In the summer of 2012, I gave a public lecture at The University of Regina. In that lecture I criticized higher education because most people don't remember much of what they studied as undergraduates. As an alternative, I emphasized signaling theories of education. I also emphasized the importance of learning-by-doing and the importance of learning from one's own mistakes.
Below is a link to the lecture on YouTube. Unfortunately, the technician forgot to turn the microphone on until the 26-minute mark. So you will miss the introductory remarks by Hafiz Akhand, who was the economics department chair out there at the time. You will also miss my own introduction in which I chronicle all the evidence I had from my own life about everything I may have learned but then quickly forgot. Here is a snippet from the notes I had prepared for that talk:
Old exam story. Saw an intermediate theory exam I’d taken as an undergrad. “Did I know that then? I don’t remember having studied or learned that.”
Disclaimer and personal history.
The fact that I didn’t learn or retain much as an undergrad would surprise none of my undergraduate professors. Ds in two econ courses, Failed a math course, barely passed and barely graduated. Majored in bridge and the identity crisis, and if there’d been an exam in bridge, I’d probably have failed that.
Re-took all the math. Even after only three years, remembered very little.
Okay, okay, I remembered a few things. Dy/dx when y = xn
Virtually no Russian. No Henry James. No Plato, etc. No chem-phys. A bit of Hemmingway. One specific paragraph from Tropic of Cancer that I won’t recite for you now.
Not much econ, really. One item that I remembered and that stood out was the result of a phone call to my prof. Technology change. Used it in gradskool.
Micro theory? Bad sense of analytic geometry by prof. Also methodology (and Machiavelli).
Money and banking? A lot of IS-LM and a prof who looked out the window and cancelled classes.
As I said, I was a bad student, but I think I was fairly typical. How many of you remember very much from the undergrad courses you took (aside from, but maybe even including, fields in which you have continued to work?)
Another example from a different realm: It may be old age, but when I look back at some of the things I wrote the blog 7-9 years ago, I think, “Really? I don’t remember that.” The point I’m making is that memory deteriorates, even with continued refreshing. In Econ speak, if memory is a capital good, like a machine, it deteriorates over time, and (speaking as a senior citizen) it requires continued gross investment to keep it working.
So suppose we do remember very little and use practically none of what we may have learned. What does that imply about higher ed?
Before I try to answer that,
Teaching experiences and thresholds for law and biz.: Experiences at UWO: 70 for bizskool, 80 for lawskool numbers have changed but the idea is still the same.
Couldn’t let them through unless they had demonstrated….. what? That they had learned enough?
Well that fits in nicely with the “human K theory of ed”
But does it follow if we don’t remember any/much of what we are taught? And what if what we DO remember has nothing to do with our future productivity?
What I seem to be moving toward is a challenge of the “human capital theory” of education, which says we get education, at least in part, so we will be more productive in the future.
Those are just the notes for the first 26 minutes. If you would like to see the entire set of notes, I'll be happy to send them to you. Just write me or post a comment requesting them.
And here is the link to the YouTube video [it's about 1 hour and 41 minutes long. I think the last 35-40 minutes are questions-and-answers.
Friends will recognize two things (aside from my general lack of gift of glib):
- The necktie. A colleague and I bought a bunch of them on sale and distributed them among our colleagues at The University of Regina, dubbing them "the official economics department necktie."
- Much of my thinking on this topic was heavily influenced not just by my own experiences and by those of my friends and students, but also by the posts of Bryan Caplan at Econlog. See the links to his posts here.
Finally, let me say that I was really pleased with this lecture. I'm glad I was finally able to salvage this much of it.