Bryan Caplan Disses College

In this post, Bryan Caplan says (again) that college is vastly overrated. Like me, he says that the only thing college professors know how to do is be professors and that is all they can actually teach. Graduate school, where professors teach students who want to be professors, makes sense. Undergraduate school, where almost no students will become professors, does not. Like me, he ridicules the idea that professors teach students “how to think”.

He omits half of my criticism. It isn’t just teaching (“how to think” — please!), it’s also evaluation. Professors are terrible at evaluation. Their method of judging student work is very simple: How close is it to what I would have done? The better you can imitate the professor, no matter what the class, the higher your grade. This is one size fits all with a vengeance because there is no opting out. Sure, you can choose your major. But every class is taught by a professor. What if your strengths lie elsewhere — in something that your professors aren’t good at? Tough luck. Your strengths will never be noticed or encouraged or developed.

At Berkeley (where Bryan went and I taught) and universities generally, the highest praise is brilliant. Professor X is brilliant. Or: Brilliant piece of work. People can do great things in dozens of ways, but somehow student work is almost never judged by how beautiful, courageous, practical, good-tasting, astonishing, vivid, funny, moving, comfortable, and so on it is. Because that’s not what professors are good at. (Except in the less-academic departments, such as art and engineering.) To fail to grasp that students can excel in dozens of ways is to seriously shortchange them. To value them at much less than they are worth — and, above all, to fail to help them grow and find their place in the world after college.

At Berkeley, I figured this out in a way that a libertarian should appreciate: I gave my students much more choice. For a term project, I said they could do almost anything so long as it was off-campus and didn’t involve library work. What they chose to do revealed a lot. I began to see not just how different they were from me but how different they were from each other. One of my students chose to give a talk to a high-school class. This was astonishing because she has severe stage fright. Every step was hard. But she did it. “I learned that if I really wanted to, I could conquer my fear,” she wrote.

One of my Tsinghua students recently asked me: “Are you a brave man?” (She wanted to give me a gift of stinky tofu.) I said no. She said she thought I was brave for coming to China. Perhaps. I have never done anything as brave as what my student with stage fright did. I have never done something that terrified me — much less chosen to do such a thing. Her homework hadn’t been very good. When I read about her term project — conquering stage fright — I realized how badly I had misjudged her. How badly I had failed to appreciate her strengths. I saw that it wasn’t just her and it wasn’t just me. By imposing just one narrow way to excel, the whole system badly undervalued almost everyone. Almost everyone had strengths the system ignored. And it’s a system almost everyone must go through to reach a position of power!

This is related to what I call the hemineglect of economists — they fail to see that innovation should be half of economics. Diversity of talents and interests is central to innovation because new things are so often mixtures of old things. By rewarding only one kind of talent, colleges suppress diversity of talent and thereby reduce innovation. (It’s no coincidence that Steve Jobs, whom we associate with innovation, didn’t finish college. He saw his talents wouldn’t be valued.) Psychologists are also guilty of this. Many psychologists glorify IQ. Somehow having a high IQ is crucial to success . . . somehow a society that doesn’t encourage people with high IQs will do badly. And so on. In The Bell Curve, Herrnstein and Murray showed that high IQ scores correlated with other measures of desirable social outcomes (e.g., income — people with higher IQ scores made more money). Like many successful people, they failed to see the possibility that the whole world had been shaped to reward the things that the people in power (i.e., they themselves) are good at. Not because those talents work (= produce a better economy). But because they are easy to measure (by college grades). The glorification of IQ has had a solipsistic aspect and has ignored what should be obvious, that diversity of talents and skills promotes innovation. Without a diverse talent pool, any society will do a poor job of solving the problems that inevitably arise.

35 Responses to “Bryan Caplan Disses College”

  1. Ashish Says:

    I went to Berkeley. Without disagreeing with much of what you say, college is valuable as a signaling device: where you get in (cost is changing that), what you choose to study, whether/how you get through it.

  2. Shawn Says:

    I think you overestimate the the usefulness of what you call a “diversity” of talents, if diversity is to encompass the entire range in IQ. There is no advantage in having a low-IQ (IQ is roughly 50% heritable, BTW).

  3. by Says:

    Just about everything you said in this post, I wouldn’t have expected you to say.

  4. Seth Roberts Says:

    Just about everything you said in this post, I wouldn’t have expected you to say.

    Such as? I’ve made all of these points several times before.

