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Dismally Yours

Adding “The Market and Society” is both gratuitous and unnecessary

By William E. Johnston and Sahil K. Mahtani

The creation of “The Market and Society” component is quite unnecessary. It would represent the undue prioritization of the discipline of economics within a general education. Worse, its inclusion is symptomatic of a kind of a vulgar pseudo-scientism that is unfortunately all too common to the discipline’s defenders.

The claims of economics certainly deserve to be taken seriously, and markets are, of course, important. Yet its proponents seem to be infatuated with the idea that markets are the primary determining factor in our lives. They remind us of the old Marxists, who, in their sophomoric naivety kept “discovering” underlying economic causes in everything. One must bear in mind that economics is quite a young discipline. Rewarding it too early might reduce its incentive to grow up.

The approach is also in complete contravention of the spirit of the new general education program, which was supposed to be a transition from “approaches to knowledge” to knowledge itself. Advocating such a category amounts to a resurrection of an economics “way of knowing” and is a blatant attempt at smuggling Social Analysis 10, “Principles of Economics,” into a college-wide requirement. The centerpiece of “The Market and Society” component would, in reality, be one course. The other courses—in political economy and economic history—would probably count for the “United States and the World” or the “Societies of the World” categories.

The most important criticism, however, is that “The Market and Society” is largely unnecessary and redundant. Advocates of such a requirement express a deep concern that hordes of undergraduates will leave Harvard ignorant of the difference between nominal and real interest rates. Such fears, however, are ill-founded.

The economics concentration is already the largest on campus with over 600 undergraduates. Not only that, but the social studies, environmental science and public policy, and government concentrations count it for concentration credit, which increases the number of economics students by a large margin. This fall, for example, 945 students are taking Ec 10. The bottom line: There is simply no danger of economics being understudied.

Even if one were not satisfied by the number of students already taking the course, there is little need to create an entirely new Core category. One solution would have seen economic reasoning integrated into the “Analytical Reasoning” or the “United States and the World” categories.

Economics, in this way, would have been utilized as a powerful tool to understand social phenomena in an integrated, interdisciplinary manner.

Instead, the Staff has attempted to elevate it to some vaporous, imaginary plane, and in doing so, has isolated it from things that might have given it meaning. The irony, of course, is that “The Market and Society” requirement seems to have been driven less by pragmatic decision-making than by a kind of irrational exuberance.

William E. Johnston ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Adams House. Sahil K. Mahtani ’08, a Crimson editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Winthrop House.

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