Agrees With Me About College

According to Bryan Caplan, “our [higher] educational system is a big waste of time and money.” He is writing a book about this — yay! He attended college at the place I know the most about — UC Berkeley. Here is why it is a big waste of time. Professors can only teach what they know. All they truly know how to do is how to be a professor. At a research university, that mainly involves doing research. Berkeley professors can teach how to do research, sure, but that has little to do with what most Berkeley students will do after they graduate. So a lot of time is wasted. It is most unfortunate to (a) require all students to imitate professors and (b) to rank them according to how well they do so.

In response to Caplan, Catherine Johnson says her undergraduate education was useful. But she became a nonfiction writer — very close, in the big world of work, to what professors do. That’s one of those exceptions that prove the rule.

I think practically everyone learns well if any of three conditions are met:

  • Apprenticeship. You want to be good at doing X, you will learn by watching someone skillful do X. Effortlessly.
  • Guru. If you think of so-and-so as a guru, you will learn from him or her. Effortlessly.
  • Stories. Stories teach values. Things associated with the hero become considered good and desirable; things associated with the villain become considered bad and to be avoided. Effortlessly.
  • Most university classes, however, fulfill none of these conditions. On the face of it, university classes teach; but crucial details are missing. It’s like butter and margarine. Margarine is supposed to be as good as butter but it’s not. There is a superficial resemblance but margarine lacks crucial vitamins that butter contains. Because university classes lack crucial elements, they are forced to use grades, tests, and fear of failure as motivation. These motivators don’t work very well, as Alfie Kohn among others has pointed out. Sort of for the same reason Humpty-Dumpty couldn’t be put back together again.

    10 Responses to “Agrees With Me About College”

    1. Tim Lundeen Says:

      I agree with you about the value of stories. Have you read the recent book “Made To Stick”, which makes the same point among other? Highly recommended.

    2. seth Says:

      No I haven’t read it. Thanks for recommending it.

    3. pdf23ds Says:

      One thing about college that I’m not sure how you’d get in an alternative system is that you meet a lot of people in your major and the associated social circles that are much more like you, on average, than anyone you’ll ever meet anywhere else. This is a great place to find a wife or husband, and a great place to form contacts you could use in the future. You can meet business partners to start a company with. I certainly don’t like most aspects of college, but the social aspects are very important for some people.

    4. seth Says:

      I agree, those are important benefits. You’d get them in an alternative system by having students live together.

    5. Willy Says:

      Goog article.

      The problem with Apprenticeship and Gurus is to find one and get accepted by them.

      How to enter the social group you are interested in would be a good subject. many times it is not so easy as just asking them or showing interest.

    6. Kathleen Says:

      Pdf brings up a good point, associated circles altho my take on it is a little different, not social related as he intends it.

      Maybe if you’re already middle class and exposed to a range of experiences and knowledge, college is a wash. However, if you’re from the other side of the tracks with diminished social experiences and opportunities, college is a great leveler. It gives you opportunities you’d never had known otherwise. I wasn’t going to find my guru cleaning sewers. In the end, college is only what you put into it and what you take away; it’s a smörgÃ¥sbord and I couldn’t eat enough.

    7. seth Says:

      I agree that college acts as a leveler — that’s a good point. I think all education has that effect. A better college — a college that did a better job of educating — would have more of a levelling effect, I believe.

    8. pdf23ds Says:

      If the paul graham essay you link in a more recent post is right (about a major economic shift to most people being self-employed), then college-as-credentials-for-resumes would cease to be a major factor, and thus be less important for leveling. (Most information you learn in college can be learned more efficiently in other ways, so self-employed people would prefer those other ways.)

    9. seth Says:

      Good point. I doubt that “most people [will be] self-employed” within the next 100 years but I do believe that businesses will become smaller on average. I think credentialism thrives in big businesses because it protects the person doing the hiring — the acronym is CYA.

    10. Ruvell Says:

      An intlelgient point of view, well expressed! Thanks!