Should we teach the habits of highly effective people?

by on March 24, 2014 at 6:47 am in Current Affairs, Education | Permalink

Faculty members at Alamo Colleges in San Antonio objected earlier this year to their chancellor’s move to make a course inspired in part by the popular self-help book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People part of the core curriculum. Instructors said they felt left out of the decision-making process and weren’t sure if the course, which would replace one of only two required humanities classes in the core, deserved that kind of curricular billing.

It is strange, is it not, that the attempt to teach habits of highly effective people is considered gauche and unworthy of the time of students?  (It is unlikely that the objections stem from a belief that the wrong habits are being taught.  That said, you can read more about the Mormon roots of Stephen Covey and his ideas here.)  You can read more about the episode at Alamo Colleges here.

1 Roy March 24, 2014 at 6:52 am

As someone who took classes at a community college during a career change, that sounds awful, can you imagine the unbelievable make work and time waste such a class would entail?

2 Rahul March 24, 2014 at 7:38 am

I don’t object to the goal. But I object to the choice of an arbitrary bestseller of questionable validity to get to this goal.

3 Frederic Mari March 24, 2014 at 9:01 am

Exactly. Furthermore, I am not entirely convinced that such habits (if there is an actual map/plan for success at all) can really be taught… It’s a bit like trying to teach leadership. I had very interesting discussions and readings on leadership but none of it made me “charismatic”. And while leadership courses underplay the role of charisma, I suspect they do so b/c it is the part that really cannot be taught/cannot really be commented upon…

How do you teach “do not procrastinate”?

4 Rahul March 24, 2014 at 9:19 am

I think, to some extent, these skills can indeed be taught or conditioned. Though not sure if an average course will do it.

Don’t drill sergeants do a good job teaching “do not procrastinate”?

5 Mondfledermaus March 24, 2014 at 9:55 am

Sergeants are good at making sure you don’t procrastinate. But a lot of people after leaving the military,go back to having their place a mess and unkept appearance. So in reality the drill sergeants taught them nothing.

6 Floss on the Mill March 24, 2014 at 1:30 pm

Is there a way to validate ‘good habits’? arent all good habits called so because they are essentially self validated facts of life!

7 talldave2 March 24, 2014 at 10:16 pm

Is there any empirical basis upon which overpriced textbooks are superior?

8 mark b March 25, 2014 at 11:41 am

Exactly, Rahul. Thanks for writing this better than I would have.
As an adiitional point, isn’t there a large current cultural argument/discussion around these issues? As in, maybe the more important habits are “follow your strengths” or “be different” etc. A casual look at “serious” business section books on this topics reveals a large number of perspectives.

9 ummm March 24, 2014 at 6:56 am

It’s easy to dismiss this, but it could be useful

10 MathieuP March 24, 2014 at 7:05 am

I think I would object too. This would make sense if it were a course about management litterrature in general (which could show students that most of the similarly-titled books are near-worthless generalization of a personal case). I think the role of a university course is to provide the students with the tools to properly assess such books, not to drill them in the creed of one or the other.

11 Aidan March 24, 2014 at 9:54 am

A comparative, critical analysis of self-help literature could actually be quite fun.

12 Greg Gentschev April 10, 2014 at 4:55 pm

I think there’s a risk of going too far down the “tools to properly assess X” road. At some point, it’s valuable to actually have skills, not just to be able to critique the concept of those skills. While The 7 Habits has its share of bunk, it also focuses on topics like goal setting, prioritization, negotiation, and teamwork, which I find difficult to deny are useful.

13 Z March 24, 2014 at 7:16 am

If we are going down this road, I can make a good case for eliminating most of the humanities. Taking a literature course, much less majoring in literature is like majoring in sunbathing or TV watching. If you are college worthy, you should have a natural interest in your culture’s fiction and read this stuff on your own.

My hunch is the main objection from the faculty is that they were not consulted. As soon as academics begin to feel like employees, they get the boo-hoos.

