Bryan Caplan  

My Interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education

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When the typical professor deals with the media, he has a litany of complaints.  "They're not accurate!"  "They're not fair!"  "They made me look stupid!"  My experience is precisely the opposite.  Virtually everyone in the media treats me well.  Case in point: my new interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education.  You might think The Chronicle of Higher Education would skewer the author of The Case Against Education.  But Scott Carlson was, as expected, a gentleman and a scholar.  Highlights from our conversation:


You write: "As far as I can tell, the only marketable skill I teach is 'how to be an economics professor.'‚ÄČ" But isn't that a failure of your imagination to make your subject relevant, not a failure of education itself?

In order to make my subject relevant, I would actually have to learn a lot about the occupations the students are doing and just teach, really, a completely different subject. Economics is not designed to be occupational training for bankers or salesmen. In terms of raising the job performance, I can't honestly say that I'm raising the job performance of students who are doing a bunch of jobs that are really quite unfamiliar to me.

Some of the most useful skills that I do try to give to students are, for example, "walk out of movies if you're not enjoying yourselves." That's what economics tells us to do. But even there, I'm not optimistic that students actually change their lives based on what they're taught. Most people think of education as writing some answers on a test, then getting on with your life and going back to what you were doing before.

[...]

Isn't there value in forcing people to march through topics they might not be interested in? They might discover some interest in it.

Once in a very long time, it happens. But there's a greater number of students who suffer through it and don't get any value from it. People who don't like school rarely write essays about how terrible it was. Instead they just suffer in silence or complain to their friends, and then they go and get a practical job and we never hear their voices again. The whole conversation about education is really driven by people who did enjoy school and who work with students. Part of what I wanted to do is give a voice to the voiceless and say, "They may not talk about it, but they are suffering." It's not a real mystery if you actually go to a classroom and look at the faces. Students are generally not happy. They're bored.

But if you talk with employers today, many laud the liberal arts and say they want well-rounded, broadly thinking people.

In this book I talk a lot about social-desirability bias. People say things, and often believe things, that sound good, but if you look closely at their behavior, you'll see that either they are being dishonest or they don't believe it all the way down. When employers say they want people who are well-rounded, you can see who they actually reward when they hire. I don't see any signs of rewarding the well-rounded people. They're rewarding people who do the job well and make the employers money. Employers want to sound like nice, open-minded people. They don't want to say, "I don't care if you're a troglodyte as long as you bring in money."




COMMENTS (5 to date)
Robert D. writes:
Part of what I wanted to do is give a voice to the voiceless and say, "They may not talk about it, but they are suffering." It's not a real mystery if you actually go to a classroom and look at the faces. Students are generally not happy. They're bored.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

One bored and jaded student

Matt writes:

There's a certain irony to this interview being behind a paywall that nobody outside of higher education is likely to have access to.

Michael writes:

I work for a large global bank, and one of my more enjoyable jobs is assessing applicants to our fairly prestigious graduate recruitment scheme, and mentoring them as new joiners. Very few talk with much passion or knowledge about their studies, and almost none seems to maintain interest - reading academic books or articles on a subject they've studied full time for three or four years, for example. That reinforces your points, but I wonder if there's also another kind of signalling going on here: that they are trying to show their single-minded career commitment, and assure that they're not egg-head intellectuals. The want to signal 'well-roundedness' not in terms of academic interests, but in terms of maintaining 'groundedness' despite academic achievement.

Frustratingly your book - which I pre-ordered months ago - is delayed from UK Amazon.

David S writes:

Re: "As far as I can tell, the only marketable skill I teach is 'how to be an economics professor.'"

I disagree, respectfully. Although I never had the opportunity to attend your specific class, in my own economics class I learned a great deal about how to achieve my goals, and how the overall economy worked.

I wish people would focus on it more, because almost everyone will be dependent on their knowledge of investment once they retire. I really feel that teaching everyone about investment would greatly increase happiness in the last 20% of everyone's lives.

I don't think there are many other (easy to achieve) projects that would have that level of return, and I am happy to see you working on it (as in, I'm happy to pay taxes to subsidize your work on it, though I'm not in California).

Matthias Goergens writes:
I work for a large global bank, and one of my more enjoyable jobs is assessing applicants to our fairly prestigious graduate recruitment scheme, and mentoring them as new joiners.

Interviewing can be fun and gives a sense of power. However, it's not actually very useful. (See eg The Hiring Post for a write-up from the tech perspective, but they mention more general research.)

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