Bryan Caplan  

What's Wrong With Students: A Guest Post by Dennis Fried

I wish you a very neoliberal C... Market Failure or Market Succe...
Former philosophy professor and successful humorist Dennis Fried sent me some poignant comments on my piece in The Atlantic.  Reprinted with Fried's permission.

Dear Dr. Caplan,

I just read your article in Atlantic magazine and was blown away by the brutal honesty displayed there, especially coming from someone whose career depends on the very system being criticized. I taught philosophy at several public and private colleges and universities in the 70s, and I chose to leave the field in 1980 because of the degradation in education that was taking place even then. I often said that, in my experience, out of a class of thirty students only about five would normally possess the minimum requirements for a college student: the ability to read and write with competence, and a modicum of intellectual curiosity.

I clearly remember two moments that crystallized for me my decision to leave teaching.

Appalled and shocked by the illiteracy displayed in my students' papers, I once began a class (comprised of freshmen through seniors) by writing on the board three words: cats, cat's, cats'. I then asked if anyone could explain the difference. About ten seconds elapsed before one (very brave) student raised her hand, began "I think ..." and then proceeded to explain the difference correctly. I said, "This is third grade stuff. Why do most of you not know it?"

Several said they were never taught it. I then asked, "Didn't your high school teachers correct this sort of thing on your papers?" to which several responded, "We never had to write any papers in high school."

"What did you do in English class?" I asked.  Answers: Listened to records, watched videos, talked about movies and current events.

Second crystallizing event. I had a young man in my Intro to Philosophy class who got so little right on his mid-term exam that it was hard to believe, even more so because he attended class, stayed awake, and seemed to take notes. So I asked him to come in to see me. I asked to see his notes, and they seemed to be hitting the main points. I was stumped.

Well, maybe he just didn't study for the exam. So I asked him if he had.

"Oh, yes." A "yes" with conviction. I don't know what prompted me to ask the follow-up, but I did: "How long would you say you studied?"

"Well, the night before, I studied probably pretty close to an hour." And with that the scales fell from my eyes.

"An hour? Do you realize that when I was in college it was common to start studying for big exams a week or more before?"

"Gee," he said.

And, as your article and other sources make very clear, in the past thirty-plus years it's only gotten worse.

In any case, with no irony intended, I wish you the best of luck!

Dennis Fried (Osprey, Florida)

COMMENTS (13 to date)
Charles Phelps writes:

I had a wonderful English teacher in middle school (during the mid-seventies) and since then have ALWAYS been able to answer your 'cats' question w/o even needing to say 'I believe...'.

I KNOW that sort of thing thanks to a wonderful man who is no longer with us named Keller Pollock!

RIP Keller!

[ broken HTML fixed.—Econlib Ed.]

David R Henderson writes:

I think even the C students at my rural Canadian school in the early 1960s would have got the distinctions between cats, cat’s, and cats’.

zeke5123 writes:

Mandatory curving:

1. Top 10% As;
2. 11%-40% Bs;
3. 41%-80% Cs;
4. 81%-100% Ds.

Fs are discretional.

Not sure on the exact calibration, but the above seems correct to me. Provide an incentive to work hard, and people will work hard. Apply this at a college wide level, and students won't steer away from a particular class (i.e., no selection bias). Now, this might steer away students from that particular college, but my wager is that such a college would produce better students, and ultimately better students would obtain more prestigious positions, which would cause kids to choose that school.

I studied significantly more in law school compared to undergrad. This wasn't because the material was harder; instead, it was (a) I had skin in the game (i.e., I was paying; not my parents) and (b) the grade was curved. In order to get a good grade, I needed to write a better exam compared with the other students. In order to do that, I needed to know everything down cold.

Even in that competitive environment, I still collaborated with other students to help learn. The classes -- especially in 1L -- were often large enough that study groups likely did not have a deleterious impact on your grade because the odds of any few students substantially transforming your grade was relatively small.

gabe writes:

Well, let us not overlook the role of the *teachers* (whatever THAT means nowadays)in the decline of education / learning. My experience indicates that the teachers DO NOT know such basic distinctions, are absolutely IGNORANT of American History, history in general, and a number of other areas.
I recall at my oldest sons' Open School Day a conversation I had with his History teacher wherein it was revealed that the teacher did not know the difference between "empiricism" and "imperialism" and that he did not wish to correct students spelling, grammar or penmanship for fear of "hurting" their self-esteem.

Any wonder why the kids can't read or write or that the majority of millennials believe that George W Bush killed more people than Josef Stalin.

We are doomed!

