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Everything Wrong with Ec 10

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Economics 10: “Principles of Economics,” is perhaps the most notoriously bloated course on campus. It seems like almost every other freshman you meet is enrolled in the course, and almost every other Harvard senior has taken the course at some point in their illustrious college careers. It is supposedly taught by the world-renowned economist N. Gregory Mankiw, but in reality, it is really taught by tired graduate students with some background in economics. Some enrolled students may still be very much enthused about Ec 10, but the vast majority have more than a few bones to pick with the course and Mankiw himself. From exorbitantly overpriced textbooks to the narrow economic framework students are exposed to, Ec 10 has a lot of room for improvement, to say the least.

To begin with, enrolling in the course comes with a hefty $132 price tag. Every student is forced to purchase new a loose-leaf copy of Mankiw’s textbook in order to receive an access code to an online software on which all problem set questions and quizzes must be completed. With hundreds of students enrolled in the course each year, it is not hard to imagine the sheer amount of money Mankiw rakes in from this monopoly on textbooks. Sure, after facing backlash, Mankiw declared that royalties from his course materials would be donated to charity, but that merely sidesteps the crux of the issue at hand — the costly barrier of enrollment and the inaccessibility of the course. Students who are socioeconomically disadvantaged should not have to face additional financial strain to enroll in classes they have academic interests in. The fact that it is an important prerequisite for several concentrations further compounds the necessity of Ec 10 being more financially accessible to students of all backgrounds.

Besides exorbitantly priced textbooks, the greatest problem with Ec 10 is its curriculum — the singular approach to economics that is taught. Students are exposed to one framework for interpreting economic and policy principles, for evaluating economic failures, and for resolving economic problems. Students are taught that market efficiency is often fundamentally opposed to equity, the economy more often does better with the market regulating itself, and market competitivity always creates better economic outcomes. In his textbook, Mankiw argues that equity and efficiency are “two goals [which] often conflict,” that policies such as progressive taxation often sacrifice too much market efficiency to achieve more equality, and that free trade is beneficial for the development of all countries. Empirical evidence contrary to these neoliberal assertions exists in the mainstream, but fails to be discussed in the course unless individual TFs decide to mention different economic frameworks. Instead, neoclassical economic theories are posited as objective, universally true laws when they are not, while a wide variety of factors that influence economic behavior and phenomena are overlooked and discounted as economic systems and interactions are misleadingly oversimplified. It is reasonable that an introductory course simplifies material to build a foundational understanding upon which students can acquire more knowledge. But it is problematic when this simplification bends a particular way, implicitly and explicitly endorsing notions as objectively accurate when contradictory theories and interpretations exist in the mainstream.

When a course has nearly 700 students, when a course itself is a prerequisite to declare a notable number of concentrations, and when a course teaches principles and theories that will be the only exposure to economics many students will ever have, there is an increased degree of responsibility on the part of the course head to ensure students recognize the breadth of perspectives, interpretations, and critiques that exist in the discipline. A guest lecture about once every month, or four times a semester by Mankiw himself (discounting the two basic introductory presentations on the course during shopping week) is not nearly enough to expose students to different economic frameworks and perspectives, especially when lectures are loosely tied to section curriculum and offer limited insights on viewing economic phenomena differently. Guest lectures certainly help to make economic concepts taught in section less abstract, but they do not change the fact that the section material — based on Mankiw’s textbook — is oversimplified with a partisan bent. A plurality of perspectives and critiques of the main framework used to teach concepts in Ec 10 needs to be integrated into the curriculum in some form or another, or at the very least recognized and discussed in sections.

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Ec 10 may be one of the most popular courses on campus, but that is in spite of its flaws. The course, as it is, poses significant and unfair financial barriers to many students, and teaches an inadequate, limited framework that misleadingly oversimplifies economic theories and concepts. If Harvard truly wants to foster the next generation of diverse, critical thinkers, Ec 10 needs to change.

K. Cathy Sun ‘22, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Thayer Hall.

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