Tag Archives: Academia

Heresy Helps You Think

The main social functions of school seem to be to help students show off their smarts, conformity, and conscientiousness. Schools also babysit, socialize, and indoctrinate. But run my experience the two stated functions that school fans tout most often are (A) teaching students particular useful facts and theories,  and(B) teaching students how to think for themselves. 

When teaching students to think for themselves, it is not enough to just assign though-provoking essays or stories; students at some point must practice generating, supporting, and debating their opinions on particular example topics. And it doesn’t work to use topics with obvious agreed-on answers, like “is the sky blue?” No, to practice thinking for themselves, students need to engage topics where plausible arguments and evidence can be found on at least two sides. 

One standard set of example topics is offered by philosophy, topics such as free will, determinism, infinity, solipsism, or nihilism. But these topics tend to be pretty far from the interests and experiences of most students. Students are much more easily and usefully engaged on topics that are currently considered “controversial” in their world. But most schools are quite reluctant to let their students debate most such topics. Why?

When people listen to a debate on a topic, their opinions consistently tend to move toward the middle of the range of possible opinions on that topic. Thus increasing public attention to a topic is a reliable way to influence public opinion on it. And thus the eagerness of authorities to allow student attention on a topic depends greatly on whether this predictable movement is or is not in their favored direction.

For example, fans of intelligent design push schools to “teach the controversy”, while its opponents want the topic ignored. Vaccine skeptics would love students to consider vaccine skepticism, while the usual elites would not. And progressive teachers happily encourage students to discuss progressive proposals currently unpopular with most citizens, such as race reparations, universal basic income, or a wealth tax. 

Thus schools that are responsive to parents, politicians, or academic elites mostly do not allow students to debate topics where such powers dislike middle positions there, relative to status quo opinions. But most “controversial” topics are exactly of this form; some existing confident position, like “vaccines are safe”, is challenged by some contrarians, who win even if audiences only move to middle positions of uncertainty.

Thus while school fans claim that an important function of school is to help students learn to “think for themselves”, school authorities mostly won’t let students practice such thinking on the controversial topics most suitable for such practice. Me, I’d be happy to use public polls or votes to select the topics students are allowed to engage in public schools. But I expect that most public school authorities, including most teachers, would strongly opposed such a proposal.

Added 5Dec: Yes, there’s a decent case for the view that schools mostly select for skills, rather than actually improving them. Even so, thinking for yourself seems one of those skills that schools should be selecting for, even if they don’t improve them.

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Replace G.P.A. With G.P.C.?

Most schools assign each student a “grade point average”, i.e., a number that averages over many teacher evaluations of that student. Many schools also assign each teacher an “average student evaluation”, i.e., a number that averages over many student evaluations of that teacher. Many workplaces similarly post evaluations which average worker performance ratings across different tasks. And sport leagues often post rankings of teams, which average over team performance across many contests.

A lot rides on such metrics, even though they are simple aggregates over contests of varying difficulty, which creates incentives for players to “game” these metrics. For example, students seek to take, and teachers seek to teach, easy/fun classes; workers seek to do easy tasks, and sport teams seek to play easy opponents.

Yet we have long known of a better way, one I described briefly in 2001: stat-model-based summary evaluations.

For example, imagine that a college took all of their student grade transcripts as data, and from that made a best-fit statistical linear regression model. Such a model would predict the grade of each student in each class by using a linear combination of features of each class, such as subject, location, time of day and week, and also “fixed effects” for dates, professors, and especially students. That is, the regression formula would include a term in its sum for each student, a term that is a coefficient for that student, times one or zero depending on if that datum is about a grade for that student.

Such a fixed effects regression coefficient regarding a student should effectively correct for whether the student took easy or hard majors, classes, profs, times of day, year of degree, etc. Furthermore, standard stat methods would give us a “standard error” uncertainty range for this coefficient, so that we are not fooled into thinking we know this parameter more precisely than we do.

