Education works as a placebo effect

Tyler Cowen


Kai Ryssdal: College students, and their parents, who have yet to write this fall's tuition checks may want to bear the following statistic in mind. According to the Department of Education, more students are going deeper into debt to pay for school. Last year, total federal student loan payments increased 25 percent. Are students getting what they borrowed for? Commentator Tyler Cowen says yeah they are, sort of.

TYLER COWEN: There's lots of evidence that placebos work in medicine; people get well simply because they think they're supposed to.

But we're learning that placebos apply to a lot of other areas and that includes higher education. Schooling works in large part because it makes people feel they've been transformed. Think about it: college graduates earn a lot more than non-graduates, but studying Walt Whitman rarely gets people a job. In reality, the students are jumping through lots of hoops and acquiring a new self-identity.

The educators and the administrators stage a kind of "theater" to convince students that they now belong to an elite group of higher earners. If students believe this story, many of them will then live it.

Colleges therefore are very concerned with prestige, status, and yes, pretense. That means thick syllabi, famous professors, and an impressive graduation ceremony.

Online instruction will never take over from traditional colleges and universities. Just as missionaries make personal visits to bring their message to life, so must professors and students spend face time together to animate the feeling that learning has taken place.

One reason we spend so much on college is to convince ourselves of our own commitment; similarly, in medicine, experiments show that aspirin relieves more of our pain, if we know that we spent more money on the pills.

In the armed forces, part of "making Marines" is that the soldiers feel they suffered to get there. So, effective higher education probably won't ever be cheap or easy.

It really does cost a lot to bundle together a bit of learning, some good theater, and some missionary zeal, replete with the socially required props.

Colleges and universities may appear inefficient or overpriced, but it's a business model likely to stand the test of time. As long as we keep on thinking that it works, it probably does.

RYSSDAL: Tyler Cowen is what you might call an interested party in the success of higher education. He's a professor of economics at George Mason University. There's more on this in his latest book "Create Your Own Economy: the Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World."

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Unfortunately, too many people are going to college seemingly for no reason other than because it's "the right thing to do" and because their parents want them to. Of course if you consider that, as mentioned above, the simple act of going to college and "jumping through the hoops" has such a powerful effect it might not be such a bad idea. Nevertheless, I feel part of the reason you hear so much about people spending all this money on education and being no further along career-wise after-wards has to do with the fact that too many people are looking at college AS their business plan instead of PART of their business plan. They seem to assume that once they get their degree, their success is all but inevitable. Too many parents, although well-meaning have over-emphasized the importance of the education part, and somewhat over-looked all (or at least some of) the other necessary elements. Educate yourself everyday, every way you can, <a href="http://www.registryresource.com">PC repair information and guides</a>.

I agree with Jim Young and his mantra, education is a racket. It’s not surprising that those who have jumped through

the hoops of higher education value their experience. We value what we work hard at, and educational institutions

exploit this phenomenon.

Life-long learning is vital to economic and social survival. But as Ivan lllich, pointed out in his seminal book,

Deschooling Society (1971), most learning takes place outside of educational institutions.

Sadly, education is purchased for reasons of status. The primary goal should be to encourage curiosity and learning.

One problem is we confuse knowledge with intelligence. The educated person knows how to learn; what to ignore, and

what to attend to.

Our so-called education system is anti-creative. It doesn’t encourage love of learning: acknowledgement, rather it

is something to get through. “Thick syllabi” gives the illusion of quantity being quality. So many people in

businesses don’t enjoy learning. I blame the dulling effect of being lectured to, and having to comply with

mountainous texts that are hardly stimulating.

Transformational experiences come in all shapes and sizes. There is no reason why educational establishments should

be the only place for learning. For many, education is an exercise in compliance. If the only goal is to get the

stamp of approval, then employers wanting a compliant and indebted workforce (which means that they have high level

of fear) are winning. However, there is much lip-service about the need for creative talent. Employers who are open

to contribution will need to look elsewhere.

