A brief history of Harvard’s EC 10 (introductory economics) course

Interesting bit by Cher Applewhaite.

“For the umpteenth year in a row Economics 10, ‘Principles of Economics,’ led the list of largest courses taken at Harvard.” This reads like a Crimson headline from last semester, but in fact it’s from the Fall of 1978.

To the many undergraduates who take it, and the many graduate students who teach it, Ec10 is—for better or worse—a pillar of Harvard’s liberal arts education, perennially popular but oft-critiqued. The history of the course shows that the unbound textbook used today, priced at $131, was not always how Harvard students got their start in the discipline of economics.

“Contrary to popular belief, Ec10 was never designed to be a pipeline for lower Manhattan,” says David W. Johnson, a former head teaching fellow who taught sections from 1980s until 2014.

Indeed, lower Manhattan was the furthest thing from Harvard’s original introductory economics course, Economics 1. According to a 1896 syllabus entitled “Lectures on Economic Development,” students were required to read books on topics ranging from philosophy to anthropology. This interdisciplinary focus meant students had to consider why economic history was a useful topic of study.

Only three professors have led the course since the 1960s: Otto Eckstein, Martin Feldstein, and N. Gregory Mankiw. All were, at some point during their careers, either members or chairs of the government’s Council of Economic Advisors.


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