Thus a “grade point coefficient”, i.e., a G.P.C., should do better than a G.P.A. as a measure of the overall quality of each student. And the more that potential employers, grad schools, etc. focused on G.P.C.s instead of G.P.A.s, the less incentive students would have to search out easy classes, profs, etc. We could do the same for student evaluations of professors, and the more we relied on prof fixed effects to judge profs, then the less incentives they would have to teach easy classes, or to give students As to bribe them to give high evaluations.

The general idea is simple: fit performance data to a statistical model that estimates each performance outcome as a function of the various context parameters that one would expect to influence performance, plus a parameter representing the quality of each contestant. Then use those contestant parameter estimates as our best estimates of contestant quality. Such statistical models are pretty easy to construct, and most universities contain hundreds of people who are up to this task. And once such models are made and listened to, then contestants should focus more on improving their quality, and less on trying to game the evaluation metric.

Yes, as new data comes in, the models would get adjusted, meaning that contestant estimates would change a little over time, even after a contestant stopped having new performances. Yes, there will be questions of how many context parameters to include in such a model, but there are standard stat tools for addressing such questions. Yes, even after using such tools, there will remain some degrees of freedom regarding the types and functional forms of the model, and how best to encode key relevant factors. And yes, authorities can and would use those remaining degrees of freedom to get evaluation results more in their preferred directions.

But even so, this should be a huge improvement over the status quo. Instead of students looking for easy classes to get easier As, they’d focus instead on improving their overall abilities.

To prove this concept, all we need is one grad student (or exceptional undergrad) with stat training willing to try it, and one university willing to give that student access to their student transcripts (or student evals of profs). Once the models constructed passed some sanity tests, we’d try to get that university to let its students put their G.P.C.s onto their student transcripts. Then we’d try to get the larger world to care about G.P.C.s. So, who wants to try this?

P.S. I’ve posted previously on how broken are many of our eval systems, and how a better entry-level job eval system could allow such jobs to compete with college.

Added: This paper and this paper shows in detail how to do the stats.

One could get more than one useful number per student by adding terms that interact the student fixed effect terms with other features of classes. That second paper shows a two number system is more informative, but is rejected because “gains realized with the two-component index are offset by the additional complexity involved in explaining the two-component index to students, employers, college administrators and faculty.”

One might allow students to experiment with classes in new subjects by including a term that encodes such cases. One might include terms for race, gender, age, etc. of students, though I’d prefer transcripts to show student GPCs with and without such terms.

Added 17Oct: This book by Valen Johnson considers in detail models like those I describe above, wherein the performance of a student in a class is a linear combination of a student term, a class term, and an error. Except that sometimes instead of estimating a grade point, they instead estimate discrete grades, using several terms per class to describe the underlying parameter cutoffs between different discrete grades.

The student term sets an “adjusted GPA” and Johnson proposes to “allow students to optionally report adjusted GPAs on their transcripts.” He reports that when he attempted but failed to get Duke to do this in 1996, this was the biggest issue:

When the achievement index was considered for use as a mechanism to adjust GPAs for students at Duke, instructors who regularly assigned uniformly high grades quickly realized that the achievement index adjustment will make their grades irrelevant in the calculation of student GPAs. Worse still, many students notice the same thing. To thwart the adoption of the achievement index, these high-grading instructors and their student benefactors adopted the position that an A represented an objective assessment of student performance. An A was an A was an A. For them, it represented “excellent” performance on some well-defined but unobservable scale. Indeed, by the end of the debate, several literary theorists had finally identified an objective piece of text: a student grade. (p.222)

Apparently Johnson and others have long tried but failed to get schools to adopt GPCs and variations on them.

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More Academic Prestige Futures

Academia functions to (A) create and confer prestige to associated researchers, students, firms, cities, and nations, (B) preserve and teach what we know on many general abstract topics, and (C) add to what we know over the long run. (Here “know” includes topics where we are uncertain, and practices we can’t express declaratively.)

