Economics classes are reputed to deal primarily in cold, hard numbers: dollars and cents, imports and exports, stocks and bonds. Not so in “Economics and Social Justice,” a course taught this past winter by economics professor Mike Hemesath, who also directs Ethical Inquiry at Carleton (EthIC), the College’s ethical studies program. As senior Jason Perkins discovered, this class covered topics that couldn’t be tackled in a spreadsheet.
With the help of works by Immanuel Kant, Amartya Sen, Peter Singer, and other philosophers, Perkins and his classmates discussed a range of issues: How do we create lives of purpose? How do making money and serving others intersect? What does it mean to be philanthropic?
“People think that when you talk about economics, you’re only talking about things like the gross national product,” Perkins says. “But it’s so much more than that. The way we organize a society economically reflects, in some ways, the way we view ourselves as human beings.”
The class is one of several courses offered as part of EthIC, a collection of academic and extracurricular offerings designed to give students a way to discuss—and forge—their values. Hemesath’s position as director is funded by the Gert Noël Endowment for EthIC Faculty Leadership, created with a $1 million gift from Marc and Cecile Noël and their children, Wendy Noël ’06, Judith Noël, and Michael Noël.
For Perkins, a history major from Muncie, Indiana, the economics course was a way to bring academic rigor to a topic—social justice—that he often thinks about outside the classroom. He has volunteered at Northfield Middle School and spent time in Biloxi, Mississippi, to help with reconstruction efforts a few months after Hurricane Katrina. “I have a strong interest in community service and leadership, but those things aren’t really included in the normal Carleton course catalog,” he says. He believes classes with a strong ethical reflection component give him a more nuanced under-standing of the value of this work.
EthIC courses are designed not to provide answers, but to provide the structure to ask important questions, Hemesath says. “All students will be faced with ethical dilemmas throughout their personal and professional lives,” he says. “I believe we can help give them the tools to think about these issues.”
Courses such as Hemesath’s have proved popular, and the EthIC program’s endowment will give students even more curricular opportunities to consider ethical issues in the world around them. “EthIC was conceived to expand these options so all students will engage regularly in ethical inquiry as part of their Carleton experience,” Hemesath explains.
Perkins also has taken “Ethics of Economic Growth,” and both classes have helped him confirm that a future career in community service is the right path for him, he says.
After graduation, he will go to South Carolina as part of the service organization City Year, where he’ll spend a year tutoring and mentoring elementary school children. “By reflecting on ethical principles that underlie the work I hope to do, I’ve been reassured that the work is important and needs to be done,” he says.