For a young person to go into debt in order to get a job is a form of slavery. Why should students pay for tenured

professors and the ephemera of sports stadiums, and palatial grounds?

Another issue is that having spent the time and money, students expect to get a degree. How many fail final exams? I

imagine few, because the universities don’t want to upset the customers. The mass-education response is to dumb down

the courses. If we stopped giving tax breaks for a college education and put all money into primary education there

would be little need for most people to go to college. There is no reason most 16 year-olds can’t grasp basic

calculus, have an ability to argue rationally, appreciate the arts, and have a good knowledge of history, or that

infants not lean three languages and be encouraged to problem solve. When it comes to higher education, we need more

of what might be coined open-source education.

Of course, it is unlikely that higher education institutions will practice academic birth-control. Like any

bureaucracy, the first loyalty is to itself.

So what would be low-cost alternatives, finding mentors, writing books, research, starting companies? How about

actually working your way up from a lowly position?

Ashley Montagu (who at one time used to teach physicians and likened it to having them remember the contents of a

phone book) once remarked that the mark of an educated person is one who has overcome the educations system. I feel

it is not in overcoming the education system but replacing it with a kaleidoscope of offerings that replaces it.

Flexibility, creativity, and adaptability are traits we must encourage in ourselves and others. We need low-cost

education for a dynamic world.

The pomp and circumstance doesn't influence the cost of higher ed to a significant degree, nor have faculty salaries or thick syllabi done much to inflate the cost ahead of the cost of other goods. What has, in my experience, had a significant effect on the bottom line of universities is the large and continuing investment in technology. Universities have every reason to maintain this commitment--if an institution doesn't keep up, good luck attracting students who expect total connectivity and "smart" classrooms--but a significant percentage of this investment is, in my view, bells and whistles that adds little to real learning.

"In fact, my master's degree program in Organizational Development at George Mason University was a transformational experience which did change the way in which I view the world." There's a couple of other comments of this nature, and I think this is missing the point. I don't think Prof. Cowen is saying that higher education isn't transformational. In fact, I think his point is precisely that it is. Read a little more closely.

I'm sorry to hear that Prof. Cowen feels that his teaching is primarily theater (which I assume he considers a disparaging term from his use of quotes) designed to convince students they're an elite.

Personally, I believe what I'm doing in the classroom is teaching, and what my students are doing is learning. They may acquire a new identity -- as learners, as thinkers, as educators -- that may lead them to approach their lives and the problems of their fields and society differently. But I'm pretty sure that identity doesn't emerge in my students without them actually doing the intellectual work.

- Alan Schwartz, University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine

William James, writing in that era before college education became a mass phenomenon, reduced the value of a liberal education to the ability to better judge the worth of another person. Quaint by today's standards perhaps, but it captures the significance of richer cultural knowledge for navigating the world wisely, something rather different than pursuing a career sucessfully, the norm by which we measure schooling today.

Yet there is a point to Tyler Cowen's comments. I am a teacher and my mantra is: "Education is a racket." That helps me get through the day.

As a humanities junkie who spent college strategically skipping from study abroad programs to specialized literature courses, I was amazed to hear Prof. Cowen, who specializes in economics, suggest college is placebo. While I’ve certainly fretted my love of Edith Warton and double major in French Studies and literature might be ill-suited for…any job, really—my more mathematically inclined college friends seemed to learn some palpable work-place skills. Though I can’t remember a project of mine which required the manipulation of an Excel chart or effectively working in a group setting (experiences I realize after nearly seven years in the “real world” would have been highly useful), students studying other, less “artistic” disciplines seemed to deal with these pre-cursers to the working world on a regular basis.
Specializations aside, there’s no denying dealing with deadlines, the one-on-one people skills and etiquette required to “meet” with professors about your work and speaking with four martini-deep alumni visiting for those “blast from the past” weekends provides a set of people skills and maturity you can’t find anywhere else.
My seventy year-old father recently confessed he STILL has dreams he’s forgotten to drop a class and must take a final for a course he’s never once attended—indicating college, as Prof. Cowen suggests, provides a function differing from the black and white notion of “an education” as we often view it. But to say the experiences gained within these four years is a state of mind? It seems a bit…sophomoric and overly simplified. College represents one of the few lasting traditions Americans have managed to keep intact.
Is the experience and “boys club” mentality worth what we pay? That sounds like a question for the kids who liked numbers. If you want to know about the use of local color in women writers’ works, give me a buzz. I’ll be sitting at my desk trying use Excel for my corporate job.