Most of us see (C) as academia’s most important social function, and many of us see lots of room for improvement there. Alas, while we have identified many plausible ways to improve this (C) function, academia has known about these for decades, and has done little. The problem seems less a lack of knowledge, and more a lack of incentives.

You might think the key is to convince the patrons who fund academia to change their funding methods, and to make funding contingent on adopting other fixes. After all, this should induce more of the (C) that we presume that patrons seek. Problem is, just like all the other parties involved, patron motives also focus on more on function (A) than on (C). That is, state, firm, and philanthropic patrons of academia mainly seek to buy what academia’s other customers, e.g., students and media, also buy: (A) prestige by association with credentialed impressiveness.

Thus offering better ways to fund (C) doesn’t help much. In fact, history actually moved in the other direction. From 1600 to 1800, science was mainly funded via prizes and infrastructure support. But then prestigious scientific societies pushed to replace prizes with grants. Grants give scientists more discretion, but are worse for (C). Scientists won, however; now grants are standard, and prizes rare.

But I still see a possible route to reform here, based on the fact that academics usually deny that their prestige is arbitrary, to be respected only because others respect it. Academics instead usually justify their prestige in function (A) as proxies for the ends of function (B,C). That is, academics tend to say that your best way to promote the preservation, teaching, and increase of our abstract knowledge is to just support academics according to their current academic prestige.

Today, academic prestige of individuals is largely estimated informally by gossip, based on the perceived prestiges of particular topics, institutions, journals, funding sources, conferences, etc. And such gossip estimates the prestige of each of these other things similarly, based on the prestige of their associations. This whole process takes an enormous amount of time and energy, but even so it attends far more to getting everyone to agree on prestige estimates, than to whether those estimates are really deserved.

Academics typically say that such sacred an end as intellectual progress is so hard to predict or control that it is arrogant of people like you to think you can see how to promote such things in any other way than to just give your money to the academics designated as prestigious by to this process, and let them decide what to do with it. And most of us have in fact accepted this story, as this is in fact what we mostly do.

Thus one way that we could hope to challenge the current academic equilibrium is to create better clearly-visible estimates of who or what contributes how much to these sacred ends. If academics came to accept another metric as offering more accurate estimates than what they now get from existing prestige processes, then that should pressure them into adjusting their prestige ratings to better match these new estimates. Which should then result in their assigning publications, jobs, grants etc. in ways that better promote such ends. Which should thus improve intellectual progress, perhaps by large amounts.

And as I outlined in my last post, we could actually create such new better estimates of who deserves academic prestige, via creating complex impact futures markets. Pay distant future historians (e.g., in a century or two) to judge then which of our academic projects (e.g., papers) actually better achieved adding to what we know. (Or also achieved preserving and teaching what we know.) Also create betting markets today that estimate those future judgments, and suggest to today’s academics and their customers that these are our best estimates of who and what deserve academic prestige. (Citations being lognormal suggests this system’s key assumptions are a decent approximation.)

These market prices would no doubt correlate greatly with the usual academic prestige ratings, but any substantial persistent deviations would raise a question: if, in assigning jobs, publications, grants, etc., you academics think you know better than these markets prices who is most likely to deserve academic prestige, why aren’t you or your many devoted fans trading in those markets to make the profits you think you see? If such folks were in fact trading heavily, but were resisted by outsiders with contrary strong opinions, that would look better than if they weren’t even bothering to trade on their supposed superior insight.

Academics seeking higher market estimates about they and their projects would be tempted to trade to push up those prices, even though their private info didn’t justify such a move. Other traders would expect this, and push prices back down. These forces would create liquidity in these markets, and subsidize trading overall.

Via this approach, we might reform academia to better achieve intellectual progress. So who wants to make this happen?

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Hail Industrial Organization


Economists know many useful things about human social behavior, and about how to improve it. And the world would probably be better off if it listened to economists more. But while the world respects economists enough to mention when their analyses support favored policies, people are much less interested in deciding what to favor based on econ analyses. What could get people to listen more?