14 FUBAR007 March 24, 2014 at 11:01 am

>>If we are going down this road, I can make a good case for eliminating most of the humanities. Taking a literature course, much less majoring in literature is like majoring in sunbathing or TV watching.<>If you are college worthy, you should have a natural interest in your culture’s fiction and read this stuff on your own.<<

Two thoughts: 1) the overwhelming majority of the population is not that auto-didactic; 2) using that as a screening criteria would eliminate most people who attend college, including most IT/business majors. I suspect, though, you'd consider that a feature, not a bug.

15 Z March 24, 2014 at 11:29 am

You are correct. Outside of STEM fields, most college work is busy work for both the professors and the students. The Sokal Hoax pretty much ended any discussion of the humanities as serious areas of human inquiry. Nice hobbies, but utterly worthless in understanding the natural world.

16 Boonton March 24, 2014 at 12:22 pm

The Sokal Hoax is being oversold here. It was a valid attack on one rather specialized niche of grad school humanities. A good 4 year degree in English (or literature) that incorporates a lot of readings over multiple cultures and time periods seems to be worth more today than it has in decades past.

17 gwern March 24, 2014 at 1:09 pm

Have the SCIgen hoaxes pretty much ended any discussion of the sciences as serious areas of human inquiry?

18 GiT March 24, 2014 at 1:16 pm

“The Sokal Hoax pretty much ended any discussion of the humanities as serious areas of human inquiry”

Well, this comment isn’t exactly responsible for ending any discussion of the probity of Z’s comments towards any serious area of human inquiry (he’s written enough stupid stuff elsewhere), but it is certainly part and parcel of his ignominy.

19 Vernunft March 24, 2014 at 7:22 am

They’re trying to teach Habits of Highly Effective People, not (necessarily) habits of highly effective people, so your criticism employs the fallacy of equivocation.

20 TMC March 24, 2014 at 8:43 am

INSPIRED by… Does not mean they want to teach the book.
Since it would replace one of only two required humanities classes, I see no loss even if it were useless.

21 Jared March 24, 2014 at 7:25 am

I’m with Roy. Speaking as a recent student rather than humanities pearl clutcher, intro to college, college “IT”, and all other non-academic cores are such monumental wastes. In bureaucratese it must sound awesome to be “improving students’ life skills or whatever, but it is galling as a student to know you’re spending hundreds to thousands per credit hour to be handheld through busy work.

22 Z March 24, 2014 at 8:24 am

This shows up in Computer Science. Colleges now have majors that sort of look like computer science, but are mostly busy work. The skills taught are the sort of thing people used to learn the first month on the job. Even programming majors waste a lot of time on nonsense that appears to be there just to pad the bill.

23 J March 24, 2014 at 8:50 am

I went to a school with a great biology program. There was also a major called “Biology & Society.” I’ll let you guess which one actually involved more actual biology classes.

24 Rahul March 24, 2014 at 8:54 am

“…& Society” is a red flag.

25 J March 24, 2014 at 12:18 pm

Indeed. “& Society” suggests less real science and more left-wing feelgoodery thrown in.

26 Libtard March 24, 2014 at 7:29 am

I hate teaching life skills. More teaching on women’s studies and cisgendered discrimination, please!

27 Roy March 24, 2014 at 9:45 am

I actually think those are more useful. For a decent majority of students a compelled gender studies course is very radicalizing, especially if it is taught by an enthusiastic instructor. Considering that community college students are usually older and from lower class backgrounds than 4yr students, one suspects in such a setting the effect will be magnified.

But then a recent story about a guest lecturer using the term PIV in a required writing class at a school in Southern Idaho probably colors my thinking. I will say that I understood the students were strongly engaged and a healthy if one sided discussion ensued, but several of them were probably rethinking their decision to not go to BYU after that.

28 Keith March 24, 2014 at 11:14 am

Roy, I can’t tell if your comment is sincere or parody, especially considering the meaning of Libtard’s comment.

