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.

33 comments on “Comparing Modern Education to a Placebo
  • I’m not sure I understand. If you (or Tyler) mean that modern education has deteriorated relative to education in the past, or that the educational system in general is not teaching the “correct” things, I think that has nothing to do with the placebo effect.

    If your point was that all that matters in modern education is for the students to think they are being educated, I would argue that a “placebo” institution that would be effective at tricking students has to resemble a “real” institution to such an extent that it would no longer be a placebo. If that makes any sense.

  • Do you think this applies mainly to liberal arts education, or do you think it applies to technical disciplines, such as engineering, as well?

  • While in college I merely accepted that I was getting an education. I’m quite certain that I didn’t know what I was getting until I was nearly 40–and didn’t feel comfortable evaluating what I got until then. God, that’s patronizing. There was a bit of waste, but the majority of my “liberal arts” education taught me to think, a competitive advantage for which I’m ever grateful.

    We have three daughters, two graduates of universities listed in the “top ten” universities, and the third graduate of a school among the top 25. So??? None of them read out like you or Tyler. What am I to make of that?

    Cynicism. . . an attitude of scornful or jaded negativity, especially general distrust of the integrity or professed motives of others.

  • All (ALL!) of your posts on the uselessness of college ignore engineering and the sciences. Please make an effort to stop generalizing beyond the truth.

    There is absolutely no better way to learn science other than by going to college. Every tool you use today (electrical grid, computers, cars, planes, cell phones) was built on the backs of millions of scientists and engineers with college educations.


    Also, as someone who already thinks, and who has taken liberal arts classes, I harbor doubts about the claim that liberal arts education teach you to think. I like to think that my own actions are responsible for my thinking developments.

  • The liberal arts emphasizes art, philosophy, history, math, science, etc., but it approaches these arts from the perspective of how each field thinks critically about its substance.

    Even the middle ages, the source of our philosophy of liberal arts, emphasized science and math. So I don’t know what definition of liberal arts you’re working from.

    Some engineering programs work out of an arts perspective, e.g. Washington University, etc. Other programs are mere technical programs, and once the work environment goes beyond the technical training, many of those grads are adrift.

    Critical thinking is a definite skill set, in and of itself.

  • Interesting to read the defensive comments here. When you turn degrees into commodities and anyone can buy one from somewhere, you’re going to lower the overall level of education in the population – while those with the pieces of paper hold them up as proof that they are educated. They FEEL educated. (All that education didn’t teach them much about the wisdom of incurring tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of debt for that piece of paper. Sometimes it’s a must, but there are a lot of people out there who would be far better off if they’d done vocational training – formal or informal – and skipped the whole illusion of being turned into a Renaissance individual.)

    One of my friends talks about graduating from NYU with an MFA that cost her (back in the ’80s) $30k, and having no idea how even to write a cover letter when she left. The practicals of life, of how to make money from one’s chosen art, were sneered at and ignored completely. (She now teaches a course she designed herself – at NYU, the New School, Columbia, Cooper Union and other universities – which specifically addresses this lack of education amongst those who have paid dearly for one.)

  • I’m having trouble with this metaphor because an educational system is a delivery system (that is, it imparts the “medicine” of knowledge which is its own independent entity)- it isn’t the “cure” itself. A delivery system is incredibly important to a medical outcome, but it’s not a drug, so (at least in my understanding) it can’t be a placebo.

    I guess I’m still not sure what you’re getting at here (despite your clarification above)- are you saying then that because we get the expected effect of “intellectual self-confidence” from merely thinking we’re being educated that it’s a poor investment of resources because we’re not learning anything we couldn’t learn on our own or that we need to have a different ultimate expectation (perhaps of “actual learning”)from the educational system so that it imparts real value or something else entirely that I’m just missing?

  • As a second person named Ted, who took engineering courses at the university Dan Erwin mentioned, I feel compelled to jump in.

    If there are engineering programs that work from a liberal arts perspective, WashU isn’t one of them. Engineering mathematics was as dry, biomechanics followed the textbook, electrical networks felt like it hadn’t been updated since the 50s, engineering stats was cookbook, machine learning spent most of its time detailing the technicalities of particular algorithms, and so on. All except one or two of my engineering classes felt like technical education.

    Does technical education teach you how to think? Some concepts from calculus, differential equations, optimization, etc could perhaps be applied by analogy to things in general. I’d say for the most part, engineering education as it was in my experience makes you better at engineering, but not at thinking in general.