There are many relevant factors, but a big one where we might do better is: a track record for being useful. For example, the world listens to chemists, computer scientists, and engineers in part because of their widely-known reputations for having long track records of being directly and simply useful to diverse clients.

Yes, econ majors in college are among the best paid outside of computers and engineering. But that may only show that learning our methods is an impressive feat, not that we produce reliable results. And the fact that people like to point to our analyses to support their policies only shows that we have prestige, not that we are right. What we want is a track record of being, not just impressive, but directly and clearly right, and useful because of that.

Now it turns out that we economists have actually found a way to be frequently and directly useful to diverse clients, and via being right, not just impressive. But we’ve failed to claim sufficient credit for this, and now we seem to be dropping the ball in pursuing it. This place is: business strategy.

When a firm considers what products or services to make, what customers to seek and how, and what prices to charge, it can help to have a theory of that firm’s industry. A theory of its customer demands and producer costs. A theory that says who wants what, who can take what actions when, who knows what when doing what, and how each actor tends to respond to their expectations re other actions. With such a theory, one can predict which actions might be how profitable, and choose accordingly.

Firms today regularly debate key business choices, and hire management consultants to advise those decisions. In addition, new firms pitch their plans to investors, and frequently revise such plans. And while all these choices might seem to be done without theories, that is an illusion. In fact, all such analyses are based on at least implicit theories of how local industries work. Such theories might be simple, or wrong, but they are there.

Now many aspects of useful industry theories are quite context dependent. But other aspects are more general. There are in fact many common patterns in key industry features, and in the ways that industries compete. And in the last century, the world has made great progress in developing better general theories of how firms compete in industries. Furthermore, economics has been central to that story.

In particular, game theory has become a robust general account of how social decisions are made. And we’ve identified dozens of key factors that influence industrial competition. Key ways in which industries differ, that result in different styles of competition. And we’ve worked out a great many specific models of how small sets of these factors work together to create distinctive patterns of industry competition. And much, perhaps even most, of this has happened within the econ field of “industrial organization.”

Today, most who discuss business strategy do so using concepts and distinctions that are well integrated into this rich well-developed and useful econ account of how firms in industries compete. And firms are in fact constantly reconsidering their business strategies using such concepts. So we economists have in fact developed powerful tools that are very useful, and are widely being used.

But, alas, we economists are failing to take credit for it. We don’t teach courses in business strategy, and we don’t recommend students who take our industrial organization courses for such roles. We’ve instead allowed business schools to do that teaching, and to take that credit. And even to take most of the consulting gigs.

Furthermore, academic economists have drifted away from industrial organizations; it is no longer in fashion. It mostly uses old fashion game theory, instead of now popular behaviorism or machine learning. It isn’t well suited for controlled experiments, which are so much the fashion in econ these days that all other kinds of data are considered unclean. And it doesn’t give many chances to promote woke agendas. So few people publish in industrial organization, and few students take classes in it. I know, as I still teach it, but to few students, and nearby universities don’t even offer it.

As usual, academic research priorities are mostly set by internal coalition politics, not by what would be good for the world as a whole, or even each field as a whole.

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Three Types of General Thinkers

Ours is an era of rising ideological fervor, moving toward something like the Chinese cultural revolution, with elements of both religious revival and witch hunt repression. While good things may come of this, we risk exaggeration races, wherein people try to outdo themselves to show loyalty via ever more extreme and implausible claims, policies, and witch indicators.

One robust check on such exaggeration races could be a healthy community of intellectual generalists. Smart thoughtful people who are widely respected on many topics, who can clearly see the exaggerations, see that others of their calibre also see them, and who crave such associates’ respect enough to then call out those exaggerations. Like the child who said the emperor wore no clothes.