29 Roy March 24, 2014 at 8:01 pm

Ahh my work is done.

It is sincere but ironic. Though I am pretty socially conservative personally, I actually think Southern Idaho could be more advanced when it comes to gender issues, but from what I have seen the way these issues are taught in dedicated classes is almost perfectly designed to antagonize people who have already gotten past their impressionable years. I have seen it in the Inland Northwest, and I have seen it in San Francisco.

30 Drifting March 26, 2014 at 11:04 am

Older students are more likely to point out the flaws in those courses, actually. So much of that only takes because a young student has little life experience to see the flaws in a purely theoretical approach to gender. “Housewifery is oppression!” often can be devastatingly be shot down by a real housewife.

This is the problem with academics in general, and even our host. Tyler’s arguments about minimum wage never resonate with me because it’s obvious it’s theoretical to him. Once someone actually works for $25k a year (well above minimum wage for full time work) you realize a theoretical approach can be a profoundly inhuman one.

31 The Anti-Gnostic March 24, 2014 at 8:14 am

I’d like to see the State out of the business of educating legal adults all together, and the students and their sponsors can pay for whatever they want.

32 Benny Lava March 24, 2014 at 8:24 am

Tyler, trolling truly is a art.

33 Mark Thorson March 24, 2014 at 9:20 am

He’s teaching a course on it next semester, after his book on it comes out.

34 dan in philly March 24, 2014 at 8:24 am

My own experience with business school is I learned nothing there about work habits. I didn’t even realize I needed to learn them until a boss once explained, with some pain, that my work habits stunk and if I didn’t shape up I would never be who I could be.
Having since trained others, I find this is common, no young workers have a clue about time management, project management, communications, etc., and this hurts them a lot until they finally realize they don’t know how to work in a business world and they become willing to learn.
Now, I have my doubts if academia types know enough about this subject to effectively teach it.

35 ummm March 24, 2014 at 9:21 am

“Now, I have my doubts if academia types know enough about this subject to effectively teach it”

that’s one of the advantages of a smart job is that you don’t have have to worry so much about that stuff . people skills, however, are very important for lower end stuff

36 Chris S March 24, 2014 at 4:34 pm

I completely disagree.

If your definition of “smart job” is a curmudgeon sitting in his cubicle / home office solving difficult engineering or similar problems, that will take you to higher than average but not to “the high end.”

You will almost certainly be working on other people’s problems, and will not be able to set the agenda about broader directions. I know plenty of older nerds – mostly database admins, for some reason – who fit that description. They make their low $100k salaries, go home at precisely 4:49pm, and are otherwise completely irrelevant.

37 Anichini March 24, 2014 at 12:17 pm


Lumping in study habits with work habits, I am exasperated these skills don’t get taught in the education system. Ideally they ought to be taught before college; perhaps (I’m being generous) that is part of the faculty’s frustration. However if a student hasn’t learned such skills by college he needs to learn them then.

Too many people excuse their own muddled study/work habits as being their preferred or innate “style,” when in fact their style is probably inefficient and limiting.

I’m not pontificating about “7 Habits” per se; I suspect implementing almost any work habit system (I nominate Getting Things Done) will reward students much more than that humanities course they’re not taking would. After all, if it helps them achieve more, they can learn about the subject they missed via edX or MRU!

38 Bryan March 24, 2014 at 9:07 am

I suspect few of the previous commenters have read the book.

Of course, this is a book that will change your outlook. Dan is right, adjunct professors probably would not be able to teach this effectively.

39 Thiago March 24, 2014 at 9:17 am

“It was in that spirit that when I found that my 14-year-old was going to be assigned a “Seven Habits” book in school, I immediately ordered for her a copy of Wendy Kaminer’s “I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional.” Kaminer’s work contains a brutal dissection of the (lack of) meaning of Covey’s “synergy” Habit. Incidentally, Kaminer’s book is out of print. I was able to locate a copy at Powells’ Used Books, 3000 miles away, and have it shipped to me. For those of you keeping score, I believe that is one point for the Internet.”-

40 uffs March 24, 2014 at 5:12 pm

Nice catch.

