A Princeton economics professor analyzes the sixties’ – era youth activist movement:

“Student radicalism is a luxury item, economically speaking. It was not the children of the poor who were out there marching. It was the children of the upper middle and wealthier classes who formed the backbone of the movement. The late sixties was a good job market, and students naturally thought that this situation would continue. But now that there’s somewhat of a pinch, students have come down to earth more.”

That coming-down-to-earth process has led many Princeton students, who five years ago would have been taking more human-oriented majors, such as sociology or philosophy, to major instead in one of the more technical disciplines, such as the hard sciences or economics.

“It’s all tied in with inflation and the job market,” said Assistant Professor Alan S. Blinder, an intense fast-speaking macroeconomics and income distribution specialist who takes care to apologize when he is being imprecise and casual. “For Ph.D’s., for example, it’s terrible. Someone getting a Ph.D. in comparative literature or history or philosophy – or even physics, now – they’re not getting anything…It used to be fashionable to shout down those who wanted to be dispassionate and cheer those who said, ‘Right on.’ But not now with the economy the way it is.”

With the economy the way it is, it seems that the only people who are getting jobs are economics majors. “It’s true that everyone who graduated from this department with a Ph.D.,” said Blinder, “and who wanted a job as a professor got one. You can’t say that for many departments.

“And if you’re not interested in academics, economics as an undergraduate major opens the door to law and business schools, and that about covers all of it. The only major group we don’t have is pre-meds.”

There’s no doubt that Princeton students who five years ago, at the height of student radicalism, might have been taking majors such as art or “soshe” (which has dropped from a high of 155 people in the department in 1969-70 to only thirty-six last year) are now aiming themselves toward more job-amenable majors.

“Everyone’s looking to get into law school,” said one senior economics major, studying for his law SATs. “And if it’s not law, then it’s business or government work. No one wants to learn for its own sake. We can’t afford it.”

Economics, which suffered drops in number of majors in 1968-69 and 1969-70, is now reaping the benefits of the new student consciousness. “Economics tends to have a hardheaded, rational approach,” Blinder explained. “You won’t get a lot of sloganeering here. A lot of other departments have more sex appeal, but I always say there’s a difference between teaching ‘relevance,’ and ‘relevance, baby.’ We’re relevant, but we don’t teach ‘relevance, baby’ here.”

Blinder sees a simple cause-and-effect mechanism between the economy and political activism. He believes boom conditions in the sixties provided the financial security to enable a youth movement with a heart but no brain to function. “Now it seems that there’s a brain but no heart.”

But the assistant professor’s views are not shared by all economics faculty members. Professor Richard E. Quandt, who has been at Princeton since 1956 and served as economics department chairman from 1969 to 1971, explains, “Student interest [in economics] has been going up the past four years. If the interest were just in the past twelve months, you could say that there’s a cause-effect process. But the economy has not been going down for four or five years.”

Blinder and Quandt also diverge on whether economics and the study of economics is essentially different now as a result of student pressures in the sixties. Both agree that students reacted against what they perceived to be lack of social awareness in economics. Blinder says, “The economics major used to be more conservative than the college population as a whole. Now he’s fairly representative. And the economics major hasn’t really changed.”

But Quandt feels economics has moved from being a mere tool of bureaucracy to a potent force for social change in such areas as pollution control and poverty reduction. His voice grows quieter as he tells an anecdote about the depth and power of student-hurled challenges against the establishment in the sixties.

“It’s funny how time passes. Nineteen sixty-eight is vivid in my mind. It was a time when many students, and faculty as well, grew tremendously fed up. The way in which the war affected us was to instill a feeling that the whole thing was a fake, that we were put into this against our will. The disgust many people felt with the tools – and economics was a tool – extended to economics. We had been advertising that economics had the means to solve social problems – and students said, ‘Bullshit. We’re still in the war.’ And they flocked to other departments.

“In October, 1968, I had just taken the job as chairman, and there was an undergraduate who came to see me – the first undergraduate who’d sought me out in my new job as chairman. He came in the office and asked why economics was important, why it should be studied. The student said, ‘Look around. Economics doesn’t help here, it doesn’t help there…’

“And I gave him a typical middle-aged professor kind of answer. I said, ‘Look here, we are just beginning to learn about things like urban economics, pollution, poverty. All these things take time, but they point toward gradually finding solutions.’ He looked at me and said, ‘But, sir. Your answers are not apocalyptic.’

“For the students, that was what was needed: apocalyptic solutions. Careful, brick-by-brick work just wouldn’t be enough.”

While conceding that such an attitude engendered some changes in the science of economics, Professor Quandt concluded, “I guess that feeling has mostly vanished now.”

This was originally published in the October 8, 1974 issue of PAW.