Thursday, May 15, 2008

Ec 10 and Gen Ed

Today's Crimson covers the debate over where introductory economics fits within Harvard's new General Education requirements. For those interested in this inside-baseball topic, here is the full email I sent the reporter:
Ultimately, the issues involving ec 10 and Gen Ed are for the university and economics department. I just happen to be the current instructor running the course, so my personal opinion should not be given undue weight. Ec 10 has a long, distinguished history that predates me and will continue long after I retire. I have, however, been consulting with the chairman (Jim Stock) and director of undergraduate studies (Jeff Miron) on the issue.

Having said that, here is my personal opinion:

I did not particularly like the new Gen Ed requirements when they were first passed, and based on what I have seen to date, my opinion of them has not improved. I continue to believe that a simpler, more conventional set of distribution requirements would better serve the students. The committee that drafted the new Gen Ed rules tried to produce something more innovative than the kind of distribution requirements that other schools have. In the end, the process generated a product that was innovative but inferior. Unfortunately, it looks like we have little choice now but to live with it.

One problem is that the drafters seemed to have inadequate appreciation of the role of analytic social science. The debate over where ec 10 fits in the new requirements is a symptom of these flaws.

The Gen Ed committee appears to think that ec 10 should fit into "Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning." I believe, however, that this placement would be a mistake. The theories developed in ec 10 are extraordinarily basic. No math is used beyond what a typical Harvard student would have learned in the 8th or 9th grade. (This makes Ec 10 differ from the intermediate-level theory courses in microeconomics and macroeconomics, which use substantially more mathematics and are more oriented to developing tools for economics majors.) It would be a mistake to consider Ec 10 a good substitute for a course in mathematics or statistics.

The better placement for the course would be "The United States in the World." This category is supposed to include courses that "examine American social, political, legal, cultural, and/or economic institutions, practices, and behavior, from contemporary, historical, and/or analytical perspectives." Ec 10 develops primarily an "analytical" perspective on "American...economic institutions, practices, and behavior," while also including discussion of historical episodes and contemporary policy debates.

Does it matter a lot for ec 10 whether it is part of Gen Ed and, if so, where? Probably not. Harvard students are a smart lot. Many of them come in with a sense that they should learn some basic economics. They read the news. Their parents and older classmates alert them to the importance of the field. I have no doubt that whatever the Gen Ed committee ends up doing, ec 10 will remain a large, vibrant course.