So are our generalists up to this challenge? As such communities matter to us for this and many other reasons, let us consider more who they are and how they are organized. I see three kinds of intellectual generalists: philosophers, polymaths, and public intellectuals.

Public intellectuals seem easiest to analyze. Compared to other intellectuals, these mix with and are selected more by a wider public and a wider world of elites, and thus pander more to such groups. They less use specialized intellectual tools or language, their arguments are shorter and simpler, they impress more via status, eloquent language, and cultural references, and they must speak primarily to the topics currently in public talk fashion.

Professional philosophers, in contrast, focus more on pleasing each other than a wider world. Compared to public intellectuals, they are more willing to use specialized language for particular topics, to develop intricate arguments, and to participate in back and forth debates. As the habits and tools that they learn can be applied to a pretty wide range of topics, philosophers are in that sense generalists.

But philosophers are also very tied to their particular history. More so than in other disciplines, particular historical philosophers are revered as heroes and models. Frequent readings and discussions of their classic texts pushes philosophers to try to retain their words, concepts, positions, arguments, and analysis styles.

As I use the term, polymaths are intellectuals who meet the usual qualifications to be seen as expert in many different intellectual disciplines. For example, they may publish in discipline-specific venues for many disciplines. More points for a wider range of disciplines, and for intellectual projects that combine expertise from multiple disciplines. Learning and integrating many diverse disciplines can force them to generalize from discipline specific insights.

Such polymaths tend less to write off topics as beyond the scope of their expertise. But they also just write less about everything, as our society offers far fewer homes to polymaths than to philosophers or public intellectuals. They must mostly survive on the edge of particular disciplines, or as unusually-expert public intellectuals.

If the disciplines that specialize in thinking about X tend to have the best tools and analysis styles for thinking about X, then we should prefer to support and listen to polymaths, compared to other types of generalist intellectuals. But until we manage to fund them better, they are rarely available to hear from.

Public intellectuals have the big advantage that they can better get the larger world to listen to their advice. And while philosophers suffer their historical baggage, they have the big advantage of stable funding and freedoms to think about non-fashionable topics, to consider complex arguments, and to pander less to the public or elites.

Aside from more support for polymaths, I’d prefer public intellectuals to focus more on impressing each other, instead of wider publics or elites. And I’d rather they tried to impress each other more with arguments, than with their eliteness and culture references. As for philosophers, I’d rather that they paid less homage to their heritage, and instead more adopted the intellectual styles and habits that are now common across most other disciples. The way polymaths do. I don’t want to cut all differences, but some cuts seem wise.

As to whether any of these groups will effectively call out the exaggerations of the coming era of ideological fervor, I alas have grave doubts.

I wrote this post as my Christmas present to Tyler Cowen; this topic was the closest I could manage to the topic he requested.

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Minds Almost Meeting

Many travel to see exotic mountains, buildings, statues, or food. But me, I want to see different people. If it could be somehow arranged, I’d happily “travel” to dozens of different subcultures that live within 100 miles of me. But I wouldn’t just want to walk past them, I’d want to interact enough to get in their heads.

Working in diverse intellectual areas has helped. So far, these include engineering, physics, philosophy, computer science, statistics, economics, polisci, finance, futurism, psychology, and astrophysics. But there are so many other intellectual areas I’ve hardly touched, and far more non-intellectual heads of which I’ve seen so little.

Enter the remarkable Agnes Callard with whom I’ve just posted ten episodes of our new podcast “Minds Almost Meeting”:

Tagline: Agnes and Robin talk, try to connect, often fail, but sometimes don’t.

Summary: Imagine two smart curious friendly and basically truth-seeking people, but from very different intellectual traditions. Traditions with different tools, priorities, and ground rules. What would they discuss? Would they talk past each other? Make any progress? Would anyone want to hear them? Economist Robin Hanson and philosopher Agnes Callard decided to find out.

Topics: Paradox of Honesty, Plagiarism, Future Generations, Paternalism, Punishment, Pink and Purple, Aspiration, Prediction Markets, Hidden Motives, Distant Signals.

