Category: Education

If you could only learn five things…

Yana, who is fourteen, was complaining last night about her math homework, and about calculus in particular. Without much thinking, I responded that if you could only learn five things from schooling, calculus should be one of them. First came an “Ugh.” Then came a question:

“What are the other four?”

Without much thinking, here was my list, in no particular order:

1. Calculus
2. Statistics
3. Programming
4. Shakespeare
5. The Bible

Another Ugh, directed mostly at the first three items. Writing would have been a natural sixth pick, and would not have drawn an ugh either.

Addendum: I’ve already received several emails asking why I chose the Bible rather than microeconomics. I didn’t mean anything sectarian in my choice of the Bible, rather it is a critical foundation of Western civilization and of Western literature. Plato would be next in line. As for microeconomics, knowing it brings huge social benefits but the private benefits are less clear. I love life as an economist, but it is not for everyone.

The evolution of proverbs

First-graders were asked to complete the first halves of proverbs and they came up with the following:

“Better to be safe than punch a fifth-grader.”

“Don’t bite the hand that looks dirty.”

“A penny saved is not much.”

“Don’t put off till tomorrow what you put on to go to bed.”

“You can lead a horse to water, but how?”

All, I might add, appear to show a familiarity with economic reasoning, with the possible exception of number four, which to my mind makes no sense whatsoever.

Here is the full story. My colleagues David Levy and Daniel Houser have recently started designing some economic experiments about the evolution of proverbs. Proverbs, like prices, aggregate information. One question is whether proverbs evolve to demonstrate the wisdom embodied in some weighted notion of “average opinion”, the opinion of the median member of the language community, or the most frequently expressed opinions at the mode.

Another reason for vouchers

After a few parents complained that their children might be ridiculed for not making the list [of honor-roll students], lawyers for the Nashville school system warned that state privacy laws forbid releasing any academic information, good or bad, without permission….As a result, all Nashville schools have stopped posting honor rolls, and some are also considering a ban on hanging good work in the hallways…”

Principal Steven Baum “thinks spelling bees and other publicly graded events are leftovers from the days of ranking and sorting students” and says “I discourage competitive games at school. They just don’t fit my worldview of what a school should be.” (From the Wash. Post)

Letters of recommendation

Students ask professors to write letters of recommendation for them. Today’s professors frequently respond by asking the student to write a first draft of the letter. Henry Farrell at CrookedTimber comments on this practice. Obviously the ethics of such a request are questionable. Furthermore it puts the student in a very difficult position. How great can you claim to be and keep a straight face, not to mention a reputation for probity?

That being said, I am not very worried about the practical repercussions. Most people, especially undergraduates, do not know how to write a very good recommendation letter. They fail to realize that such letters, to be effective, should offer very specific and pointed comparisons. Those few students who understand this fact are probably too shy to call themselves “comparable to Greg Mankiw as an undergraduate.” Nor will they write “comparable to your Professor Mediocre [fill in the name yourself!] as an undergraduate.” So if a professor asks the student to write the letter, the professor does not care about the letter or student very much. The resulting letter is likely to be very generic and thus not very effective. In addition, the professor probably has a hard time saying much about the student. This again suggests the letter will be less than overwhelming, no matter who writes it.

The really good candidates still will be able to produce credible signals of quality. They will find some professors able to make coherent and specific claims on their behalf. In fact, if professors ask the lesser students to write their own letters, the relative advantage of the very best students may rise.

More on obsolete professors

A number of people wrote both in support and challenging my comments on obsolete professors. Fabio Rojas wrote:

My reading of university history is that academia has always been a superstar market, except for the three decades or so after WWII…Medieval universities were run by a small group of well paid elites, while much of the grunt work was done by low status lecturers. The German research universities of the 19th century were known for giving comfy chairs to a few stars, while privatdozents slaved away at abysmal wages. The only exception to this trend is post-WWII American higher ed. The simultaneous explosion of student enrollments and Cold War money meant that universities could afford lots of research scholars who could teach. Of course, that model is hard to sustain – already a lot of work is being shifted back to part time workers.

My hunch is that in 50 years, maybe less, the higher ed system will be very different. There will still be a core of elite research universities and liberal arts colleges, where people will pay to study with famous scholars, writers and artists. The rest of the educational system will move toward a University of Phoenix model – an elite core of administrators managing an army of part timers, distance learners, on-line learning, adult ed, etc. The traditional universities can probably maintain their monopoly on occupational certification, but the rest of the system will radically change.

Similarly, Roger Meiners wrote “I think you are correct about professors being nearly obsolete. My guess is that large state universities are the institutions due for the largest restructuring. The private schools, as inefficient as they are, still generally stick to their mission better.”

But my colleagues Robin Hanson and Bryan Caplan as well as Stephen Brown from the Dallas Fed all asked, If teaching by DVD is so great why haven’t we seen it already? After all, VCRs not to mention movie projectors have been around for a long time. Perhaps, they argue, there are efficiency reasons for the structure that exists today. Stephen writes:

Professors working collaboratively, but in decentralized manner may have substantial advantages in providing certifications (degrees) when compared against a system in which students watch pre-recorded lectures by the great teachers and then are tested for mastery by an administrator through exams–particularly if mastery cannot be well demonstrated by machine-graded, multiple-choice exams.

