Bridging the gap: Income inequality focus of unique course at Union

Publication Date

Union has joined the national conversation over income inequality with an informative and innovative new course this term.

Drawing on the expertise of professors from history, economics, psychology, literature, political science, biology, environmental studies and sociology, “Inequality: Economic and Social Perspectives,” allows students to explore an issue prominent in the news. The topic is also a central theme in the 2016 presidential election campaign.

A Pew Research Center analysis of wealth last year found the gap between America’s upper-income and middle-income families reached its highest level on record. The disparity is also stark in many other parts around the globe.

“Although society has always been unequal, the most astute minds in academia and in the broader public began to ask why worldwide inequality is at such historically high proportions,” said Teresa Meade, the Florence B. Sherwood Professor of History and Culture.

Each year the College offers an interdisciplinary course open to all students that focuses on a single topic and is taught by a variety of professors. Known as the Minerva Course, the course also includes lectures by accomplished guests.

Inspired in part by French economist Thomas Piketty’s massive, best-selling 2014 book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” Meade and Eshragh Motahar, professor of economics, set out to design a course that presented a historical overview of inequality and how it’s portrayed in culture, including in films, literature and psychology.

“It was through conversations with students here at Union, and an awareness that other colleges and universities where discussing the issues of inequality, as well as Piketty’s theories, that Eshi and I became convinced that this was a topic that could only be understood from a broad perspective,” Meade said.

Among the topics addressed is “Schenectady as Inequality Action Laboratory?” (Mary O’Keeffe, who teaches economics); “The Psychology of Inequality: How do People Think About Inequality? How Should People Think About Inequality?” (Christopher Chabris, associate professor of psychology and co-director of the neuroscience program); and “Sense and Sensibility: Patriarchy and Primogeniture” (Kara Doyle, associate professor of English).

Erin Delman ’12 returns to campus Oct. 26 to discuss “The inequality of climate change: A vulnerability-benefit analysis of fossil fuel CO2 emissions.” Delman is a Ph.D. candidate in geology at University of California at Irvine.

Outside experts include Greg Grandin, NYU professor and author of “The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World,” which won the Bancroft Prize in American History and was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize in the UK (Sept. 28); Stephanie Coontz, who teaches history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. (Oct. 5); and Steve Fraser, visiting professor at NYU, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of “The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power” (Oct. 12).

The class meets Monday and Wednesday from 7 to 8:45 p.m. in Olin 115. The talks by Gandin, Coontz and Fraser are in the Nott Memorial. There are also special events in the Minerva Houses.

There are 43 students registered for the course, but all lectures are free and open to the campus community and public.

For a complete schedule, click here.

As Motahar and Meade explain, “we sought to put together a class that allowed our students to delve into one of the most important issues of the day. The Minerva Class interdisciplinary format was an ideal platform for teaching this subject.”

Past Minerva Course topics have included presidential elections, oil, food, technology and society, and globalization.