More on Bryan Caplan’s “The Magic of Education”

Bryan Caplan was nice enough to retweet my previous blog post on his article, “The Magic of Education,” even though I bashed him, so I thought I should spend some more time on the topic with perhaps a bit more nuance and explain where I agree with him. (Geeze, I even made fun of his glasses.) I became paranoid that I wasn’t very nice when a spam tweet accused me of a “childish rejoinder.”  That spam bot really made me think.

First, I agree with Caplan that the signalling model is real and probably valued by institutions and corporations more so than any other view of education. Caplan writes:

According to the signaling model, employers reward educational success because of what it shows (“signals”) about the student.  Good students tend to be smart, hard-working, and conformist – three crucial traits for almost any job.  When a student excels in school, then, employers correctly infer that he’s likely to be a good worker.  What precisely did he study?  What did he learn how to do?  Mere details.  As long as you were a good student, employers surmise that you’ll quickly learn what you need to know on the job.

This is similar to the “college as sorting process” theory I’ve written about here. It seems like a useful, if expensive process to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, but overlooks the success of prominent drop-outs and non-conformists. It’s also a system set up for industrial era mentalities and skill sets.

Second, Caplan is right to point out that not enough educators give thought to the “magic” portion of teaching. How do student learn? How do student develop, grow, and become critical thinkers. It obviously doesn’t happen by swallowing and regurgitating information alone. Nor can it be transmitted via smart vibes or just hanging around really smart people. What is learning and how does it actually happen? Furthermore, is the university system the best way to make this happen?

Well, I don’t know the answer, but I’m not willing to admit that I believe in magic. I refuse to accept that my only choices are a) Learning is a magical process we can’t quantify or corral, or b) There is no such thing as magic, only a cash-driven star-on machine, ala Sylvester McMonkey McBean (a story that is really about the education system). This is a false dilemma and creates a straw man, to use non-Latin names for common logical fallacies.

I’ll write about this some other time, but one key can be found in the work of Harvard developmental psychologist Robert Kegan (who doesn’t live in the “real world,” I know) and his theory of adult development, seen here:

Learning, to me, is all about seeing subjects as objects. Bringing perspectives into our awareness and putting them all out on the table, so to speak. This is a long-hand way to say “critical thinking,” which is the capacity to make our previously-held subjective viewpoints objectively known so we can compare them to others and expand our consciousness to include as many perspectives as possible. The ultimate goal is to change the consciousness of students so they may be open, flexible, complex, subtle, and, hopefully, more creative thinkers.

This is all very abstract, but I do believe you can chart it, measure it, harness it, and teach it.

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