Robin Wells on Mankiw’s student walkout


NOVEMBER 20, 2011

Robin Wells: We Are Greg Mankiw… or Not?

In response to the walkout staged by students in the intro economics class at Harvard, INET launched the syllabus project 30 Ways to Teach Economics. We invited professors and students to send us syllabi, and to share their experience with teaching and learning intro economics. Here are three responses, from Bruce Caldwell, Duncan Foley, and Stephen Ziliak.

Another response comes from Robin Wells. In this essay, she warns teachers of letting the classroom become disconnected from the real world. Amid mass unemployment and economic turmoil, “instructors who lecture on the superiority of free markets without acknowledging the dysfunction in the wider economy are at risk of appearing out of touch and exacerbating antipathy towards economics.”

Wells has taught economics at Princeton University and Stanford Business School. With Paul Krugman she co-authored Economics, published by Worth Publishers and soon forthcoming in the 3rd edition.

We Are Greg Mankiw… or Not?


On Nov. 2nd, a group of students in Harvard University Ec10, the introductory economics class taught by Greg Mankiw, staged a walk-out. In an open letter, the students lambasted Greg’s course and his textbook for “espous[ing] a specific – and limited – view of economics that we believe perpetuates problematic and inefficient systems of economic inequality in our society today…..There is no justification for presenting Adam Smith’s economic theories as more fundamental or basic than, for example, Keynesian theory.”

I am sure that many of us who have taught introductory economics or who have written an intro economics textbook (a much smaller subset, and I fall into both) felt a pang of sympathy for Greg when we heard about the walk-out.  If you have ever faced a large lecture hall of restive intro econ students, or coped with a voluble student with an ax to grind, you can feel some solidarity: we are Greg Mankiw too.

But just how far should that sympathy extend?  Is Mankiw simply the target of fuzzy-minded youth who are more intent on making a statement than engaging in reasoned inquiry? Or, is Mankiw – and much of the profession, for that matter – getting a needed reality check about the need to re-orient the way we teach economics?

First, let me say what this essay is not.  It is not an attempt to promote my textbook over Mankiw’s nor an exercise in partisan jousting.  I don’t find a walk-out a useful way to communicate displeasure with an instructor – better to invite him or her to a friendly debate with opposing views. This essay is not a critique of Mankiw’s teaching approach: I was not there to witness it, and every instructor will differ in political preferences and emphasis.  And neither will this essay advocate a root-and-branch re-think of how to teach introductory economics for both pedagogical and practical reasons.  I consider standard microeconomics to be an invaluable introduction to how to reason about the allocation of scarce resources.  Moreover, most intro econ instructors are stretched far too thin to contemplate a wholesale revision of their courses.

But what I will say is this: something is shifting out there, and we ignore it at our peril. It would be very easy to dismiss the student walk-out as an exercise in intellectual laziness and grandstanding.  (After all, as many have pointed out, Keynesian models can’t be taught until second semester of Harvard Ec10.)  But perceptive instructors know that sometimes a stupid question is more than a stupid question.  And a really perceptive instructor will take a seemingly stupid question and turn it into the insightful question that the student should have asked.

Right now the general public views the economics profession with a large measure of distrust and in some cases outright contempt. Students are entering the worst job market in well over a generation, without much prospect of improvement.  Many of them have seen their parents’ lives turned upside down by financial troubles.  They face being members of the first generation in American history with a lower standard of living than their parents.  Income inequality has reached levels not seen since the Gilded Age.  There are over 4 million long-term unemployed.

In this environment, instructors who lecture on the superiority of free markets without acknowledging the dysfunction in the wider economy are at risk of appearing out of touch and exacerbating antipathy towards economics.

But how does an instructor do this in an introductory economics?  I think it’s largely a matter of shifting our perspective to let go of the certainties that were part of our economic training and admit to the painful economic uncertainties that many Americans now inhabit.  Here are four ways to help bring that shift to the classroom:

Provide Context.   Compared to past years, instructors need to acknowledge the limits of free markets earlier in their courses. Students should understand the difference between the conceptual importance of free markets and their real world limitations. Explain that much of the current economic distress arises from markets that don’t behave competitively — the labor and financial markets.

Build Trust.  Trust is built when the instructor compensates for the one-sided nature of the relationship by treating students’ viewpoints with respect.  And this is where the art of the perceptive instructor is most likely to be needed.  For example, to the microeconomics student who protests that Keynes and Adam Smith should be given equal time, respond that the issue boils down to why some economists believe that the labor market doesn’t always clear while others believe that its does.  Then take a few minutes to discuss each side of the debate.   Yet, also make clear that valuable class time won’t be wasted on debating viewpoints that are contradicted by the data.

