Spinach and Sandcastles

THEY STEPPED OUT of Jefferson Hall into the fog, dazed and crick-necked. The midyear examination was over and they had made it halfway through Economics 10, Harvard's most popular course. In the eerie, unseasonal mist, indifference curves and isocosts danced before them. Maybe "popular" is the wrong word.

Ec 10 has given itself a spinach image--people take the course because they think they should learn what it teaches, even if it hurts. Others honestly expect the course to be interesting. For whatever reason they are there, they sit in large numbers and wonder whether the rewards of the course justify the work. Around the country, the Times says, undergraduates, find their introductory economics courses disappointing. Ec 10 provides no exception.

The standard dining hall grumble concerns the political bias of the course, and not without reason. Eckstein's lecture on Marx, for instance, focussed on two issues: how we know that Marx was wrong and why so many people nonetheless believe him. The performance was unfortunate for many students left Memorial Hall with no sense that an intelligent alternative might exist. That Otto Eckstein is no champion of alternative economic philosophies should come as no surprise; everyone knows that enrolling in Harvard to study Marx is like travelling to Brazil to practice speaking Spanish.

Straightforward political bias, though, is really the least of Ec 10's problems. After all, students of the course do read some Galbraith, and they learn a little about tax reform and income redistribution. They spend some time on trade unions. Like its oft-revised textbook, Ec 10 has been modified and broadened over the years; neither course nor text presents a monolith of capitalist dogma. But the modifications are tacked-on afterthoughts. Ec 10's fundamental self-enclosed, self-absorbed system has not changed. The basic material is a maze of rules, jargon and graphs with a compelling internal logic of its own--but little link to economic reality. Students become so entranced by neatly chalked and multi-colored supply and demand curves that they can't step back from the black-board to figure out what the material is really about.

IF EC 10 is too self-contained and too far removed from real-life economics, neither Otto Eckstein and his squad of sectionmen is to blame. No one can understand the American economy without some sense of the history of business and labor, the sociology of American class structure, or the psychological effects of industrialization and resistance to it. History, sociology, psychology, economics--they are all tools to be used toward the same goal, but Harvard treats them as separate subjects.

In pursuit of the liberal arts ideal, Harvard has bitten into the pomegranate of knowledge and spit the seeds into a dozen far-flung bureaucratic boxes, letting most of the juice dribble away. Ec 10 pokes tentatively into the other boxes from time to time, but Harvard's departmentalization won't let it go too far. As a result, Ec 10 is not a course on the American economy nor does it claim to be. It teaches instead one particular branch of one particular discipline.

A danger of academic isolation is that the experts will come to believe in and convince others of their own scientific, value-free objectivity. The Ec 10 student, wading through the graphs and curves and jargon may forget that there are any values at all implicit in the "science." The student may forget that there is no objective reason why an introductory course should spend two months studying profit maximization and two days on tax reform. Ec 10 is an elaborate sand castle, perfect in all but its tenuous sandy foundation. Too often students cross the drawbridge without taking the time to investigate the very ground on which they are standing.