The Confession of a College Professor

George Mason University economics professor Brian Caplan, author of The Myth of the Rational Voter, confessed today that he teaches his students little that they can use in the Real World:

I’ve been in school for the last 35 years – 21 years as a student, the rest as a professor.  As a result, the Real World is almost completely foreign to me.  I don’t know how to do much of anything. While I had a few menial jobs in my teens, my first-hand knowledge of the world of work beyond the ivory tower is roughly zero….

Considering how studiously I’ve ignored the Real World, you might think that the Real World would return the favor by ignoring me.  But it doesn’t!  I’ve influenced the Real World careers of thousands of students.  How?  With grades.  At the end of every semester, I test my students to see how well they understand my courses, and grade them from A to F.  Other professors do the same.  And remarkably, employers care about our ivory tower judgments.  Students with lots of A’s finish and get pleasant, high-paid jobs.  Students with a lots of F’s don’t finish and get unpleasant, low-paid jobs….

Think about all the time students spend studying history, art, music, foreign languages, poetry, and mathematical proofs.  What you learn in most classes is, in all honesty, useless in the vast majority of occupations.  This is hardly surprising when you remember how little professors like me know about the Real World.  How can I possibly improve my students’ ability to do a vast array of jobs that I don’t know how to do myself?

Yes, I can train graduate students to become professors.  No magic there; I’m teaching them the one job I know.  But what about my thousands of students who won’t become economics professors?  I can’t teach what I don’t know, and I don’t know how to do the jobs they’re going to have.

Many educators sooth their consciences by insisting that “I teach my students how to think, not what to think.”  But this platitude goes against a hundred years of educational psychology.  Education is very narrow; students learn the material you specifically teach them… if you’re lucky. 

Other educators claim they’re teaching good work habits.  But especially at the college level, this doesn’t pass the laugh test.  How many jobs tolerate a 50% attendance rate – or let you skate by with twelve hours of work a week?  School probably builds character relative to playing videogames….

The whole article is enlightening, and it’s rare that anyone would endanger a job that he enjoys by revealing the scam. Why won’t David Copperfield show us how he does his magic tricks? Has President Obama ever had a job outside politics and academia in the Real World? If not, does that disqualify him from creating laws that affect the Real World?

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