It’s not clear who will be entertained by our efforts, but I found the process fascinating, informative, and rewarding. Though our audio quality was low at times, it is still understandable.

Agnes is a University of Chicago professor of philosophy and a rising-star “public intellectual” who often publishes in places like The New Yorker. She and I are similar in both being oddball, hard-to-offend, selfish parents and academics. We both have religious upbringings, broad interests, and a taste for abstraction. But we differ by generation, gender, and especially in our intellectual backgrounds and orientations (me vs. her): STEM vs. humanities, futurist vs. classicist, explaining via past shapings vs. future aspirations, and relying more vs. less on large systems of thought.

Before talking to Agnes, I hadn’t realized just how shaped I’ve been by assimilating many large formal systems of thought, such as calculus, physics, optimization, algorithms, info theory, decision theory, game theory, economics, etc. Though the core of these systems can be simple, each has been connected to many diverse applications, and many larger analysis structures have been built on top of them.

Yes these systems, and their auxiliary structures and applications, are based on assumptions that can be wrong. But their big benefit is that shared efforts to use them have rooted out many (though hardly all) contradictions, inconsistencies, and incoherences. So my habit of trying when possible to match any new question to one of these systems is likely to, on average, produce a more coherent resulting analyses. I’m far more interested in applying existing systems to big neglected topics than in inventing new systems.

In contrast, though philosophers like Agnes who rely on few such structures beyond simple logic can expect their arguments to be accessible to wider audiences, they must also expect a great many incoherences in their analysis. Which is part of why they so often disagree, and build such long chains of back and forth argumentation. I agree with Tyler, who in his conversation with Agnes said these long chains suggest a problem. However, I do see the value of having some fraction of intellectuals taking this simple robust strategy, as a complement to more system-focused strategies.

Thank you Agnes Callard, for helping me to see a wider intellectual world, including different ways of thinking and topics I’ve neglected.

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What I Hold Sacred

Someone recently told me that I stood out compared to other writers in never seeming to treat anything as sacred. Which seemed to them awkward, odd, and implausible, as much as the opposite writers who seem to treat most all topics and issues as sacred. More plausibly, most people do treat some minority of things as especially sacred, and if they don’t reveal that in their writing, they are probably hiding it from others, and maybe also from themselves.

This seems plausible enough that it pushes me to try to identify and admit what I hold sacred. When I search for ways to identify what people hold sacred, I find quite a lot of rather vague descriptions and associations. The most concrete signs I find are: associating it with rituals and symbols, treating it with awe and reverence, unwillingness to trade other things for it, and outrage at those who disrespect it.

The best candidate I can find is: truth-seeking. More specifically: truth-seeking among intellectuals on important topics. That is, the goal is for the world to learn more together on key abstract topics, and I want each person who contributes substantially to such projects to add the most that they can, given their constraints and the budgets they are willing to allocate to it. I don’t insist anyone devote themselves wholly to this, and I’m less concerned with each person always being perfectly honest than with us together figuring stuff out.

I admit that I do treat this with reverence, and I’m reluctant to trade it for other things. And I’d more often express outrage at others disrespecting it if I thought I’d get more support on such occasions. Yes, most everyone gives great lip service allegiance to this value. But most suggest that there are few tradeoffs between this and other values, and also that following a few simple rules of thumb (e.g., don’t lie, give confidence intervals) is sufficient; no need to dig deeper. In contrast, I think it takes long-sustained careful thought to really see what would most help for his goal, and I also see many big opportunities to sacrifice other things for this goal.

How can you better affirm this value? Its simple, but hard: Continually ask yourself what are the most important topics, what are the most promising ways to advance them, and what are your comparative advantages re such efforts. Do not assume that answers to these questions are implicit in the status and rewards that others offer you for various activities. The world mostly doesn’t care much, and so if you do care more you can’t focus on pleasing the world.

