, graduate students outside the discipline of economics make up the core of the movement. In fact within economics, there is scant a whiff of Occupy, at least publically. Krienen insists that behind the scenes there is an undercurrent of support there, but that many are just too afraid to speak out and endorse something so drastically unpopular with Harvard culture. Many she says are still waiting to see how it all unfolds.
“These are students who are not conditioned to challenge authority, quite the opposite. They define their ideas of success and self worth in terms of what authority thinks of them,” says former Harvard grad and Pulitzer Prize winning author Chris Hedges.
“So they are very bad, however capable they are (and they are capable), they’re not conditioned to challenge power. They pay deference to power and that makes them, in that sense, easily malleable and is why corporations like Goldman Sachs go in and recruit in places like Harvard.”
In the weeks following the walkout, Hedges spent a night camping out in Harvard Yard during the height of Occupy unrest on campus. As it happens, that same day about fifty occupiers attempted to attend a Goldman Sachs recruiting session. Protestors were denied entry, but the protest itself didn’t go unnoticed. Goldman Sachs cancelled subsequent sessions at Harvard and several other nearby schools. The Crimson again wrote an impassioned editorial against Occupy, this time defending Goldman Sachs, calling protest against the Wall Street corporation “myopic and unoriginal.” Their pleas on behalf of those who don’t consider Goldman Sachs, or those who work there, as primary actors in the 2008 crash weren’t enough to get the firm to reinstate its cancelled events.
On campus today, occupiers say taking a job at one of the nations major financial firms has lost some of its luster.
“I really think there is a lot of students for whom the messaging did resonate,” says occupy supporter Sandra Korn, 20, who was part of the Goldman Sachs action.
“I’ll overhear conversations in the dining hall, people will say ‘oh yeah I just got that job at J.P. Morgan’ and their friends instead of congratulating them, (before everyone one would say ‘congratulations, that’s so awesome, I’m so proud of you’), now people say ‘oh no, you’re selling your soul, why are you doing that, what a shame, why aren’t you doing that thing you always wanted to do?’”
Heterodox Harvard economist Stephen Marglin says that an assault on mainstream economics has to begin with an assault on mainstream politics. He has been tenured at Harvard since the 1960s and is one of the few members of Harvard’s economics faculty to openly support Occupy’s underpinned intentions. His most recent title, The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Destroys Community, is a progressive diamond in the neo-classical rough.
“… this is not about Greg Mankiw. It’s about a much more pervasive ideology. The striking thing about economics texts across the board, mainstream economics, is how similar they are, not how different they are,” he told students at an Occupy sponsored teach-in in the weeks after the walkout.
“The ideology is Republican, it’s Democrat, it is a faith in markets that is unshaken by any encounters with reality.”
That message is one that Ec 10 students rarely hear. And while Marglin says it’s too early to tell, he thinks Occupy could be the beginning of a political push that dislodges the current stranglehold neo-classicism has on American classrooms.