The Economic Imperative

The General Education report should add “The Market and Society” as a requirement

Is Wal Mart a hero or a villain? Will immigrants help or hurt the wages of native workers? Do sweatshops alleviate or exacerbate poverty? Will a gasoline tax hurt oil companies or consumers? How does limiting trade affect a country’s well-being?

In a system of general education focused on providing students with knowledge relevant to being a global citizen, it’s hard to see how students should not be pushed to grapple with questions like these. To that end, we propose an additional area of inquiry and experience to be added to those proposed by the Task Force on General Education: “The Market and Society.”

When the Task Force’s report was released two weeks ago, it became readily apparent that the invisible hand was nowhere to be seen. Indeed, of the many current courses that are listed as examples that would fulfill various requirements, only two economics courses were cited—and both had extensive prerequisites. Social Analysis 10, "Principles of Economics," the College’s largest course, had no clear place. Some have speculated that the omission of economics may be a product of faculty backlash against former President Lawrence H. Summers. Others have suggested economics fits under “analytic reasoning” or suggested that economic issues would be sufficiently touched upon in other required areas.

Whatever the reason for its omission, the influence of markets is of such singular importance in the modern world that economic understanding deserves its own category. For starters, more ink is spilled about markets than almost any other topic. If one wants to understand current events, one must have a basic understanding of the economy. Markets also underlie almost every political decision we make as citizens, as government and the market have become intertwined on issues ranging from communications regulation to social programs to monetary and fiscal policy.

Beyond basic comprehension and citizenship, markets profoundly affect our daily lives. Whether we are shocked to find no tomatoes in our dining halls or are writing a paper on a computer made in China, it has become impossible to escape market forces. Economic factors also affect our major life decisions, including deciding where we live, what we do, how much education we get, and what our standard of living is. Given the importance of markets, we think it is critical that a Harvard graduate have both an understanding of how they work and an understanding of their failures and shortcomings.

Markets will not, however, be sufficiently covered by the other areas of inquiry and experience that the Task Force has identified. Given their ubiquity, markets will no doubt rear their heads in a course in “The Ethical Life” or “The United States and the World.” But merely touching on the moral implications of the economy or a given country’s economic institutions does not give students a full understanding of the reach, influences, successes, and failures of markets nor does it help students understand how they operate. Furthermore, most high schools do not offer courses that force students to face economic questions; so if students do not take such a course at Harvard, they can easily graduate ignorant about a central pillar of modern life.

The new requirement we envision would be fulfilled by any class that forces students to grapple with markets in their broadest sense. We are not recommending a mandate that all students take Ec 10 or even a course offered by the economics department’s faculty. While most economics classes would count, so would courses in many other departments that focus on the influence of the market. For instance, a course that takes a critical perspective on economic orthodoxy, a course that focuses on the political economy of Africa, and a course that studies the history of capitalism would all count for “The Market and Society.”

For the most part we support the proposed general education system, its focus on relevance, its vision of broad courses, and its general structure. The omission of a course on markets, however, is glaring. We encourage the faculty to add “The Market and Society” to plug this hole in the preliminary report.