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Did a Harvard Economics Class Cause the Financial Crisis?

Some students say a prominent professor's bias drove the creation of policies that foster economic inequality.

Harvard grads frequently go on to highly influential jobs on Wall Street, at think tanks, and in government. Did the principles they learned in their alma mater's most popular class cause America’s financial crisis and growing wealth gap? That's the view of a group of approximately 70 students who walked out of professor N. Gregory Mankiw's Economics 10 class this week in solidarity with the Occupy protests happening coast-to-coast.

The students say the conservative slant of the economic theories taught by the prominent professor are driving policies that create inequality. According to their open letter to Mankiw—who advised President George W. Bush and now Mitt Romney—the free market, laissez faire capitalism he teaches to nearly 700 students every semester deprives students of "an analytic understanding of economics as part of a quality liberal arts education."Mankiw's academic influence also extends well beyond Harvard. His textbook, Principles of Economics, is widely used in introduction to economics classes nationwide.

Without any "critical discussion of both the benefits and flaws" of alternative economic theories, the students say, it's "difficult for subsequent economics courses to teach effectively" since coeds who take the class are familiar with "only one heavily skewed perspective." The students also say that Mankiw’s class "does not include primary sources and rarely features articles from academic journals."

According to the Harvard Crimson, Mankiw was aware of the walkout and made announcements at the beginning of class, saying "I have a feeling people might leave a little early." When the students got up to leave, some of their peers booed. Senior Jeremy Patashnik, an economics major, told the student paper he identifies as a liberal and doesn't see any bias in the class. "I think this walkout misses the point of what Ec 10 is supposed to be," Patashnik said.

But dissenters like Patashnik didn't deter the protesters. "Harvard graduates have been complicit [and] have aided many of the worst injustices of recent years," freshman Rachel J. Sandalow-Ash told a crowd outside the classroom, according to the Crimson. Sandalow-Ash, one of the organizers of the walkout, continued, "Harvard students will not do that anymore. We will use our education for good, and not for personal gain at the expense of millions."

Of course, one class didn't create the entire financial crisis, but at a time when the world is experiencing such economic instability, it's not a bad idea for students everywhere to take a critical eye on what they're being taught. Then perhaps when they graduate and hold positions of power, they'll be less likely to repeat their predecessors' policy mistakes.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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