The Harvard Protest: Theatricality Mixed with Incoherence

Like their compatriots in Zuccotti square, the 70 Harvard college students who walked out of Greg Mankiw’s economics class were larger on theatrics than on message, and failed to articulate a reasonable, much less coherent, justification for their protest.

Gabriel Bayard and Rachel J. Sandalow-Ash, the two organizers of the protest, discuss the reasoning behind the walk-out in­­ today’s Harvard Crimson:

The walkout should be seen in the context of Occupy Boston and the Occupy Movement nationwide, which seeks to curb the trends of rising income inequality and concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few over the past thirty years. We believe that Professor N. Gregory Mankiw, a former economic advisor to President Bush, played a key role in creating the policies which have exacerbated economic inequality and led to financial instability and collapse.

If their argument had ended there, one could maintain that the protest was absolutely reasonable, if a few years late. Mankiw was an advisor to President Bush, and President Bush’s economic policies angered many members of the Harvard Community. Now that Mankiw is back lecturing, it is understandable why some students might want to share with him–and the rest of the Harvard community–their displeasure with his job as Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors. A peaceful walk-out on Mankiw’s class–while perhaps inelegant–could be just such a way to spread that message. But Bayard and Sandalow-Ash’s next sentence severely undercuts their credibility:

We argue that it is unfair that he teaches this foundational course, which greatly impacts the attitudes of Harvard students, every year.

That’s just silly. One skill students are supposed to learn in college is critical thinking; the ability to recognize that all speech–whether coming from in front of the classroom, from a novel, or from a textbook–reflects a certain ideology, point-of-view or, yes, bias. It is up to the student to recognize, and then pull apart, the assumptions inherent in any given academic exercise. Then, utilizing tools like analysis and evidence, the student should discuss, and perhaps rebut, the material at hand. Any professor who claims pure objectivity is, simply put, lying; what professors do is present the material as they view it in as coherent, structured, and pedagogically oriented manner as they can.

Mankiw may be a conservative, but there is absolutely nothing “unfair” about his teaching an introductory course. The professor teaching introduction to women’s studies may be a liberal feminist; the instructor teaching intro to Judaic Studies might be an anti-Zionist; the professor teaching intro to sociology might be a Marxist: what we are supposed to learn in college is to parse through an academic playground (or battleground) and develop our own ideas and thoughts, not to complain about fairness when we disagree with the person in the front of the room! We learn in the university not what to think, but how to think. Disagreement is part of that, and diversity of opinion–and the occasional bias with which it is disseminated–is the beauty of the university, not the academy’s undoing.

Bayard and Sandalow-Ash’s editorial goes on to disagree with Mankiw’s views on the minimum wage, his “uncritically supportive position on free trade,” and, most strangely, his assertion that “equity and efficiency in the economy are ‘two goals [which] often conflict.'” In each case, Bayard and Sandalow-Ash present a different economist who disagrees with Mankiw’s ideas. Rather than proving Mankiw unfit for introductory courses, all Bayard and Sandalow-Ash show is that they care deeply about the material and have been inspired by their professor; what better endorsement for Mankiw’s teaching capabilities than that?

The students are angry; they see the United States’ income inequality, and they desire to foster a dialogue about how to stop it. Such an urge is laudable. But for a protest to be effective, it should have a clear, well-defended point, and the Econ 10 walkout clearly does not.

So what was the Econ 10 walkout actually about? Was it a protest of the state of the macro-economy? Or, more likely, was it merely a theatrical complaint about a professor some students do not like? From Bayard and Sandalow-Ash’s column, I would argue the latter.

There may be plenty of reasons to walk out of Greg Mankiw’s 700 person class, first and foremost the notion that a student is paying fifty thousand dollars a year to be 1 out of 700 individuals in a class. But to protest Mankiw’s teaching of Introductory Economics because he’s a conservative? That’s ridiculous, and in an academic community, counter-productive.

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Daniel R. Schwartz is a 5th year PhD student in Russian History at Brandeis University. He also serves as the research assistant and paralegal for frequent Minding the Campus contributor Harvey Silverglate, and as a Program Associate for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). He may be reached at Daniel@Harveysilverglate.com.

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Daniel R. Schwartz

Daniel R. Schwartz formerly served as Harvey Silverglate's research assistant.

2 thoughts on “The Harvard Protest: Theatricality Mixed with Incoherence

  1. What’s “unfair” about Mankiw “teaching” the course is that he ignores mainstream reasearch that conflicts with his ideology.
    The truth, though, is that Mankiw doesn’t teach the class. Rather its taught by Teaching Fellows (Harvard speak for TA’s). He shows up to lecture a handful of times during the semester.

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