Address Distributional Issues.  The dramatic rise in U.S. income inequality compels us as instructors to address it.  While international trade and educational differences have clearly contributed to some of the rise, it’s clear that they are only partial explanations: they can’t explain the explosion of income gain at the top 1% of the income distribution, and particularly at the top 0.1%.  We shouldn’t extol the benefits of markets while ignoring today’s highly skewed distribution of the benefits.  While there is no single definitive explanation, there are many factors that are feasible topics in class: moral hazard and the setting of CEO compensation, the decline of countervailing forces such as unions and higher marginal tax rates at the top end, deregulation, asset bubbles and the financialization of the U.S. economy.  And then discuss: to what extent is the level of income inequality a legitimate policy target?

Finally, Adopt Some Humility.  It’s true that those of us who weren’t in the business of teaching Gaussian pricing formulas for CDO’s or touting the benefits of homeownership via sub-prime mortgages aren’t directly responsible for the economic mess we’re in.  But in the eyes of many students we are culpable to the extent that we dismiss the need for some re-think of the deference accorded to free markets in how we teach economics as applied to the real world.  Again, I want to emphasize that we make the distinction between communicating the importance of free markets as an intellectual building block and the frequent mis-use of free market concepts when it comes to making real world policy choices.  Lastly, in a world of liquidity-trap macroeconomics, soaring income inequality and an exploding Eurozone, we are going to have to admit that there are areas in which the profession just doesn’t know what the right answer is.

And remember, there is such a thing as a first-mover advantage.  So schedule a teach-in before your classroom is occupied.

Posted by The Institute for… at 6:34 pm



NOVEMBER 18, 2011

Professors share their experience with teaching intro economics

In response to the walkout staged by students in the intro economics class at Harvard, INET launched the syllabus project 30 Ways to Teach Economics. We invited professors and students to send us syllabi, and share their experience with teaching and learning intro economics. Here, you can read about three different courses. Find more syllabi here.

Macroeconomics without the AS-AD model

Duncan Foley, Leo Model Professor of Economics at the New School for Social Research, tells us that he stays away from the AS-AD model, which is present in nearly every textbook. He sends us the syllabus to Principles of Macroeconomics and writes:

The syllabus deviates from the standard Introduction to Macroeconomics course primarily in framing the issues in terms of economic history and the history of economic thought, and emphasizing institutions complementary to theories. I personally find the widely-adopted “AD-AS” framework for teaching macroeconomics intellectually fallacious and ideologically loaded, so I try to stay away from it.

Microeconomics with Mankiw’s textbook

Bruce Caldwell, Research Professor of Economics and the Director of the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University, uses Greg Mankiw’s textbook for introductory micro. He sends us the syllabus to Principles of Microeconomics and writes:

I used Mankiw for my introductory microeconomics text when I taught large enrollment courses at UNC-Greensboro a few years back. The text develops in a clear manner the basic tools of microeconomics: production possibilities curves, supply and demand curves, the notion of elasticity, the various diagrams associated with market structures.  It is very difficult to get people to read much in large classes, and many UNCG students are first generation college students who in addition to carrying a full load work 25+ hours a week at jobs. But if they did the minimal reading I assigned for class they would have the basics under their belts and would be able to understand my lectures.

For lectures I would go through the basics then illustrate them with case studies or applications. I would pitch the lectures at a higher level. I would also give occasional homeworks, uncollected and ungraded, that I would go over in class. Those who did them typically would do well in class. The others, not so well.

Part of what the class was about was to teach students to take responsibility for their education. On the first day I would go over study tips that, if they followed them, would enable them to succeed. The first was to come to class. Next was to review notes from the past week (I told them to recopy them) each weekend. This helps to cement the concepts in their minds, allows them to see if there are any gaps or areas where they are confused, and if so, to come to see me. Third was to quit their job and sell their car (or if this was not possible, to take fewer classes).  A portion of students would not come to class (I did not take attendance – coming to class was up to them), would not do the reading, would not follow the study tips. They would not do well on the first test: typically about half of the class would get an F or D. When I went over the test I would tell them that if they were unsatisfied with their grades they should either change their behavior (by following the study tips) or drop the class. Note that the test option I provided was to replace the lowest test grade with whatever one gets on the final, so a change in behavior could lead to a much better grade.  Some would change and improve, others would drop the class. Sadly, a certain portion would not change their behavior or drop the class. Hope springs eternal, I suppose.