  5. Seth Roberts Says:

    There is no advantage in having a low-IQ

    Interesting point. I agree, to encourage a diversity of talents (in contrast to simply trying to get the highest possible IQ) among a group of people would indeed reduce their average IQ. But I don’t see how this supports the idea that I overestimate the usefulness of a diversity of talents.

  6. Seth Roberts Says:

    college is valuable as a signaling device,

    You mean: valuable to students? Only if you get into a good college. It’s like grades: They are helpful if you are good at what they measure or want to be good at what they measure (then they provide useful feedback). If not, they are unhelpful. Suppose you want a career in public speaking. Grades don’t measure that. They are uncorrelated to your public speaking ability.

  7. Jim Purdy Says:

    Since every credible theory has to have a name and an acronym, let me propose my “Molted Paradigm Theory (MPT).”

    In the first few years of life, each human is spoon-fed a whole set of overly simplistic explanations for the universe around us — Santa Claus, tooth fairies, gods, devils, talking serpents, whatever.

    Some people never outgrow those simplistic childhood myths. They become preachers, Fox News anchors, and Republican presidential candidates.

    It is not easy to shed old paradigms, and many people choose to never question the fables of their parents. This tendency is so strong that ancient creation myths become fossilized into religions that chastise anyone who dares question the old tales.

    Fortunately, many people eventually outgrow the most simple stories, and progress through a series of ever-more-complex paradigms.

    And that is where good schools and good teachers make a difference: They are there to help their proteges through the process of shedding or molting the old paradigms.

    The childhood paradigms are essential to teach early lessons about life and social responsibility (Santa’s naughty or nice list?), but it can be troubling when it becomes necessary to discard those old comforting paradigms.

    That is where good teachers matter: to be there when an individual needs help shedding or molting an old paradigm.

    Seth, you and your colleagues don’t have to know what your proteges will do in the future. You just have to encourage them as they molt.

  8. by Says:

    [i]Such as? I’ve made all of these points several times before.[/i]

    I meant it as a positive comment.

    You criticized traditional education in other posts, but I didn’t expect you to put forth the idea that students would be good judges of what activities to undertake to help them learn. I guess in general I expect mentors or teachers to feel that with their longer life experience, they can make better decisions for younger people on how to spend their time.

    I also didn’t expect you to say that you didn’t “think you were a brave man,” or to give so much respect to a student for overcoming stage fright. I agree that that student did a brave thing, but didn’t think you would think it worth mentioning how you compared yourself to her, and that you would say you misjudged her by looking at her homework scores.

    I may have missed earlier posts of yours though. I’ve read about 60% of the posts on your blog.

  9. Mark Says:

    Seth, I really appreciate these posts (and your blog in general, by the way). An anecdote you might appreciate:

    I went to Berkeley, too, and as a very bright and intellectually curious 17-year-old first semester freshman, I got a very surprising lesson. After getting the first “C” of my entire life on the first midterm of an intro sociology course, I went to an informational session about the grading of the midterm presided over by one of the grad student instructors.

    I listened very carefully to what the GSI said in response to each question posed to him by disgruntled students (all of which were variations on “why weren’t my exam answers worthy of an A?”) After maybe half a dozen responses by the GSI, I discovered a clear (albeit never explicitly stated) theme: to get an ‘A’, you needed to regurgitate EXACTLY what the professor had said in lecture.

    This completely shocked me (hey, I was only 17). This was a Sociology class taught by an (allegedly) “cutting edge” professor who said lots of radical things (well, they were radical to me). This had actually inspired me to make a genuine effort to analyze what he said and introduce my own ideas into my exam essay responses on the first midterm. If my analysis sucked (certainly possible), that would have been one thing, but I was stunned to have been penalized simply for *attempting* analysis!

    I never bothered to ask the GSI about my particular exam at that session. I walked out, proceeded to memorize the professor’s lectures and (quite literally) transcribe them into subsequent midterm and final exam responses. I got perfect scores on every remaining test, and an A+ semester grade in the class.

    This approach worked in most of my other Berkeley classes, as well (I was a social sciences major). I got a whole lot of A’s at Cal and graduated summa cum laude. Observers were impressed, and I was embarrassed to say to anyone how stupidly easy it had been.

  10. Kim Øyhus Says:

    Real jobs are overrated. They are full of bullshit too.

    The jobs one gets are quite random, not much related to experience or knowledge.

    For example my current situation: I get paid well as a consultant programming C# and Windows Presentation Foundation, which I have almost no experience in, being a Linux kind of guy, while being dissed when I applied for a job at a finger print company, analysis of which I am one of the best in the world.

