Harvard Students Rebel: Why They Don't Have An Effective Protest

Yesterday, a group of Harvard students walked out on conservative, New Keysian economist Greg Mankiw’s Economics 10 class because they believed it had a strong conservative bias which “espouse[d] a specific - and limited - view of economics that… perpetuates problematic and inefficient systems of economic inequality in our society today." Mankiw was previously chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under the Bush Administration from 2003 to 2005 and later became economic adviser to Mitt Romney in 2006. The students’ open letter to Mankiw is slightly unfair, because if they truly subscribe to the values of a “quality liberal arts education,” then they would have stayed and debated with Mankiw instead of just walking out.

The idea of academics not bringing their personal biases into their lessons is impossible. The very environment of academia encourages critical evaluation of ideas and development of one’s own opinion. An academic’s success is built on defending and articulating one’s views. Thus, most professors are likely to strongly hold on to their personal beliefs and view everything in that light - psychology studies on the ‘confirmation bias’ state that individuals tend to fit oncoming information into their existing beliefs. In the process of discussing the readings assigned to various courses, professors inevitably bring their own judgment to the viewpoint being discussed.

In a related article exploring the dominance of liberals in academic institutes, John Tierney argues that conservatives tend to consciously avoid entering into academia, because they understand the difficulties in succeeding in a liberal environment. Whether or not liberals actually dominate academia, as long as this self-selection process is occurring, eventually the image of a liberal-dominated academic environment becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The walkout on Mankiw, one of the minority conservative academics, demonstrates how a “liberal” environment can perpetuate the dominance of liberal politics in academia. Conservative academics seem to have a double standard applied to them: Mankiw’s classes were assumed to promote a conservative bias, though rarely do we hear of a liberal bias.

The students who already subscribe to the view that Mankiw’s class will be biased are ironically not behaving in a manner contiguous to their beliefs. Liberals, at least in the classic John Stuart Mill sense of the term, should be accepting of various opinions. Mill himself also believed in the need to publicize all sorts of information, whether or not one believes in them, because it would open up debate that would eventually expose erroneous beliefs. If these students wanted to convince Mankiw of how his views might reflect a “corporatization of higher education,” they should have stayed and debated their points. To first do this, they need to understand Mankiw’s argument, then apply their own critiques to the issue.

Moreover, what sort of message does walking out on a professor’s class send? It might set a precedent for students to believe that walking out is a logical and acceptable way of dealing with a disagreement. But the act merely postpones the disagreements, and does not leave Mankiw with an option to respond. The fact that they walked out on an income inequality lecture means they are missing out on potentially convincing Mankiw of their beliefs on an issue that that Mankiw could have significant influence on.

If these students wanted to “use their education for good," as one organizer of the walkout claimed, then they should have gone to class and tried to convince Mankiw of their opinion, as many university students across the U.S. do on a daily basis.

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