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.