Friday, August 07, 2009

Education as a Placebo

Here's a terrifying conclusion from blogger Ben Casnocha:

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.


  1. Um, duh. I've been lamenting this for years man. Nobody listens, and those who do don't care. Most folks want training, not education.


You are the reason why I do not write privately. I would love to hear your thoughts, whether you agree or not.