Saturday, August 17, 2013

"Saving Your Children from a Harvard Education"

That is the title of Jeff Madrick's "Anti-Economist" column in the September Harper's Magazine. (Sorry, bBehind a paywall.) The particular part of a Harvard education from which Madrick wants to save your children is the part offered by Harvard economists, including Greg Mankiw and Niall Ferguson in particular, but with an honorable mention to Ken Rogoff also for his blunder about economic growth and national debt -- discovered only when he finally released his data, and never adequately retracted.

Madrick quotes from this blog in a couple of places. I'll just include his bottom line.
The embarrassing fate of Reinhart and Rogoff’s work has helped to quiet some of the calls for austerity. Perhaps it will also encourage more soul- searching of the kind Harry Lewis has undertaken. 
“One of the reasons that moral courage is lacking in the [United States] is that it is lacking in universities,” Lewis wrote recently. "As institutions, they now operate much more like ordinary corporations, fearful of bad publicity, eager to stay on good terms with the government, and focused on their bottom lines, than as boiling cauldrons of unconventional ideas sorted out through a process of disputation, debate, and occasional dramatic gestures." 
It may be a very long time before the change Lewis describes is re- versed. Until then, we should at least be less willing to accept an idea just because a name-brand university is attached to it. 
We at Harvard never acknowledge that anything our professors do is embarrassing, or worse. Not Shleifer and his conspiracy to defraud the government, not Michael Porter and his canoodling with the Ghaddafis, not Ferguson and his high-priced, homophobic speechifying, not the educational negligence in the Government Department that led to last year's "cheating scandal," not Summers and his double-dipping. There is great irony in this -- the standard excuse for institutional moral neutrality is academic freedom: it would chill discourse if any university official were to point out that these people are, to paraphrase what one professor said to me, staining the uniform the rest of us wear. Rank and file faculty also rarely speak up, because the entire incentive and reward system of the university is directed toward the opinions of our professional peers elsewhere, not toward critical love for our own institutions. Sooner or later, however, society will get fed up with us for tolerating destructive nonsense from our fellow professors, and will stop giving all of us the respect and support we need to pursue our mission.

[Added 20 Aug: It was observed to me that there is no need for me to apologize for linking to an article behind a paywall, and in fact I should be encouraging people to spend the few bucks needed to gain access to the article, and much more. Publishing longish, thoughtful essays is important and not a money business these days, so I am happy to encourage readers to help preserve it.]

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