kitchen table math, the sequel: Robert Shiller has a really bad idea

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Robert Shiller has a really bad idea

In the Times today:
Most people complete the majority of their formal education by their early 20s and expect to draw on it for the better part of a century. But a computer can learn in seconds most of the factual information that people get in high school and college, and there will be a great many generations of new computers and robots, improving at an exponential rate, before one long human lifetime has passed.

Two strains of thought seem to dominate the effort to deal with this problem. The first is that we teachers should define and provide to our students a certain kind of general, flexible, insight-bearing human learning that, we hope, cannot be replaced by computers. The second is that we need to make education more business-oriented, teaching about the real world and enabling a creative entrepreneurial process that, presumably, computers cannot duplicate. These two ideas are not necessarily in conflict.

What to Learn in College to Stay One Step Ahead of Computers by Robert J. Shiller | May 22, 2015
Number 1: General, flexible, insight-bearing human learning in the sense of "critical thinking" does not exist, and you would know this if you troubled yourself to dip into the relevant research in cognitive science before writing an op-ed for the New York Times.

Number 2: We already know what type of education produces general-flexible-insight-bearing-human-learning, and that is liberal education, precisely the kind of education Shiller is argues we should abandon because computers. Liberal education gives students a broad foundation in history, literature, science, math, and the social sciences, which they can then draw upon for a lifetime. I am living proof. I'm still using my Wellesley/Dartmouth education in psychology to write books about the brain. I learned nothing about the brain in college, but I can write about the brain today because I learned some fundamentals of biology, math, and psychology.

Number 3: New computers and robots don't invent themselves. If students don't study computer science in college and graduate school, there aren't going to be any new generations of computers and robots.

Speaking of which, Ed attended the Masters graduation ceremony at NYU last week. Every student receiving a degree in math was Asian, and all seemed to be Asian-Asian, not Asian American. Same with computer science.

Number 4: Business-oriented...real world...creative entrepreneurial process.... This is exactly what public schools have now moved on to. (In my district, Common Core has been swallowed whole by Tony Wagner, and I see the same process elsewhere.)

Why spend another four years, not to mention many thousands of dollars in tuition, room, and board, doing more of the same in college? Surely 13 years of pretend entrepreneurialism is sufficient.

Which reminds me.

C. took a marketing course this semester.

I was excited. I wanted to learn what there is to learn about marketing, too, and I figured I would.


The course had no textbook, just case studies, which I never did manage to get my hands on. The class seems to have learned something about loss aversion, and also something about not dissing your initial contact at a hospital you're trying to sell major medical equipment to. Beyond that, nothing seems to have made much of an impression (which is not true with C.'s traditional liberal arts courses in history and literature).

As their final assignment for the course, students did a group project. C's group did theirs on tampons. (He was the only male in the group. So: tampons.)

The course did afford me one moment of joy.

C. came home and reported that the professor had given the class a marketing algorithm.

(Did I ever tell you that I taught C. to remember "algorithm" by having him recall "Al Gore has no rhythm"?)

The marketing class was mostly girls, and not one of them was having anything to do with the  algorithm. Not one. They wouldn't touch an algorithm with a 10-foot pole.

Not C.! Not only did C. deploy the algorithm--and with some alacrity, too--he was mildly scandalized by the fact that the rest of the class did not.

Also gratifying: C. seemed to have a pretty clear perception that There but for the grace of God go I. Sometimes having a mother who spends four years of her life reteaching the entire math curriculum at home comes in handy.

I've been savoring the moment ever since. My years of afterschooling didn't achieve what I wanted them to, but they did do what I needed them to. C. didn't make it to calculus (that's another whole story), but he is today a young adult who is on reasonably good terms with mathematics, and who will be able and willing to learn whatever math he needs to learn as an adult.

Other famous people with really bad ideas:
Kofi Annan
David Brooks
The Daily
Barry Eichengreen
Reed Hastings
President Obama
Larry Summers


Anonymous said...

Was this a high school or college level marketing class?

I took it in college and remember nothing about the class except the room it was in.

Catherine Johnson said...


I'm OOSITIVE there is all kinds of marketing knowledge out there somewhere, but oddly enough Google hasn't told me what it is.

Wharton has a marketing MOOC ... Which I'll try to carve out to take at some point.

Catherine Johnson said...

"Positive" not "oositive"

Anonymous said...

Marketing majors have a well-deserved reputation for being very weak in finance/math. My DD's three semesters as a TA teaching a section of the finance class required for the entire business school have been a huge plus for her. Almost all of the 32 TAs were finance majors. Over her three semesters, there were a few accounting majors but she was the only marketing major (who took all the finance courses she could).