    Two possible exceptions:

    – Economics education, which for me at least, provides new angles on entire classes of other issues (ethics, business, …)

    – Brilliant teachers, like Feynman. For example, see his lecture “Law of Gravitation – An Example of Physical Law” ( You learn the law of gravitation, but it’s only used to ground a more abstract discussion about physical laws in general. An uncle of mine took Feynman’s classes; Feynman didn’t teach you how to solve homework problems, but rather used physics to teach you how to think. He left you to learn the technicalities on your own, which was apparently really hard (nearly all the undergraduates dropped out of the course)

    P.S. The other Ted seems cool but I guess I’ll comment with my full name from now on so people can tell us apart.

  • Science educations might or might not teach you a lot more science than LA education teaches you LA. The real contention here is that whichever area you are being taught a large segment of it is plain placebo. College might be a lot better than self-education, but colleges can be much much better if only they make the right right improvements.

  • Ted Suzman: Thanks for jumping into the conversation. I don’t know beans about biomechanics so that’s a good place to start. I assume that biomechanics deals with some sort of problem solving, say the application of the principles of mechanics to living organisms. Critical thinking has to do with how good a decision is or how well a problem has been solved. It focuses on specific outcomes.

    I assume that you now know the kinds of factors that should be considered in determining a biomechanical outcome (e.g.what are the factors you should consider in designing an office chair for a 6′ overweight male, or even more complex like the responses of human tissue to proteins). You know how to ask yourself (metacognition) whether you selected the right factors, what factors you missed, etc. Critical thinking is an evaluation component of processes designed to achieve outcomes. That’s obvious? Well, it probably wasn’t obvious until you sat through that “dry” course.

    I assume also that the factors going into electrical networks are different than the factors going into a decision about a biomechanical problem.

    As problems get more and more complex, we need to be able to consider all the factors that make up this complexity, prioritize, ask questions about resolutions and then think through our entire process of reasoning.

    Different fields have different factors involved and different ways of thinking about those factors.

    I’m unconvinced that “dry” or “exciting” has anything to do with the issue–except whether you picked up what the prof was attempting to say about thinking about his subject.

  • The placebo effect could work from the opposite direction as well – a manager hiring someone from a top school might assume he or she is doing a better job than they actually are, and reward them with promotions, better opportunities, mentorship, etc. I wonder if there’s any research testing whether, if two people do the same quality work in a professional setting, the one with the more “impressive” degree is evaluated more favorably (along the lines of the “white names/black names” resume research).

  • “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.”

    It seems that you and Tyler do want to define a typical college education itself as a placebo– an inert substitute for the real thing.

    So what is the ‘real’ thing?

    I appreciate the humorous tone of your riff, but this is nonsensical.

    You don’t have to take a course in logic to see that if you haven’t defined what a ‘real’ education is, then it’s meaningless to speculate whether or not lots of face-to-face contact and telling students that they’re being educated actually results in a placebo effect– so-called ‘education’.

    “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.”

    Placebo effects may be ‘real’, but they certainly have their real-world limitations of efficacy. If a latter-day Dr. Humphry Osmond gives a placebo to the student who’s never had a psychedelic experience, and tells him it’s LSD, the would-be communicant will not have an LSD ‘trip’.

    Neither will the poor psychonaut who has previously had a psychedelic experience.

    Fortunately, the ‘real’ good doctor Osmond was kinder than that. If you wanted a ‘real’ education, he gave you real LSD or real mescaline.

  • Interesting. I agree completely. Autodidactism is where it’s at. Hell, you could even argue that formal schooling is WORSE than placebo since it introduces a bunch of half-digested quasi-truths, unnecessary specialization/narrowmindedness (like your post on big picture thinkers) and self-limiting beliefs. More posts in this vein, please!

    The result on my part is that I have become TOO hostile to university thinking and culture. It has its place, it’s just not the battleship of human intellectual development that everyone pretends it to be.

    Also, is it possible to interview you? I have a magazine (well pdf zine) coming out soon (hopefully) about personal development (in a very broad definition of the word).

  • Be very wary of people who go to college to “get an education”. I mean, what the frigg are you doing the rest of the time? Un-getting an education?

  • Interesting to read the defensive comments here. When you turn degrees into commodities and anyone can buy one from somewhere, you’re going to lower the overall level of education in the population – while those with the pieces of paper hold them up as proof that they are educated.

    VERY true in Sweden, where college is free.

  • are you saying then that because we get the expected effect of “intellectual self-confidence” from merely thinking we’re being educated that it’s a poor investment of resources because we’re not learning anything we couldn’t learn on our own

    Yes, that *thinking* we’re getting educated bestows the self-confidence. Whether we’re actually getting educated might not matter very much.