Robin and Bryan pointed to professors as a disciplinary device. The option of self-learning may in fact be self-defeating. (See also Amy Lamboley’s comment at Crescat Sententia). Moreover, if students attend universities to find mates then big lecture classes may not be such a cost after all.

Universities have been around a long time so caution is justified but it has to make a difference in the provision of education that I can today download to my hard drive 10,000 books from Project Gutenberg or search over 100,000 books at Amazon (another 60,000 are available from Google). Innovations often seem impossible or impractical until someone demonstrates the concept and then they take off. Yes, the last is a trendy reference to the Wright brothers – note that just days before they flew, Samuel P. Langley, Director of the Smithsonian Institution and head of a well-funded government project to invent the airplane, proclaimed the goal years if not decades away.

Are Professors Obsolete?

We economics professors like to point out – or at least I do – that downsizing is a good thing. Aren’t you glad that blacksmiths were downsized because of the automobile? But we don’t like it when this argument is turned on us. Steve Pearlstein writes:

Every year… there are thousands of college professors who twice or three times a week offer what is largely the same basic lecture course in a subject like molecular biology or Shakespeare comedies. A few of these professors offer the kind of brilliant lectures that fill auditoriums and provide the kind of educational experience that students remember all their lives. Many of the rest offer something that ranges from mediocre to awful….why don’t we identify these extraordinary lecturers, put their lectures on CDs, and sell them to universities that could supplement them with faculty-led tutorials or discussions?

Pearlstein points out that Mark Taylor, a Williams College philosophy professor, and Herb Allen, a Wall Street financier, tried to do just this at Williams College but not surprisingly the faculty resisted and vehemently voted the idea down.

The response from educators when presented with ideas like this is that students need face-to-face interaction with faculty, CDs can’t answer questions, material has to be kept updated etc. But none of this is really convincing. I teach Econ 101 well, but it’s not obvious, even to me, that students would not learn as much with a DVD of Kenneth Elzinga or Timothy Taylor or the late Paul Heyne, to name three great teachers of economics, supplemented with live tutorials and problem sessions. Needless to say, the latter scheme, would be cheaper.

I think that we faculty will manage to beat back these ideas for another ten to twenty years but eventually the benefits of the technological approach will become overwhelming. When this happens teaching will become more of a winner-take-all superstar market and wages for the rest of us will fall.

Advice to a liberal-arts major

Lisa G. from Pittsburgh writes to Marilyn vos Savant (Parade, Dec. 7, 2003):

Many of my friends and I are intelligent, liberal-arts graduate who, due to an economic system that glorifies science, medicine, business, and law, are toiling as secretaries and retail clerks. Is there any hope for the philosopher, writer, dancer, poet or sculptor to find paying work in Western society? Or are we doomed to relegate our talents to hobbies while working in drudgery until we die, just to pay the bills?

Marilyn gives a namby-pamby work hard, follow your dreams sort of answer. Here is what she should have said.

First, stop whining. You had a choice of poetry or business and you chose poetry. If your love for the subject is not enough to make up for the loss in income then go back to school. Two, stop blaming “an economic system” that glorifies science etc. and notice that these jobs pay highly because the skills they require are rare and people are willing to pay for the product of these jobs. If you produce something that people want you will be paid highly also but don’t expect other people to pay so that you can fulfill your dreams of writing poetry that no one wants to read. Third, what do you mean by it’s difficult to find work for the philosopher, writer, dancer, poet or sculptor in “Western society.” Do you know of any society at any time or place that has offered more for the arts? A retail clerk who does sculpture on the side has a far higher income than does your typical sculptor working in India. Try visiting most of the rest of the world – where science and business are not glorified – if you want to truly understand “drudgery.”

I see from the above that I have been harsh so here also is some positive advice. Stop focusing on money and instead look around for opportunities to practice your art. Enter poetry slams, make a movie, high-end camcorders are now capable of making decent quality films (yes, you will have to save to buy one), use the internet to promote your works. Do not denigrate your art as a “hobby” even if you don’t do it full-time for pay. Look for work that draws upon your artistic skills. A writer can be an editor, a poet can write great ad-copy, a photographer can photograph weddings (do not sneer it’s a privilege to be trusted with recording one of the most important events of a person’s life.) And don’t look down upon the world of work. The great poet Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive who wrote “It gives a man character as a poet to have this daily contact with a job.”

A good idea for my university

Students are making voluntary contributions to increase the pay of their favorite professors, to prevent those professors from leaving for another university. Here is one story:

When Brian Cannon, a 21-year old senior at the College of William and Mary, learned that one of his favorite government professors was leaving for a higher-paying job at Princeton University, he was a little upset.