    This is typical, not an exception, and I see that other people are misplaced too. However, it is better than the alternative, which is not being placed at all, i.e. no job, no money, no food, etc.

    My best explanation for what work life really is, is that it is tribes.
    Tribes where alphas dominate the rest, and get status by having more subordinates, and doing stuff that have some vague resemblance to actually producing stuff and making money.

  11. Ahrand Says:

    Ken Robinson has some great insights on this, you can watch some of his work on TED talks :
    Some quotes :
    - from http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html “what is the ultimate goal of public education ? To produce university professors.”
    - from http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/ken_robinson_changing_education_paradigms.html
    “The problem is that the current system education was designed for the intellectual culture of the enlightenment and the economic circumstances of the Industrial Revolution.”

  12. Harold Jarche » Jobs, work and technology Says:

    [...] Seth’s Blog: Without a diverse talent pool, any society [company] will do a poor job of solving the problems that inevitably arise: Diversity of talents and interests is central to innovation because new things are so often mixtures of old things. By rewarding only one kind of talent, colleges suppress diversity of talent and thereby reduce innovation. [...]

  13. Seth Roberts Says:

    My best explanation for what work life really is, is that it is tribes. Tribes where alphas dominate the rest, and get status by having more subordinates, and doing stuff that have some vague resemblance to actually producing stuff and making money.

    The fact that salaries are rarely tied to profits helps employees ignore profits and spend their time trying to maximize something else. It is a large dose of communism right in the middle of capitalism.

  14. Alex Chernavsky Says:

    @Kim: Off-topic for this thread, but have you seen this article about serious problems with interpreting fingerprints? If you’ve read it, what is your opinion of it?

    Do Fingerprints Lie?

  15. Seth Roberts on Diversity, Education and Innovation — Marginal Revolution Says:

    [...] Wonderful post from Seth Roberts. Not sure if I even agree but Seth makes me think about how I can better serve my students: People can do great things in dozens of ways, but somehow student work is almost never judged by how beautiful, courageous, practical, good-tasting, astonishing, vivid, funny, moving, comfortable, and so on it is. Because that’s not what professors are good at….To fail to grasp that students can excel in dozens of ways is to seriously shortchange them. To value them at much less than they are worth — and, above all, to fail to help them grow and find their place in the world after college. [...]

  16. mobile Says:

    > The glorification of IQ has had a solipsistic aspect and has ignored what should be obvious, that diversity of talents and skills promotes innovation. Without a diverse talent pool, any society will do a poor job of solving the problems that inevitably arise.

    What is an example of a problem that has not been solved very well because the group of people working on that problem put too much emphasis on the IQ of the problem solvers and not enough emphasis on the diversity of the problem solvers?

  17. Seth Roberts Says:

    What is an example of a problem that has not been solved very well because the group of people working on that problem put too much emphasis on the IQ of the problem solvers and not enough emphasis on the diversity of the problem solvers?

    Here are two examples:

    1. The 2008 financial crisis. The people in charge had/have high IQs. I believe a more diverse group of people would have found a better solution. (They would have had less of a status-quo bias, for one thing.)

    2. Stomach ulcers. People with high IQs think that those two Australian Nobel Prize winners, Marshall and Warren, found the cause of stoma ulcers (a certain species of bacteria). I think a more diverse group of problem solvers would find a better solution. (Almost everyone who has the supposedly causative bacterium doesn’t get ulcers.)

  18. Becky Hargrove Says:

    Seth,
    Not since Buckminster Fuller was alive do I remember reading about human worth in this way, and lately I have missed him terribly.

  19. Derek Scruggs Says:

    Re: the comment about no advantage to lower IQ. That’s true, but in many fields there are diminishing returns above about 120. Think about how important (and highly compensated) sales jobs are. Do you think the average sales guy would benefit from a 150 IQ?

    Michael Milken made all his money not because he was brilliant, but because he was good at sales. Jack Welch and Ted Turner spoke of how much he seemed to care about their personal lives instead of just trying to push a transaction.

    Further, something like 20% of successful entrepreneurs are dyslexic (including such names as Charles Schwab). Shouldn’t such relatively rare learning disability predict failure?

  20. Seth Roberts Says:

    Not since Buckminster Fuller was alive do I remember reading about human worth in this way.

    Becky, yeah, there is some similarity. I found this quote from Fuller: “Everyone is born a genius, but the process of living de-geniuses them.” What were you thinking of?