So why do I seem reluctant to talk about this? I think because I feel vulnerable. When you admit what is most precious to you, others might threaten it in order to extort concessions from you. And it is hard to argue well for why any particular value should be the most sacred. You run out of arguments and must admit you’ve made a choice you can’t justify. I so admit.

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An ‘Amazon’ of Online College?

Once upon a time, stores sold things. Some stores specialized in selling particular things, while “department” stores sold a wider range of things. While there were some scale economies in branding and distribution, they were mild enough to allow many different department stores. With the internet, however, much bigger stores have been favored. Not only can huge online stores hold more variety, with scale economies in storage and distribution a single store can dominate that industry. Hence, Amazon.

While the internet favors a few huge platforms for some types of products and services, the strength of this effect varies with the kind of product or service. For example, there seems to be room for many movie streaming services, as there seem to be fewer scale or scope economies there. Yes, one can better price discriminate by selling many movies rather than just one, but that still leaves room for many services each of which has many movies. Though perhaps the current variety of streaming services won’t last long.

What about college? In the past, students attended class in person, and so each college arranged to have many classes all close enough that one could live nearby and travel to all of its classes. So travel time between classes set a maximum feasible size for a college. But now there are (for many non-lab-or-hands-on topics) online classes which one can attend from anywhere in the world. In a future of online college classes (and tests), will we still have the same size colleges, or will much larger platforms take over?

Clearly there is a big potential for much larger individual classes. Instead of a thousand profs teaching the same class all over the world to thirty students each, maybe only ten profs will teach to three thousand students each. At least when individual grading and talk isn’t the main cost. And if students can choose from classes made all over the world, a far wider variety of classes can be made available to each student, classes on more topics, at more levels, and with more different teaching/learning styles.

Yes, the most elite colleges would probably be the last to contribute their courses to large online catalogs of courses. They’d say, “if you want the very best college experience, you should come here and limit yourself to our classes.” But that pitch wouldn’t work so well coming from mid-rank colleges.

Still I wonder: will the thirty or so classes on a future student college transcript be mostly from teachers who all produce their classes near each other at the same “college”, or will student transcripts instead contain classes from twenty or more different sources? And if the latter, how many distributors or platforms will there be? That is, will there be a single “Amazon” from which most all students select their classes, or will there be many different strongly competing distributors of classes, more like movie streaming services today. Another way to ask this question is: what are the scale and scope economies that might favor a few big college class distributors, instead of the thousands of colleges we have today?

As mentioned above, price discrimination offers one scope economy, but this runs out near the scale of a typical college, so won’t push for much larger units. A similar logic applies to other scale and scope economies that mostly run out near the scale of typical colleges today. For example, an online college class platform may want to select and evaluate the classes that if offers, to judge which classes could serve as prerequisites for which other classes, and maybe also to select and evaluate students for their suitability for various classes. And yes, these tasks look easier for larger platforms. But such effects still seem to allow a lot of room for many competing platforms.

However, here is a scale and scope effect that may push more toward a more Amazon-like scenario: giving students grades that are comparable over wide scopes. Today employers mostly look at a college graduate’s school and major, and sometimes also at their GPA. This works because schools have known reputations, and majors are pretty similar across many colleges.

This is in stark contrast to most jobs that students might take instead of going to college; it is much harder to know how to compare letters of recommendation based on typical job performance. Even US military veterans face this problem; employers find it hard to know what school/major/GPA record is comparable to 2 years as a “helicopter repairer”. Superior college comparability is a big reason many go to college instead of starting work (or the military) right after high school.

Imagine a college class platform that gives you a transcript showing what classes you took, and what grades you got in each class, but that doesn’t do much to help employers know how to compare the grades obtained from different sources. That wouldn’t be so valuable. In contrast, a college platform is much more valuable to future employers, and thus to students, if it can rank and categorize student performance in comparable and meaningful ways.

