Bryan Caplan  

The Ubiquity of Useless Learning, in Song

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What's so funny?... Smith's Benevolent Baker Quote...
You've got a love a rap video that ends with, "If you can't explain why a subject is applicable to most people's lives, that subject should not be mandatory."



HT: Jason Arentz


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COMMENTS (12 to date)
CC writes:

Holy cow. Bryan, if you said you wrote & produced this, I think I might believe you.

Hazel Meade writes:

Usually this sort of thing is used in reference to subjects that absolutely are applicable to most people's lives, but many people just don't understand why. A theoretical subject like math, for example, has nearly universal applicability, but many people will pooh-pooh it without understanding that basic math helps them with every significant financial decision, from purchasing a car to buying insurance.

Carl writes:
without understanding that basic math helps them with every significant financial decision, from purchasing a car to buying insurance.

Sure, but how hard is that to teach? Does it require 15+ years of the most expensive education ever? I doubt this rapper or anyone else for that matter is arguing against the usefulness of basic math.

Peter Drake writes:

The problem with some of the more abstract subjects is that sometimes little effort is made to connect them to people's lives. The best math lesson is a math lesson that happens during a history class, or a lecture on personal finance, or applying stats to strategy in gym class.

If it isn't applicable then it shouldn't be required, other than as just an initial introduction. Personally I think Calculus is awesome, but I wouldn't force students to take more than a couple months of it. If you can't convince them it's beautiful then either they don't like it or you're teaching it know. Teaching it for longer won't help.

John T. Kennedy writes:

"Put down the cigarette, and drop out of high school." - Jonathan Richman

Floccina writes:

I watched "A Path Appears" on PBS last night and they kept asking poor people if they were they read to and if your children doing well in school and do you want them to go to college and I am think why are you not rather encouraging them to learn things that will help them live a better life now at their current income level of raise their income now. It just seemed silly. We cannot all be above average and so diplomas can only do so much. On the other hand useful knowledge can help parent, child and society. Also if you are poor in a poor country IMHO you need to get useful knowledge as quickly as possible and get to earning but no one talks about how to prioritize knowledge by importance and get to people faster.

My comments about A Path Appears

Floccina writes:

Also I think that education is very valuable but that signaling squeezes out much valuable education that could occur.
@Peter Drake factoring quadratic equations is useful to thousands of people probability to billions but in my schooling probably 200 hours were spent on factoring quadratic equations and maybe 10 on probability. The idea of limits (calculus) is a useful idea but if a student is not good at factoring quadratic equations he is not taught about limits.

Keith writes:

Almost any subject *could* have widespread usefulness--especially if you allow contributions to edification or "well-roundedness" to count as useful. The problem is opportunity cost: every hour spent learning art history is an hour you could have spent learning finance or nutrition or just socializing.

Mark Bahner writes:
@Peter Drake factoring quadratic equations is useful to thousands of people probability to billions but in my schooling probably 200 hours were spent on factoring quadratic equations and maybe 10 on probability.

Yes, probability and statistics. And logic. Teach all the logical fallacies, and how to identify them. For instance, I don't know for a fact, but I sure don't remember ever learning what an ad hominem argument is...and how to identify it, and why it's an error in logic. And not just, "He is evil, therefore he is wrong," but also, "He is virtuous, therefore he is right."

Also, it would probably break a thousand rules, but it would be great to teach a class in science that doesn't present science as facts, but instead teaches science as the original scientists learned it (or should have learned it).

For example, how do we know the world is round? It would be great to show kids a time-lapse movie of sailing ship disappearing over the horizon, and try to let them puzzle out how that film could provide evidence the world was round.

And then (here's where the rule-breaking occurs)try to get them to puzzle out how they could know the story of Noah's Ark is just a story. Even set up a debate where one side presents arguments why it's *not* a story, and the other side presents arguments why it is a story.

Declare, "I say the earth is about 6000 years old. Write a paper about why you agree or disagree."

Teach *how* to think, not what to think.

Art Carden writes:

The artist's point isn't "math is pointless" or "the quadratic equation is pointless" but that little if anything was given context.

Our approach to schooling our kids is and will be a mix of technical and vocational instruction combined with a solid dose of the liberal arts. Ideally, we will discuss nothing without application, even if that application is "The heavens declare the glory of God, and 'the heavens' are fundamentally mathematical objects."

Mark S writes:

I understand the spirit of the song but he lamented that we weren't taught things like...

* how to get a job
* how to pay tax
* how to vote
* current events
* current laws
* financial advice
* what rights people have
* basic economics (how stocks/money etc work)
* how to buy a house with mortgage
* practical medicine

but most things he wanted to be taught

(a) don't have much relevance to kids
(I don't think kids should spend time learning how to buy a house with mortgage or reading news about current events)

(b) require expertise
(I don't want kids to practice medicine or waste time reading complex tax laws)

(c) can be intrusive/ideologically-driven
(I don't want biased teachers to teach kids how to vote or give "financial advice" whatever that means)

So things are more complex than he portrays.

Mark S writes:

Another thing I wanted to mention is that where I grew up, I took Civics classes when I was in junior high school where I learned what laws there are in my country.

Now, I don't remember much of what I learned there (which actually strengthen the song's overall point), but if I made a rap song singing about how nobody in school taught me what laws there are, I would look ridiculous, especially when I have free access to all that information on the internet.

I should instead sing about how little I remember what I learned in school, and should advocate for shorter mandatory school years where kids learn about basic literacy (including computer literacy) and numeracy and perhaps economics.

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