What’s missing in today’s university education?

Ezra Klein writes:

In recent years, many top universities have tried to guide their students into careers other than finance…

Wall Street — like a few other professions, including law, management consulting and Teach for America — is taking advantage of the weakness of liberal arts education.

For many kids, college represents an end goal. Once you get into a good college, you’ve made it, and everyone stops worrying about you. You’re encouraged to take classes in subjects like English literature and history and political science, all of which are fine and interesting, but none of which leave you with marketable skills…

What Wall Street figured out is that colleges are producing a large number of very smart, completely confused graduates…

Wall Street is promising to give graduates the skills their university education didn’t. It’s providing a practical graduate school that pays students handsomely to attend…

So it seems universities have been looking at the problem backward. The issue isn’t that so many of their well-educated students want to go to Wall Street rather than make another sort of contribution. It’s that so many of their students end up feeling so poorly prepared that they go to Wall Street because they’re not sure what other contribution they can make…

The fact that Teach for America … is one of the few recruiting systems competitive with Wall Street suggests that graduates are open to paths that aren’t remotely as remunerative as finance and aren’t based in New York or San Francisco. They’re just not seeing all that many of them.

Making a similar point, Bryan Caplan, economics professor at George Mason University, writes:

Think about all the time students spend studying history, art, music, foreign languages, poetry, and mathematical proofs.  What you learn in most classes is, in all honesty, useless in the vast majority of occupations.  This is hardly surprising when you remember how little professors like me know about the Real World.  How can I possibly improve my students’ ability to do a vast array of jobs that I don’t know how to do myself?  It would be nothing short of magic.  I’d have to be Merlin, Gandalf, or Dumbledore to complete the ritual:

Step 1: I open my mouth and talk about academic topics like externalities of population, or the effect of education on policy preferences.

Step 2: The students learn the material.

Step 3: Magic.

Step 4: My students become slightly better bankers, salesmen, managers, etc.

Yes, I can train graduate students to become professors.  No magic there; I’m teaching them the one job I know.  But what about my thousands of students who won’t become economics professors?  I can’t teach what I don’t know, and I don’t know how to do the jobs they’re going to have.  Few professors do.

Many educators sooth their consciences by insisting that “I teach my students how to think, not what to think.”  But this platitude goes against a hundred years of educational psychology…

At this point, you may be thinking: If professors don’t teach a lot of job skills, don’t teach their students how to think, and don’t instill constructive work habits, why do employers so heavily reward educational success?…

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.


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