Microeconomics using “The Grapes of Wrath”

Stephen Ziliak, Trustee and Professor of Economics at Roosevelt University-Chicago and a member of the INET Curriculum Committee Task Force, teaches introductory microeconomics using The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Here is the syllabus.

The Grapes of Wrath was published by its author, John Steinbeck, in 1939, during the worst economic crisis in American and world history. Set in and written during the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath is a bluesy road-novel with a lot of social and economic theory and analysis. It follows a family of homeless and landless tenant farmers from Oklahoma—the Joads—who’ve been forced on account of foreclosure to leave the farm and land which they labored and lived on for several generations.

Forced by a large bank and absentee owners to leave their home, the Midwestern farmers with little education and no income join other displaced workers on the road to California, in search of jobs, food, and housing—a piece of the American Dream.

Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was for many years censored and banned by governments and school boards made uncomfortable by the novel’s detailed portrayal of economic inequality, hardship, and oppression.

We asked Stephen Ziliak to share his experience teaching The Grapes of Wrath, which he has used since 1996 to form the basis of his intro economics course.

Q: Why, Professor Ziliak, way back in 1996, did you begin to teach to introductory economics students The Grapes of Wrath?

A: I guess my first response is that I eschewed in my own research the one-voiced, monological approach of conventional neoclassical economics. Trained as an economic historian, I’m an amateur poet who had also worked as a welfare and food stamp caseworker in the county welfare department, going door-to-door in the poorest neighborhoods of Indianapolis. When I became an Assistant Professor of Economics, in 1996, I was searching for a teaching method that would open up the conversation to a wider, more realistic set of issues. It only seemed fair to me: given that I myself had philosophical objections to the conventional approach to teaching utilitarian economics, it hardly seemed right to force-feed my students. Plus, many of my students came from working class families but they’d never experienced a recession. I wanted them to know that growth and bubbles do not last forever.

Q: Why teach The Grapes of Wrath and not some other novel?

A: Good question. First and foremost, it’s an incredibly moving novel that—I openly admit—continues to make me laugh and cry. Now laughing and crying are not necessary for good pedagogy. But it seems to me that if a fact-based story about economic history can make a grown man and professor of economics cry, it must have something important to say. The visible hand of class conflict needs to be aired and this novel does it.

Q: You said fact-based. What do you mean—it’s a novel, it’s fiction, yes?

A: Yes, but it’s historical fiction—meaning that Steinbeck, like Hugo, Zola, and others before him, was deliberately depicting real and felt experiences. There are exaggerations and omissions of fact, true—as economic historians and English professors know full well. But in fact, Steinbeck himself spent a year or more working and studying inside of the same temporary labor camps that the fictional Joad family experienced in California.

Q: How do students react? Can you share some insights from the teacher perspective?

A: Really well, eventually. Some are defensive at first, being trained to believe that stories are for novelists and theory for scientists. Still others have been so deeply entrenched with what I call the banking approach to learning—regurgitating facts and equations—they’re afraid of dialogue and a plurality of voices and interpretation. But students tell me it’s one of those life-changing courses.

Q: What about the “quants”? Do quants survive the course?

A: Again, it’s not for everyone. But yes, absolutely. An example is a student who studied with me at Roosevelt University. He came to Roosevelt as a freshman from Puerto Rico on a violin scholarship. He was preparing for a career in violin at our conservatory and, at the same time, he had a passion for advanced mathematics. On a lark he enrolled in my Grapes of Wrath course. Half-way through the term he told me that something was happening to him. The evolution of the protagonist, Tom Joad, from self-interested ex-con to benevolent labor leader, he found fascinating. He thought that he might have to switch from violin and math to economics. I told him no, if he really wanted to switch he could study math and economics—he wouldn’t have to give up the math. By the time he was a junior (a third year student) he landed a job with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. At graduation he was promoted to Associate Research Economist. Now he’s a master’s student in economics and statistics at Duke University but he is not at all bamboozled by the utility maximization-only school.

Q: Do you supplement the novel with other literature or media?

A: Yeah. For example, a particularly fun day of class is when we play music by Woody Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen, and Rage Against the Machine—who’ve recorded songs about Tom Joad. Springsteen himself recorded an entire CD on the central themes.


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