41 Dude March 24, 2014 at 9:20 am

It is possible the chancellor is basing this decision from feedback received from employers. Maybe the chancellor began with the end in mind?

As someone who does recruit and employ younger professionals, I’m almost always disappointed in their basic work & organization skills/habits. Skill which could potentially be improved by a course like this.

Seems some people on this list should practice the habit of seeking first to understand. 🙂

42 Axa March 24, 2014 at 9:51 am

Young recruits have bad habits, a fact out of discussion. But, why buying a bestseller would transform them into organized and productive people?

43 Dude March 24, 2014 at 10:04 am

There are many successful organizations who have purchased this book for their young/new employees. They might have data that it does move the needle. A marginal improvement.

Perhaps the school has feedback from employers that they would value graduates more who have gone through a course such as this. Is the chancellor supposed to ignore customer feedback?

I gained benefit from the book back in the 90’s when I was a young person and I don’t think I’m exceptional in that regard.

44 Rahul March 24, 2014 at 10:52 am

Or perhaps big organizations subscribe to the latest fads? Perhaps HR types love fluffy, self-help, quick-fix stuff like this? Perhaps it’s the chancellors whim?

The speculation game runs both ways.

45 Dude March 24, 2014 at 12:55 pm

Certainly people of all sorts are not immune to fads, but it would be quite the stretch to consider 7 Habits a fad. Your description of “fluffy….quick fix” is not consistent with the book. Perhaps you haven’t read it?

I don’t understand the knee jerk negative reaction by people in this thread, but agree that speculation can run both ways. If that is the case, why are people so convinced of their story?

46 dudi March 24, 2014 at 9:39 am

Lets also teach the top 10 things you can do to organize your office..and have a successful career.

47 Benjamin Cole March 24, 2014 at 9:45 am

Wy not teech affective habits in comoonity colege? Its just as good, or gooder than, the fancy scools.

48 Roy March 24, 2014 at 9:50 am

Oh I am sure a four year institution would louse this kind of class even more.

49 Chris S March 24, 2014 at 4:37 pm

Not to get all classish, but one of the key factors lacking in your stereotypical community college attendee is conscientiousness – which is also one of the most valued skills in the workplace.

The intellectual one-percenters who for some reason spend their time commenting on MR are certainly above this type of course, but that observation does not apply generally.

50 Roy March 24, 2014 at 8:05 pm

But the great thing about community colleges is they often care little about retention so that the conscientious students can get their requirements done without this sort of makework. While the book is not bad at all, using a self help book is like AA, completely useless if you don’t want to change.

51 Kristian March 24, 2014 at 9:53 am

In Norway there’s now a debate following a newspaper article on a kindergarten teaching kids 1-5 years the seven habits of highly effective people. Norwegian article:–7494704.html#.UzA4Nfl5N6M

52 Anittah March 24, 2014 at 10:28 am

Is Doc Cowen messing with us? Surely he is being plucky with his takeaway that “concern about the percentage of required humanities coursework that this new one would consume” is equal to “teaching alleged habits of alleged effective people is gauche”?

If he’s not being plucky and this is truly the conclusion to which he came, then perhaps he needs to take more critical reading and/or literature courses?

53 Chris S March 24, 2014 at 4:40 pm

The “is considered gauche” is a distancing phrase, by which the esteemed doctor cowen is both indicating that he does not [necessarily] share the conclusion, and also that those whom object to the course are the ones considering said course gauche.

54 Doug March 24, 2014 at 10:41 am

Prediction: Most of the objection to this is people concerned that the book is too gauche to teach. The book is a mainstay of the type of petit bourgeoisie low-educated, high earners. The type of people who never went to college, own a 25 person HVAC repair company, live in suburban Oklahoma, and regularly attend an evangelical church. In other words almost the cultural opposite of your typical humanities professor. The fact that the issue is raised at a community college, a half-respected educational institution where the faculty’s in danger of class slippage, only magnifies the issue. If you’re a Manhattan socialite and have a Duck Dynasty theme party the irony will be lost on no one. If you live in San Antonio Texas and work at a borderline intellectual job people might start wondering if you actually admire those homophobic rednecks.