    Whether it’s a good investment overall depends on the person.

  • College may be a placebo – it’s also a scam…

    My admittedly provocative title is designed to get your attention. Immediately below is a letter to the four year college I graduated from explaining why hell will freeze over before I give them any money. It boils down to: it makes no sense to give money to the rich – support community colleges instead. If you click on the title of this post you will be linked to today’s editorial by David Brooks (in The NY Times), called No Size Fits All (great title!) in which he more articulately and in a much more rational way makes the same argument.

    Dear Alumni Relations Directors of Innovative Four Year Liberal Arts Colleges,

    Thanks for the invite to the alumni event and your kind offer to take me to lunch to talk about the College at which the subject of my contributing to the alumni fund will doubtless be discussed.

    Here’s the thing – I totally get your need for money and I have absolutely every confidence that you are still a good place for nice kids with nice ideas who maybe are a little off beat but very smart and I believe the world would be a better place if it saw education in ways that I think you do. That said, private colleges can (I think) without stretching, be described as related to, or even directly themselves, elite. That is, despite the financial aid and other assistance they provide, private college “customers” are (economically) in the top one tenth of one percent of the world’s population (even the poorest students). Even if that were not reason enough not to give money – why give it to private colleges? How about to new and interesting charter schools in low income urban areas? How about to promote the growth of community colleges? How about to support early childhood education because if you cannot read by the third grade – you are probably lost in this world. In the hierarchy of education need around the world, fancy pants colleges do not seem to rank as needy or even worthy of “charity”. This does not make them unworthy- just unworthy of charity.

    By the time kids walk through your doors they are basically already fully baked (in terms of who they are as humans). I know some kids who went to college and are new grads – same great kids they were before they went to college. They have some new friends and they had a lot of fun and they learned stuff – yup – that’s life – it goes on, here or there or this way or that, elite and privileged by world and other standards or not – life goes on.

    And you should be given more money why exactly? I know your standard answer – financial aid – I do not believe that argument – I think its a ginned up rationale for growing your endowment and keeping you on par with your competition. Colleges should all give their endowments to a centralized fund that makes low interest loans and grants to students of need regardless of which school they go to. Colleges should live on tuition (paid by students of means and by the central fund) and manage your costs. This competition thing over money among colleges is total bullshit and its driving people nuts and is idiotic and makes no sense and you know it. Oh and by the way – the education colleges provide is OK at best – not really very good or original – ask anyone who has gone to Harvard – if they are honest.

    And here’s another thing. I know not all colleges have the biggest endowments on the block but the notion of giving college endowments more money to invest in private equity and hedge funds is nuts to me. I am always amazed when rich people give money to other rich people. Yet people do it – that leads me to wonder why? They have fond memories? They liked the school? What is that all about? First of all – my parents paid tuition, the college charged a fee for service and they paid it. I mean I like my plumber, Rich C, a lot but all I do is pay what he charges. I do not give him more money to support his “mission”. And speaking of tuition – the amount that colleges charge in tuition is nuts and the out distancing of the CPI that tuition has risen borders on scandalous.

    I hope this does not offend you, I get all the reasons why some people would feel differently than I do and think its a worthy cause to support . But believe me my not agreeing does not at all reflect any lack of respect for you and what you do or for the college and what it does or for the faculty and staff and students there. All really nice people doing good stuff. I wish the college all the best. – Your former student and graduate.

  • I think the greatest asset of the college I went to (Yale) was the other students. I learned a lot then from my exposure to them and I still get a lot in terms of exposure and learning from my friends and acquaintances from then.

    I cannot however think of a single class that made a great impression upon me.

    I freely admit that I failed to use some of the great resources there (free writing tutors that are often professionals on sabbatical [what a fool I was]).

    However, I sometimes wonder if I could have re-created my college experience and benefit simply by being there amongst the intellectual fervent. What if I had dropped out after freshman year and stuck around, while at the same time working on some project(s), like a researched book or a new business.
    I think I may have accomplished more.

    I agree with the above that the hard sciences are different. However, are you better off learning those subjects at an elite school or community college? Even most of the lowliest community colleges offer great hard science classes (for at least the first two years), an education that would be envied in other parts of the world. Yet, somehow the setting matters.

    I think these expensive universities are charging for their human capital as much as their teaching prowess. Yes, it is partially selling certification and there is no doubt that many schools engage in this. The value of this certification fades over time, though. The chance to be around so many people who are driven and creative and resourceful at an important time in life does not though, it pays dividends through the years.