I think Dr. Cowan does make a good point. There's a great deal of the "chancellor's new clothes" in the pomp and circumstance and gowns of academia, just as there is in so many of our formalized institutions--church, state, military, even entertainment and sports. And he's right--the whole production and theatre of it costs a lot of money.

If it isn't OK for this professor to discuss it from the inside, whose perspective shall we call disinterested? It's remarkable to me that very few comments so far describe anything but dismay that he is exposing, or at least questioning, the real value--not of learning, but of all this rigamarole.

Yes, we need higher education. It should last all of our lives. As the liberal arts tradition aimed to do, we should teach/learn how and why and where to seek a lifelong education. This rarely happens in the K-12 standardized-test mills we shove our kids thru on conveyor belts.

Many terrific professors ARE lifelong students, but should we not all be? Of what advantage could it be to close off one's mind on graduation day and just focus on money? Because we do expect this, we have a nation of joyless folks who think money is the point of life, instead of vice versa, and who boast some of the highest depression and addiction rates in the world. Why? Because no amount of money can provide the wisdom and love of life/God/others that we're here to develop.

So some kind of instruction does need to suggest to the young that education, wisdom and truth are worth more than gold and are perenially of value in themselves, not just as a ticket to higher salaries.

But the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge surely don't have to require the cost of several mansions. What huge tonnage of extra infrastructure and theatrics are we paying for?

And if we can't pull down the curtain to get a glimpse of what we're paying for, and of the real wizard behind the theatre of it all, how can we come up with better, simpler, more accessible-to-all ways of offering and getting an education?

Dr. Cowan has opened a needed discussion among us. Thank you so much.

Liza Field

Professor Cowen is 100% correct in saying that higher education is a kind of placebo. If I group my friends and acquaintances by the amount of formal education they've received (one group for those with Ph.D's, one group for those with Master's degrees, one group for those with Bachelor's degrees, one group for those with high-school diplomas, etc.), the smartest, most on-the-ball, and most knowledgeable group would be the ones who never completed first grade. In my opinion, the educational system offers participants a comfortable, nonthreatening and accredited way to acquire the discipline, social skills, and intellectual interest necessary to succeed in the world.

There are many other ways to acquire those skills than by spending your days getting formally educated, particularly at the post-secondary level. Those other ways, like running your own retail business, or training as a paratrooper, are more threatening and less universally suited than formal higher education.

Professor Cowan's remarks are incomplete unfortunate, in that they paint an incomplete picture. Although as a parent I share his concerns about the rising cost of higher education, and would agree that the value proposition deteriorates, the notion of education as a placebo is hard to swallow. My engineering undergraduate education and business graduate education both gave me specific knowledge, without which I would not, indeed could not, have succeeded. As others have commented, my education also gave me self confidence in my ability to tackle and master complex problems and projects - there is no question that one learns much more after college then ever could be learned during. However I wouldn't call that a placebo effect, which is a trick of the mind. Rather it reflects a duality of learning - not only about facts and figures, but (and at least as importantly) also about one's own capacity for learning and growth, and how best to combine the two.

Indeed, but for his higher education, would Professor Cowen have the option of teaching? I would posit that even if GMU were willing to higher the economics professor without his Harvard PhD, I very much doubt he could have demonstrated the requisite skill set.


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