My guess is that if the book in question was Marcus Aurelius Meditations, instead of 7 Highly Effective, no one would have the same “it’s not actually literature” objections. Of course they’re essentially the same book written, except one’s technically a “classic” which removes any chance that the wrong type of white people might be tempted to read it.

55 Rahul March 24, 2014 at 10:56 am

This book was a perpetual favorite at airport bookshops. Doesn’t seem like the low-educated, high earner demographic pitch.

My guess is the target audience was more a middle management / paper pusher / bean counter / MBA cohort.

56 Doug March 24, 2014 at 11:11 am

Fair enough. But 1) That’s still not a good look for someone far away from but aspiring to tenure into teaching humanities at a research university. 2) I’d say since it’s been so long since the book’s been out, that it’s probably become more déclassé than it used to be. The more trend-sensitive MBAs have probably moved on to newer and hipper books.

57 scott cunningham March 24, 2014 at 10:43 am

This is actually a special case of a more general kind of problem that I suspect many different instructors face for their respective fields. I teach applied regression courses, and I really think some of the most important things my students could learn are the “highly effective habits” of good programmers. But you can’t teach a class just on R, or just on STATA or whatever. And you definitely can’t teach a class just on work flow. Yet, not knowing those things is fatal to doing good applied work. I think more than just assigning a book like this, which seems well intentioned, professors should be reconsidering how to best teach students, and what practices are more effective than others at doing that. Those of us at research universities were never taught how to teach — and where there are resources for teaching, rarely can one find resources for your particular situation. But it’s absolutely critical to teach a lot of the non-intuitive habits to students at a very early age, both in a global sense (like this book lays out), but also a local sense (like my programming example).

58 Anichini March 24, 2014 at 12:20 pm

Good news Scott: the Biostat faculty at Johns Hopkins will be teaching data science mini courses including R Programming, and The Data Scientist’s Toolbox.

59 Tracy W March 25, 2014 at 6:36 am

My engineering school had courses called things like “software engineering.”
Why not teach a class called “econometrics engineering”?

60 Boonton March 24, 2014 at 1:34 pm

It is strange, is it not, that the attempt to teach habits of highly effective people is considered gauche and unworthy of the time of students?

The book can be had for, say, $15 bucks. A 3 credit course will run about $1500, or more. Of course, there’s also the time factor for both student and teacher. The student could use that slot to take a class in, say, higher level math, data analysis, the literature of early 20th century America etc. Likewise the school is probably demanding that in order to teach the class the professor be a phD or at least hold a masters degree.

To justify this we have to ask not just is the book useful or helpful but can the college ,add enough value to the book to justify a class.

Interestingly at the high school level you may have a better argument for the class. HS kids need more pushing to read a book, their behavior is probably more suspectible to molding than college kids etc. And the cost would be lower.

61 Bill Rich March 24, 2014 at 2:01 pm

Base a course of instruction on a popular book ? Is that scientific ? Do we know that this course will produce more effective workers, or make students more effective ? Effective people may have some habits. But do we know how much of the effectiveness is because of their knowledge, training and skills, and not just habits.

It is much better to write a book review and distribute to the students than to teach a course based on it. As an employer, I won’t recognize the credits of this course. May be a book report from potential employee may be more significant in my decisions to hire.

62 chuck martel March 24, 2014 at 3:23 pm

How popular does a book have to be before it’s impermissible to use it as a base for a course of instruction? Must the popularity be contemporary or does a historical fascination eliminate it as well? Should writing by Tacitus, Thomas Aquinus, Fielding, Dickens and Thackeray be ignored because non-academics read them? Or do college texts have to be written by professors that can be required reading for students at a criminal expense?

