Criticism of My View of Education: My Answer

My criticism of college education can be boiled down to this: It is too much one-size-fits-all. It takes too little account of differences between students. Those differences are no accident. They reflect the fact that a good economy needs to produce many different things. Human nature has been shaped to provide exactly that.

Bryan Caplan posted about this, and one reader (Tim of Angle) replied:

Roberts is criticizing colleges for not doing something that they aren’t really trying to do. . . . Our educational model is built around hiring teachers who are (supposedly) good at thing X and paying them to train other people to do thing X. Nobody claims that the way the teacher does thing X is the only way to do thing X, nor even the best way to do thing X; what colleges do claim is that the way the teacher does thing X is a successful way to do thing X, and it hopes that the teacher can train students to do thing X competently at least the way the teacher does thing X.

I was discussing undergraduate education at Berkeley. Berkeley professors are hired mainly based on their ability to do research. Undergraduate classes are not about training researchers (= the next generation of professors at research universities, such as Berkeley); that’s what graduate school is for.

In most Berkeley undergraduate classes, professors aren’t teaching students to “do” anything, at least anything that most of us would recognize as “doing”. (Engineering, art, architecture, foreign language and perhaps statistics classes are exceptions.) In most classes, students are introduced to an important fraction of an academic field. In a social psychology class, for example, they learn about social psychology research. The class is not about how to do social psychology. It is about what has been done and what has been learned. If the class consisted entirely of students who wanted to become psychology professors, that would be fine. In fact, only a small fraction of Berkeley psychology majors (5%?) go to graduate school in psychology. The students in most Berkeley classes (outside of the more vocational areas, such as engineering) will go on to do many different jobs. Few in any class will become professors.

I think one theory of higher education is close to what Tim of Angle says. The practice, at least at elite universities such as Berkeley, is quite different.

A different theory of higher education revolves around signalling. College performance provides a useful signal to future employers, that’s why it exists in present form. At Berkeley, I never heard this motivation (will this provide a good signal to employers?) brought up in discussions about grading or anything else. It’s utterly clear, on the other hand, that where you go to college (Harvard versus College of Marin) is indeed a powerful signal to employers and, yes, if you can go to Prestigious College X, you really should. How many “axes of excellence” there should be — how many separate categories or dimensions we should use to rank colleges — is a different discussion.

2 Responses to “Criticism of My View of Education: My Answer”

  1. dearieme Says:

    “In most Berkeley undergraduate classes, professors aren’t teaching students to “do” anything, at least anything that most of us would recognize as “doing”.”

    And yet you ain’t learning Chemistry if you are not doing a lab class where you – not you and a partner – do organic syntheses, quantitative analysis, and so forth. Doing is an essential part of learning in many disciplines. Even the mild mathematician must “do” problem after problem until he has internalised theory and practice sufficiently to solve problems skilfully.

  2. Dragan Says:

    “Engineering, art, architecture, foreign language and perhaps statistics classes are exceptions.”

    Seth, it would be interesting to hear why you called out those particular disciplines as exceptions (to “most classes”).

    Also,
    “In a social psychology class, for example, they learn about social psychology research. The class is not about how to do social psychology. It is about what has been done and what has been learned. If the class consisted entirely of students who wanted to become psychology professors, that would be fine.”

    Seth: Yes, it’s not black and white. In most classes, you learn knowledge. In a small number of classes, you learn skills. In many engineering classes you build something. In most foreign language classes, you learn to speak and read the language. In (studio) art classes you make art. And so on. It’s not black and white because in chemistry and physics classes there are often labs, in geology classes you may go on field trips and learn to identify rocks, an animal learning class may have a lab, and so on.

    This seems contradictory. If a class consisted “entirely of students who wanted to become psychology professors,” then wouldn’t we want it to actually be about “how to do social psychology” rather than merely about “what has been done” already? After all, students who want to be psychology professors need to learn how to do psychology.

    My sense is that students in a typical undergraduate class (and K-12) aren’t learning how to “do” the disciplines, but rather how to do some related busywork. I certainly didn’t get to “do” much real mathematics before graduate-level courses. Maybe this is not that different from what you’re saying.

    Seth: I agree with you. I wouldn’t call the usual curriculum “busywork” but I agree that it is quite different than “real math”, “how to do social psychology” and so on. There is a busywork element of most classes in the sense that the content is relatively convenient for the professor to teach. Easier to lecture about what social psychologists have learned than to teach a social psychology lab, for example.