  21. dearieme Says:

    “The problem is that the current system education was designed for the intellectual culture of the enlightenment and the economic circumstances of the Industrial Revolution.”

    That’s not a problem – it suited me terribly well.

  22. Ashish Says:

    >> college is valuable as a signaling device,
    > You mean: valuable to students?

    School work may be largely (although not entirely) meaningless. But getting a degree demonstrates that you can follow instructions and work hard and achieve deadlines. It’s not everything – but knowing this much about someone is more useful (to an employer) than not knowing anything.

  23. Alex Chernavsky Says:

    It’s difficult to teach those things that are most important to a successful career. I spent a huge amount of money to get an MBA degree, but I learned almost nothing that was useful to me.

    Off the top of my head, these are the skills that I think are most important to succeed in the business world (note that I don’t claim to be good at any of them):

    1) Getting along well with others, including navigating office politics

    2) Maintaining a sense of optimism and enthusiasm even in the face of set-backs

    3) Appearing sharp and “on the ball” at meetings

    4) Being organized, dependable, meeting deadlines, and keeping your promises.

    There are probably others, but those are the ones that come to mind. None of these things were taught in business school (well, possibly indirectly — and not very well). The stuff that we did learn, like net present value calculations and the Black-Scholes pricing model, never came up again for me. And if they did, I probably could have learned them on the job.

  24. Professors teaching students to act like… professors. « hopaulius Says:

    [...] Roberts responds to Byran Caplan with a critique of professional academia’s myopic focus on IQ and [...]

  25. Kim Øyhus Says:

    Lying fingerprints:

    All methods I have seen for analyzing fingerprints are inaccurate heuristics which throw away information and do not make proper estimates of uncertainty or the amount of information present in the prints.

    DNA analysis is a counterexample to this, because there there are several very good deep statistical methods which do a very good job, but forensic people still mess it up in courts from time to time.

    Detectives McKie and fingerprint expert Bayle have been victims of the typical tribal nonsense, communism style, where status and hierarchy counts more than evidence and truth.

    Looking at the results from the 2006 Fingerprint Verification Competition, I see that the best fingerprint programs typically extract 5-8 bits of information from each print, with some outliers of 9-12 bits on easy tests. This is much less information than is actually present in most fingerprints. From my experience, what happens here, is that the programs are fragile. They do better when the prints are easy to recognize, but typically deteriorate a lot when there are even slight modifications to the prints, such as being partial, deformed, dirty, scarred, worn, etc., which they typically are in real life.

    As a comparison, DNA tests today can read billions bits of information from a cell, though those methods are not used by forensics.

    My fingerprint analyzer, which was made about 10 years ago, read about 7 bits per print, and was fairly robust. This was fairly good at the time, unless one take into account that this was done on encrypted fingerprints, without having keys for decryption. Then it was quite fantastic, far beyond everything similar in the industry.

    To identify a person uniquely, 32.5 random bits are necessary, for 6 billion people. To identify all persons uniquely, twice this is necessary, 65 bits.

    In the article, they claim 99.97 % accuracy while searching the forensic database of fingerprints, which corresponds to about 12 bits of information, similar to the best entries int the FVC on easy prints.

    As for my education as a physicist: I could not have made my fingerprint analyzer without a lot of that math and physics.

  26. Kim Øyhus Says:

    Einstein and Newton both did their revolutionary work outside of school.
    Newton at home while the university was closed due to a plague.
    Einstein while on his bicycle, or while working at the patent office.

  27. Roger Sweeny Says:

    After maybe half a dozen responses by the GSI, I discovered a clear (albeit never explicitly stated) theme: to get an ‘A’, you needed to regurgitate EXACTLY what the professor had said in lecture. This completely shocked me (hey, I was only 17). This was a Sociology class taught by an (allegedly) “cutting edge” professor who said lots of radical things (well, they were radical to me).

    A lot of what we call education is substituting one religion (sometimes even with a catecism!) for another. Jim Purdy, take note.

  28. Sarah Says:

    Most psychologists don’t in fact glorify IQ, because they know that IQ is a construct that bears little relationship to ability. Nobody has even been able to pin down what intelligence actually IS.

    Is the rest of your article any better researched?