63 Boonton March 24, 2014 at 7:13 pm

Not for nothing but if a text is very popular that begs the question of why they should be the basis of a college course? If a purpose of a college course is to teach something you otherwise wouldn’t pick up on your own, then a really popular book implies most people don’t need a course for it.

64 Drifting March 26, 2014 at 11:24 am

You’d need to explain why on earth we have film studies and college courses on things like zombies or porn, then. One of the criticisms of college is how much academic inquiry is focused on pop culture.

65 gab March 24, 2014 at 2:32 pm

I didn’t see anywhere in the linked article where the faculty considered teaching the course “gauche.”

Did I somehow miss that part or is Tyler just surmising their reasoning or what?

66 PRW March 24, 2014 at 3:57 pm

They should teach a class on how to pick a spouse. Much more important than most of the material being taught these days.

67 Bill March 24, 2014 at 5:06 pm

why not give them some old Tom Peters books on corporate management of “excellent” firms who Peters said should be emulated. a look back later showed that many of these firms failed.

68 Soonerhokie March 24, 2014 at 7:30 pm

Something interesting to note, my children go to an elementary school where the seven habits form the basis of the “Leader in Me” program.

69 Roy March 24, 2014 at 8:07 pm

This sort of thing is far more effective for grade school kids, they are both more impressionable and more under the control of the education system than community college students.

70 James March 24, 2014 at 8:18 pm

I am not opposed to the concept of the course, mostly to the book that is being used. If someone wanted to teach a course that would tell people what the research really says about being effective (of course that needs to be defined), I might want to take the course. Personally I think that Covey’s book is better than “the secret”, but I don’t know how we would establish whether or not it is “effective”. I bought it 25 years ago and I wouldn’t say it was life changing, although it would be hard to generalize from one data point.

71 ThomasH March 24, 2014 at 8:49 pm

Aren’t authors of self help books like fund managers: the chances of actually identifying one whose advice works and is reproducible are infinitesimal?

72 ww March 24, 2014 at 9:24 pm

“i am divorced and i live in a van down by the river.”

Seriously, folks. Motivational speakers should be shot.

73 talldave2 March 24, 2014 at 10:07 pm

“It is strange, is it not, that the attempt to teach habits of highly effective people is considered gauche and unworthy of the time of students?”

I remember years ago I read a poll that found most people in academia believe the government should guarantee everyone a job.

Nothing has really surprised me much since, even in Gender Studies.

74 Marie March 24, 2014 at 10:36 pm

Interesting that so many are against this being a core class, without any information on what it would be replacing or competing with.

Here are Alamo’s core courses:

The humanities courses on there are pretty real. If this course (which apparently teaches from this book for about a seventh of the course) replaced “Sociology of the Suburbs” or “Self-realization and Lady Gaga” or some of that drek, that would be all right. At the very least, the textbook wouldn’t cost $400. But since it would be replacing Western Civ or some other true core basic, that’s pretty messed up.

75 David Khoo March 25, 2014 at 12:00 am

To begin with, does teaching the habits of highly effective people make people more effective?

The founder of Aikido, Ueshiba Morihei, studied under many schools of martial arts before developing a highly effective style of his own. However, the first time he stepped into an Aikido class run by one of his disciples, he was shocked and dismayed. They were aping his physical movements precisely. However, the point of Aikido, as he went on to say, is to develop your own style suited for your own self through study and practice, not just blindly following a set of physical movements. Practicing the physical movements of highly effective martial artists does not make you a highly effective martial artist, because the physical movements are only the visible sign of an invisible internal process.

In the same way, I don’t think aping the habits of highly effective people makes you a highly effective person, because these habits are only the visible sign of an invisible internal process. That is also why keeping lists or making schedules like people who do not often procrastinate does not make you procrastinate less — they make those lists or schedules because they already possess passion and drive, and it is that passion that makes them not procrastinate, not the resulting lists.

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