Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Some unflattering views on higher ed

  1. Ben Casnocha: Comparing Modern Education to a Placebo:

    Perhaps at some point it doesn't matter what actually happens during those four years; if the song-and-dance is elaborate enough, you will be convinced that education happened, and you will carry intellectual self-confidence with you into the world.

    Does this phenomenon sound familiar?

    If you want your headache to go away, it doesn't matter if you take real Advil or just something that looks and tastes like Advil -- the outcome is the same. The Placebo effect works. Why doesn't the same hold true for education?

  2. Sridhar Vembu (CEO of says something similar in a post on Why IT Happened in Southern India, an Unorthodox Explanation:

    The education for the most past was poor quality, but that does not matter, because of what I have called the Placebo effect of education. What it confers is confidence, while the real knowledge is gained on the job - which is why dropping out of college doesn't do much damage to upper-middle-class kids, who presumably already have an ample supply of confidence.

    Vembu actually has a longer post (from 2005) elaborating on the placebo effect of higher education (it's restricted to engineering education in Tamil Nadu).

  3. Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias: Why signals are shallow:

    ... academia is primarily an institution for credentialling folks as intellectually impressive ...

  4. The previous link is a part of Hanson's debate with Andrew Gelman whose views are a lot more believable than those of Hanson's. Here's the order of the posts:

  5. This "college education is an elaborate signalling game" meme is not really new: this post has a couple of links (and my own take on college education in the comments).


  1. gaddeswarup said...

    IMO your comment in the earlier post is closer to the truth than these articles. That also raises the question taking these courses too seriously and making students work all the time.

  2. Vivek Malewar said...

    Is it me or the Zoho link comes back to this site itself!!?

  3. Abi said...

    Swarup: I wonder how any institution can take care of the needs of a large number of students for whom 'being there' is a very important part of, well, being there. In any case, what use is it to fault the universities if many, many students flock to them for non-academic reasons? While Vembu, Casnocha et al are not explicitly faulting the universities, they seem to be telling potential students that going to college is a waste of time and money. I think it's they who are wasting their time.

    Vivek: You are right, that link was screwed up. Thanks to your alert, I have fixed it.