15 December 2011

Frivolous Walk-Out: Classy Response

Early this month, Harvard students staged a walk-out in a class taught by professor Greg Mankiw. You can read their explanation here.

It takes a lot of scrolling down through the comments to get to what I had to say about that, so I'll save you the work, dear blog reader.

They’re students at Harvard, yet they can’t express themselves better than this? I’m dismayed. Here’s a simple stylistic point: “basic” and “fundamental,” in the sense in which those terms are both used in the final sentence of the third graph, are synonyms. To use both with a disjunctive, “more fundamental or basic,” is just bizaare or eerie. [See what I did there?]

Far more important, there IS of course a reason why Adam Smith’s work should be taken as more “fundamental or basic” than Keynes’. It is in point of historical fact more basic. Keynes, whether you agree with him or not, was building on a century and a half of prior work. Keynes and Smith are not competitors any more than Einstein and Newton are competitors. In each pairing, the work of the former would simply have been inconceivable without the prior contributions of the latter.

If you think you have mastered Newton, then you can go on to the study Einstein, and perhaps some day to have an intelligent opinion about Higgs’ boson. Otherwise, you’re likely to end up confusing a boson with a North American bison.

Indeed, this is what Mankiw himself has said about the situation. I confess I hadn't checked out his response before writing the above, but I've seen it now, and he has sensibly risen above the rancor directed his way. He has posted on his blog a video of a recent half-hour talk on 'heterodox' economics, and   he has suggested in a single well-wrought paragraph that his main disagreement with the "Occupy Harvard" group is pedagogical.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.