Ashwin Kambhampati ’14
“I am an economics and mathematics major. I feel, though, that I am an Oberlin major; the liberal arts approach helping me discover the subjectivities involved with looking at the world though different lenses.”
In conversations with strangers or friends, I usually have a tough time answering the perennial question, “What is your major"? Over time, I have refined my answer, by including qualifiers and pauses, to convey that I can sometimes think like that, but that my concentrations somehow fail to describe my Oberlin education.
In high school, I enjoyed history the most. In class, we often categorized developments into three distinct categories: social, political, and economic. At the time, the narrative that economic modes of production drove the other two seemed most accurate. so when I decided to take my first economics class as a senior I was perhaps unknowingly doing so on quasi-Marxist grounds. Initially, I was fascinated by the methodology of economics since it used relatively simple modeling techniques to prescribe precise, elegant solutions to complex social problems. In fact, it seemed, almost every problem in society was caused by an ill-informed policymaker who failed to grasp economic logic, and that these problems had clear, direct solutions.
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Sitting in intermediate microeconomics during my second semester at Oberlin, I am concerned by how stunningly reductive the economic paradigm seems. For mathematical clarity and consistency, the basic theory drops out the social and the political, assuming distinct, functional forms for both of them. History is no longer the topical driver; instead, it is used to find anecdotes to illustrate how the models work in specific instances. My politics class seems more helpful in thinking about society. Subjective narratives are considered, and ought questions are discussed. What are the moral and value ramifications of various modes of production? To what extent is economic efficiency desirable? How should we think of the interactions between the social, the political, and the economic?
This skepticism of “objective” thinking and interest in open questions links me to my fellow Obies and is a part our identity. Wandering, I become interested in questions about the nature of knowledge and the extent to which we can learn about the world through mathematics and language. I take two math classes, one introducing the logic of proof-based mathematics and another, a seminar, using math to create art. Through these tangents, I begin to understand that economics uses abstractions in order to capture the nature of specific relations, not necessarily to present a descriptively accurate picture of society, though it often seems to be described as doing the latter. At the same time, I become involved with economic research and begin to feel that the things that bother me can be inspiration. I remain apprehensive, stones are left unturned, but I continue.
* * * * *
I am an economics and mathematics major. I feel, though, that I am an Oberlin major; the liberal arts approach helping me discover the subjectivities involved with looking at the world though different lenses. This past semester I worked at the President’s Council of Economic Advisers at the White House, where economics is almost directly applied to policy. Yet, I feel, now, that my appreciation for the complex nature of social questions is deeper. I keep with me the broader, philosophical methods of inquiry I have gained through my experiences at Oberlin.
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