But when the student body president learned that in the past year, 13 professors have left the prestigious public university in Williamsburg — many of them headed to public universities in other states — he knew he had to do something.

He organized a student referendum, adopted overwhelmingly this week, to raise next year’s student activity fee by $5, to about $80. The extra money would be used to boost the salaries of professors who might leave because state budget cuts have frozen faculty raises.

The fees are usually used to bring bands to campus and help out the debate team and other clubs. But now, three professors, to be chosen by the provost with student input, will each receive $10,000 bonuses, to be funded by the fee increases.

This is but one example of a growing gap in salaries between private and state universities. I expect that over time, for better or worse, many state universities will in effect become privatized. They will remain under nominal state control, but their finances will rely increasingly on private sources of support.

Private Schooling in India

The NYTimes reports on “an educational revolution” in India where the government schools are so bad that private schooling is exploding among the very poorest of the poor. Already over 17 percent of all kindergarten, primary and secondary schools are in the private sector and in the big cities the proportion is much higher. Jean Dreze, an economist who helped write a national assessment predicts “within 10 to 15 years, government schools will be almost wiped out.”

A description of a public and private school next door to one another explains why a farmer earning $22 a month will spend nearly a fifth of his income ($4) sending his child to a private school.

In the government school, only two of the three teachers assigned for 273 students were present on a recent day. Around 50 children sat on the floor in a gloomy classroom, while 40 more sat on the grass outside, as their classroom had been under repair since August. One teacher did paperwork, while the other floated between the two groups, not actually teaching either.

At the private school next door, where the teacher-student ratio is 1 to 25, a group of smartly uniformed children stood outside counting loudly in English under their teacher’s watchful eye. They then marched in orderly single file into a classroom with blackboard and benches.

The children next door wrestled, and watched.

Amartya Sen complains that “no developed” country educates itself using private schools. Yet, the private schools of India have much in common with the private schools of nineteenth century England, Wales and America. Contrary to common belief, attendance and literacy rates in England and Wales, for example, were 90 percent or above before any major state involvment in schools. James Mill (father of John Stuart) illustrated the parallel with modern India when he wrote in 1813, “We have met with families in which, for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school. (Quoted in E.G. West’s classic Education and the State).

Furthermore, India is not alone in relying on private schools in the wake of the failure of government. Private schools are even more common in Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Indonesia and elsewhere.

For more see James Tooley’s chapter, from which I have drawn, in The Voluntary City (I am one of the editors.)

Cream Skimming

Glen Whitman at Agoraphilia has some comments on my debate with Tyler on vouchers. He notes that the public school system separates students according to ability with honors classes, AP classes, magnet schools and so forth. Yet, few people call this “cream skimming.” I think Glen’s point blows the peer-effects argument against school choice out of the water.

More generally, the argument in the peer-effects literature is that we shouldn’t let smart kids escape the public school system because their presence gives dumb kids a positive externality. I detest this argument. Children are not pawns to be moved about to satisfy the desires of some grand master. A decent school system treats children as ends in themselves. (In preparation, one might add, for life in a society that treats every individual as an end in themself.)

More Bickering

Two quick notes on Tyler’s comment on my recent post on vouchers.

First, whether the school or the parent is sent the check is irrelevant (this is a basic theorem in economics). My point, however, was that parents cannot add-on to the voucher amount – i.e. the Chilean system has extensive price controls. Another way of saying this is that in the Chilean system parents never spend any of their own money on the private (subsidized) schools. I think a good voucher system requires that on at least some margins parents spend their own hard-earned dollars on their children’s education.

Second, Tyler thinks that the most convincing evidence is that Chileans did not improve on an international scale. Actually this is the least convincing evidence and it illustrates my point about the power of HU’s tests. The private schools in Chile increased by about 20 percentage points over the relevant time frame. Suppose that private schools were better than public schools by 10 percent then the aggregate gain at the national level would only be 2 percent. Small exogenous decreases in the quality of the public schools could easily swamp this gain.

More on student evaluations

Yes, the beautiful do get better student evaluations, the research of Daniel Hamermesh confirms this, the link is through Instapundit.

And get this bit, taken from the link within the link:

According to their data, the effect of beauty (or lack thereof) on teaching evaluations for men was three times as great as it was for women.

How about this?:

A glance at Web sites such as and — where students rate their instructors on criteria such as coolness, clarity, easiness, helpfulness, and hotness (on, hot professors get chili peppers beside their names) — leaves little doubt about the viciousness of some students. Petty comments abound: “Someone fire this fat bastard” and “Looks like a hobbit, is not a nice person!”

Harold Glasser has been a victim of such comments. One of his students posted the following remarks on “Glasser where’s (sic) the same blue fleece sweatercoat thing, and this awful matching blue fleece hat that looks like the one Elmer Fudd wore. If this wasn’t enough, he has some of the same mannerisms as Dr. Evil,” from the Austin Powers movies.

There is no chili pepper next to my name, but given all this, my opinion of my looks has gone up.

Addendum: Here is link to the paper, thanks to John Charles for the pointer.