  • However, I sometimes wonder if I could have re-created my college experience and benefit simply by being there amongst the intellectual fervent. What if I had dropped out after freshman year and stuck around, while at the same time working on some project(s), like a researched book or a new business.
    I think I may have accomplished more.

    I’ve been going to community college for the past five years, but have really been educating myself throughout that time. I resented being there since the very beginning, and just wanted to get out of there ASAP. However, eventually I started to realize that a traditional university wasn’t likely going to be much better, so I then started looking into alternative liberal arts school. After trying twice unsuccessfully to get into Hampshire College (the King of the alternative colleges–they have no grades), I then went a semester without applying to any colleges, but applied to four different liberal arts schools the following semester. I was accepted at Eugene Lang College (AKA The New School for Liberal Arts) and plan to start there this fall. However, the financial aid I was granted won’t cover everything and I am starting to wonder whether attending that school for the next two years will really be worth the debt, especially considering how pleased I am with the intellectual development I’ve accomplished on my own. But I have three reasons why attending Eugene Lang WILL be worthwhile: #1, I believe there classes will indeed be extraordinary; #2, the exposure to great professors, grad students, and aspiring intellectuals might be in itself worth the money; and #3, what other options does an aspiring academic have?

  • Dan,

    A lot has to do more with whom you are gaining the professed knowledge from… If you have a professor that has been academic all of their life has a different view of education versus someone who has been in the real world. I tend to look at who is teaching verus what they are teaching. That makes a huge difference in the quality of education, even if you go to a lucrative university. This is especially true if you are at the graduate level.

  • Christian,
    If you want to be an academic, then you [almost] have to go the school route. The only way to short circuit that it to write some super well regarded book/set of literature that jumps you ahead of the line. That’s sort of a crap shoot, though.

    My wife started at community college and then transferred to a four year (for a LA degree). Her brothers are doing the same for engineering degrees. Don’t forget, the President transferred into Columbia as well.

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  • No, critical thinking is not a definite skill set, in and of itself. Or at least, cognitive sciences, and all the known world’s collected wisdom of several thousand years (dating back to the Ancient Chinese, Indians and Eyptians) has failed to discover a general way of teaching critical thinking.

    The process of thinking critically is intertwined with what you are thinking about – domain knowledge. So for example you can tell a student that they should consider reasonable alternative explanations for an event, but they can’t do it unless they know what’s reasonable in that context. You can tell a student to look at an issue from multiple perspectives, but if they don’t know much about an issue they can’t think about it from multiple perspectives.


  • Actually, at engineering school, by the end of my three years I came away with a deep conviction of my ignorance and a feeling that I’d only had the merest of introductions to engineering.
    My fellow students felt the same.
    So the phenomenon doesn’t sound familiar.

  • Hi Tracy: I’m glad you brought this issue up–and Willingham may be the most knowledgeable in the field. Based on my statement about critical thinking and Willingham’s comments, I want to nuance your note to me.

    People in the ed psych field today, who have interests in teaching critical thinking, understand that it has to be taught as part of a domain, as part of subject matter.

    My comment to Ted was about some of the fundamental issues of critical thinking in the domain of, say, biomechanics.

    Willingham says CritThik is not a skill–the same set of approaches cannot be applied across all domains. That’s conclusive as far as I’m concerned. Yet, I called it a skill set. Why? Willingham and I are both playing the same game. We want people to learn to think critically and we, therefore, choose our language to achieve those ends. It’s more than semantics. It’s pragmatism.

    Perhaps if I’d used the “discipline” of
    critical thinking you’d think differently.

    I teach business people to think critically, but use their domain of expertise as the point of departure, and not in isolation–with some success.

  • My view is that what you get in college is the opportunity to demonstrate that you can manage your own schedule and complete projects such as papers on schedule without someone standing over you every minute. Autonomy and resourcefulness. And the ability, to some degree, to deal with a bureaucracy.

    It also demonstrates the ability to come up to speed on some topic, and be able to engage in discourse about it.

    I think this is why employers value a college degree.

    I think I can see the argument that the specifics of curriculum don’t matter to any of those things above, but how else would you organize it?

    College also gives one the opportunity to learn many other things, but there’s no guarantee there.

  • “many supposedly effective medicines do not in fact outperform the placebo”

    Not true. In individual cases, placebos can work as well as real medicine, but real medicine is still better on the whole, otherwise how could you discern whether something was a placebo if it works as good as real medicine?

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