Comparing Modern Education to a Placebo

On your first day of school at a fancy institution you listen to grand speeches about the wisdom that will soon be imprinted in your brain. You have entered as feeble minds, you will leave as the ruling class. You are also reminded about the ultra-selectivity of the august institution. You are some of the smartest young men and women in the world. It is impossible to leave a convocation ceremony without being convinced that you are among the chosen ones.

Then, you spend four years cracking open the great books, interacting with professors who shock and awe you with their intelligence, and listening intently to outside speakers who tell you it's up your generation to right yesterday's wrongs.

All the while you are keenly aware of the time and money investment you are making. By the end you have spent 48 months full-time engaged in the crucial business of educating yourself. At private colleges, your parents have mortgaged the house to make one of the largest investments of their life.

Surely, you've learned something profound. Surely, you've learned "how to think." Surely, without such a formative intellectual experience you would be at a significant disadvantage in the workforce.

At graduation, you walk off the campus toting the armor of self-confidence that comes from being told you are now "an educated adult." Self-confidence is extremely important.

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?

In his new book, which I review here, Tyler Cowen writes:

Placebo effects can be very powerful and many supposedly effective medicines do not in fact outperform the placebo. The sorry truth is that no one has compared modern education to a placebo. What if we just gave people lots of face-to-face contact and told them they were being educated?

He reluctantly provides the terrifying conclusion: Maybe that's what current methods of education already consist of.

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