  29. Becky Hargrove Says:

    After thumbing through Critical Path (yet again) it’s hard to say exactly which quote impressed me most. His belief in the individual, however, really stayed with me. He believed that – if we would tell the truth – we had a great chance at not just survival but much more. He had the kind of hope for knowledge that I also hold, that it can somehow survive in the Universe for the long haul. Buckminster Fuller would stress to people that they should never give up on their own unique way of looking at the world, that our uniqueness was the very element that could make the difference. And in his day it was hard to be a generalist. While it is easier now, people still don’t know how to relate to that because money is not really capable of reaching across disciplines much of the time.

  30. Seth Roberts Says:

    Becky, thanks for the information.

  31. Seth Roberts Says:

    Most psychologists don’t in fact glorify IQ, because they know that IQ is a construct that bears little relationship to ability. Nobody has even been able to pin down what intelligence actually IS. Is the rest of your article any better researched?

    “Researched”? Huh? I lived it, am still living it. I am a psychology professor. I haven’t encountered any researcher who worries that “nobody has even been able to pin down what intelligence actually IS”. As to whether or not IQ has been glorified, can you tell me a book about some other mental ability that had the impact of The Bell Curve? Among psychologists, Howard Gardner and Robert Sternberg are important exceptions to the general rule of focusing on IQ as the most important way that people differ. .IQ tests predict who will do well at school. We have a society that rewards people who do well at school. Then those very same rewarded/powerful people turn around and say:Doing well at school (= IQ) is the most important thing! When the circularity is pointed out, they get confused. They fail to understand the whatever is, is right feature of their argument.

  32. Tracy W Says:

    I’ve read your examples here, and I think they’re very interesting, but I wonder how much of what you do here you can do because you’re a professor of psychology, and thus these things shouldn’t be expected of every professor. Take for example evaluating whether someone has displayed courage – your student giving a talk to a high-school class – can a professor of mathematics bring anything to this evaluation more than a lay person? When I was 13, we had to give speeches at school and one of my friends was so scared she was crying while doing it, but she didn’t run away, and since then I have considered her one of the bravest people I know. I haven’t learnt anything from university that has led me to change my mind. You might have a special insight into the level of courage displayed from your psychology training, but what can a maths professor be expected to add?

    Or take your students’ project, reading your linked article, it sounds like the students didn’t do anything they couldn’t have done without going to university, I know people who volunteer for a depression hotline despite doing a full-time paid job in a very different field. What you appear to have provided was a “kick-up-the-bum” to try something new. A good school teacher, or scouts leader, can do the same. As a psychology professor, you might be more competent at working out how to do this, and how to evaluate the results, than most people, but I can’t see how a political science professor would have similar skills.

    And the other thing is that college is very expensive, a lot more expensive than high school, or joining toastmasters to practice public speaking, or taking a cooking course to improve the quality of your food, or trying your hand at writing funny stories and posting them online for feedback. Indeed, some ways you can even get paid for doing some of these things, for example if you want to demonstrate courage, joining the army and specialising in mine clearing would be one way. So college should be providing something that can’t be gotten far more cheaply in other ways.

    Not being an expert, but I’d say that for most professors, the thing they can do that is unusual and not easily replicable by someone without their training, is to evaluate how close what the students are doing is to what said professor would have done (and perhaps provide the structure of learning, the only way I’ve been able to defeat my procrastinating tendencies when it comes to learning maths is by signing up for a formal class). As a psychologist you are, I think, unusually qualified to do different things.

  33. Seth Roberts Says:

    for most professors, the thing they can do that is unusual and not easily replicable by someone without their training, is to evaluate how close what the students are doing is to what said professor would have done

    True. But in most cases college isn’t optional. For a large fraction of good jobs, you must go to college. Professors have a captive audience. Their students did not choose to be there. This is why it is unreasonable for professors to simply do whatever they want to do. That would be abuse of power.

  34. Becky Hargrove Says:

    I want to do a little thought experiment with what Tracy W said, “So college should be providing something that can’t be gotten far more cheaply in other ways.” College is but a small part of the world of knowledge, but should college offerings only be what people can “make a living at” there would not be much left to college at all. What, then, might people be missing? Quite a lot that makes the world go round.

    The problem for college is not that it is impractical. The problem for higher education is that it has not been able to integrate the actual use of knowledge in its many forms at local levels. When people can not actually validate their worth amongst one another through knowledge, they eventually react by insisting that knowledge is not even important. This is the real issue that formal education needs to address.

  35. What should assessment mean? « flibitygibity Says:

    [...] will give them the qualification they are working for.  Yesterday a tweet linking through to this blog posting by Seth Roberts caught my eye.  He argues for broader criteria for assessing students.  In the [...]