Matt writes:

My Dad was once sent to investigate a situation that might cost his company nearly $100m because pipes for a major multi-pipe pipeline had arrived on site damaged. Firstly the workers on site didn't properly understand that the damage was on a spectrum and that is some cases the pipes could still be used if the damage was minimal or close to the ends (the pipes could be truncated and still used provided they maintained a random length (you don't want standing waves on a high pressure pipeline)). So my Dad analysed the pipes to determine how the damage had occurred to the pipes, how systematic it was, and how much remediation would be required. Once he graphed the damage he got a bimodal distribution and was able to determine that some of the damage occurred during manufacturing and some during transit. The transit damage mostly occurred towards the ends and so was relatively easy to remediate, and so most of the pipes damaged in transit could still be used. The ones damaged during manufacturing weren't always so easy to remediate. But in the end he calculated a way to use the ones that could be remdiated and occasionally use more stanchions for pipes that had to be shortened. SO the delay would only be a little over one month rather than the 6+ months initially estimated by the ground crew. The analysis along with the discovery of the bimodal distribution allowed for much quicker resolution of the insurance. This meant that the company only lost $1m form the delay instead of £100m. When my father presented to the analysis and outcome to the executives at HQ they couldn't understand it.

After that my Dad said to me, don't bother with anything after 1st year Uni maths at work because no one else will understand it.

Larry writes:

It's a good thing the robots are coming soon to run things. What have we done to our society?

Tanstaafl writes:

Did no one notice the irony?!

“I once began a class (comprised of freshmen through seniors) by writing on the board three words: cats, cat's, cats' “ is a (beginner) grammar nazi question, right? I agree that a minimally educated person should be able to answer it (in his sleep)...

... but even a beginner grammar nazi must no that a class COMPRISES students (thoug this is stilted style), but CONSISTS of feshmen through seniors (or is COMPOSED of them, if you *have* to use the passive voice)

I actually agree with the author on the substance, but he should be careful not to be the best example for a lack of education himself :-)

RPLong writes:

Tanstaafl, I think most of us would agree that there are 3rd-grade-level grammar mistakes (like the cats example), and there are college graduate-level grammar mistakes (like correct use of the word comprised and decisions about passive vs active voice).

Sure, you can point out a few upper-level errors in Mr. Fried’s letter (while admittedly agreeing with the substance), but I’m not sure this advances the conversation any more than if I were to point out some of the spelling errors in your own comment.

The point is, it’s unlikely that “cats” vs “comprised” vs “feshmen” made much of a long-run career impact on any of us. But if any of us had opted out of a college degree, you can bet we’d be much worse off.

[ Broken url removed. Please test your links before posting comments.—Econlib Ed.]

Shane L writes:

I do not know if educational standards have fallen or not, but I do wonder if the perception of it may be due in part to a selection issue, whereby those who end up teaching students are those who were among the best students in their own day. I know people of several age groups now who privately dismay of the inability of their undergraduate students, perceiving a decline in standards. Perhaps these people were above average students in their own time. They compare their students with their own younger selves, but this may not be appropriate.

Professor Fried perceived falling standards in college back in the 1970s. Others perceive falling standards today. Have standards been falling now for five consecutive decades? It is perfectly possible, but perhaps teachers are also forgetting how poor their classmates were during their own undergrad years.

Drea writes:

Having watched my children go through what passes for writing classes in today's public school, I sympathize.

But isn't Prof. Fried's point orthogonal to yours?

The case against eduction says that schooling has always been a red queens race (or signaling in a zero sum market).

If "kids these days" actually learned how to write and how to study, they would still be competing based on their credentials, not their skills.

Niko Davor writes:

This is pure anecdote. I've seen recent undergraduate engineering students who do super human amounts of highly demanding academics. That's a competing anecdote. Neither are convincing as capturing some overall picture.

Hans writes:

"NOUN plural cats, plural cats"
"Plural nouns that end in –s
With a plural noun that already ends in -s: add an apostrophe after the s:

The mansion was converted into a girls’ school.

The work is due to start in two weeks’ time.

My duties included cleaning out the horses’ stables."
And of course t's shows possession

Two of of three, shameful. Enrolling in
Head Start for Dummies next summer.

Fred Anderson writes:

Decades ago, when I was a marketing research pup for a major company, I had an experience similar to Matt's father's experience on the pipeline.
We had a major field study (some 400 respondents) across multiple of the company's products. Being a greenhorn, I had analyzed it to a fare-thee-well. And presented the full-bore analysis complete with standard deviations, confidence intervals, T-tests and the whole nine yards.
After the conference room presentation, my boss -- a much wiser man than I -- took me aside and chewed me out. "You scared the hell out of them! There probably wasn't anybody in that room besides yourself who understood what you were telling them. That's probably $50,000 down the drain because now none of them will have the confidence act on any of this. Senior managers don't gamble their careers on stuff they don't understand."
He was right, of course.
The decision group was a mixed bag, as you might expect: one or two with Master's degrees, most with Bachelor's, a few high school grads who had worked their way up through the ranks. Some with decades of experience in the industry and some with only a few years. None with much if any training in statistics. Some being more respected and influential than their peers -- but unfortunately, these were usually the older, more experienced, and less statistically savvy ones.
Thereafter my reports offered nothing more sophisticated than averages and percentages.


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