One simple way to do this is to sometimes randomize which classes students take. That is, flatter, pay, or cajole many students into letting the platform sometimes pick which particular class they take, out of a set of similar classes offered on the platform. With enough students taking enough classes that give enough feedback on student performance, standard statistical models could estimate individual student abilities and specializations. Which helps not only future employers, but also the providers of classes when deciding which students to admit into their classes. It also helps to estimate student satisfaction in particular classes as expressed by student evaluation of classes.

Yes, if all student class performance info were made available to all platforms, many of them could produce similar statistical estimates. But the largest platforms may use privacy excuses to successfully resist efforts to force them to share their customer info, as have social media giants today. Yes, platforms with less data might claim that they had found clever uses of machine learning etc. that give similar quality evaluations of students. But it isn’t clear why students and employers should believe such claims.

Scale economies in using customer data to make student performance comparable across a wide scope of classes may push toward a single huge Amazon-like catalog of online college classes.

From a conversation with Phil Magness.

Added 9a: College admissions and grading has recently become a political battleground. While today such battles are limited by the fact that colleges must compete with each other, such limits might be less when one of a few big orgs dominated the online college catalog market.

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What Are Universities For?

We have many social institutions, which each serve many social functions. Sometimes people make arguments about how we should judge or see each one based on claims about what each one is “really” for. For example, Agnes Callard on universities:

Let me tell you now what I didn’t have the presence of mind to say [when the college-admissions scandal broke]. I’ll start with what universities are not for. First, they are not for perpetuating the ruling or elite class. Second, they are not for achieving social justice. Doubtless they do perpetuate the ruling class; many institutions do this. And probably they could do more to bring about social justice. But those things are not what they are for.

Third, universities are not for making money—though they do call for careful financial stewardship. Fourth, they are not for producing better citizens. Fifth, they are not for producing happier human beings. If I had to measure the worth of my classes in my students’ subsequent civic virtue or life satisfaction, I couldn’t afford to lose touch with most of them after graduation. I am sometimes saddened when I lose touch with them, but it never causes me to wonder whether their education was worthwhile.

Those five points cover basically all the criticisms levied against the university, which means all the critics who said it was not doing its job had failed to identify what its job was in the first place. But that is step one of the criticism process. You can’t be failing at what you’re not in the business of doing. …

Now I grant that the university is easy to misinterpret, because its innermost parts are hidden from view. What’s visible is who gets in and who is excluded; the fates of its graduates; clashes between townies and gownies; five-year completion rates; public-relations catastrophes; IRS 990 forms. If you go on a campus visit, you see the buildings, but not what happens inside them. …

That doesn’t really get the pundits off the hook, because they tend to be college-educated. The real scandal, if I may, is the fact that so many people who attended one seem to have no idea what it’s for. So let me come out and tell you what a university is for: a university is a place where people help each other access the highest intellectual goods. A university is a place of heterodidacticism. …

This was one of the best classes I’ve ever taught. … That’s what I wish I could’ve communicated to those embroiled in the admissions-scandal brouhaha; I wanted to break down the walls around my classroom, throw a spotlight on it, and tell everyone to stop talking, look and listen: “It is happening right here—this is what universities are for: reading Aristotle together.” All the arguments about elitism and corporatization and donations were as irrelevant as the ivy growing on the walls. I could give you a hundred more examples. …

There are strange people who somehow, through a series of accidents, get and stay keyed onto intellectual goods on their own—the autodidacts I mentioned earlier—but the rest of us need constant help reorienting, because just about every worldly temptation pulls us in the opposite direction. This, in the end, is the explanation of why the innermost parts of the university are hidden from view. (more)

So while Callard has enjoyed some experiences of intellectual interaction at universities, she agrees that these experiences don’t weigh greatly on the minds of most university graduates. Yet even so she still insists that this is what universities “are for”, and seems to suggest that we should structure, fund, and analyze universities primarily in terms of this aspect. Even though she offers no evidence or argument to support this focus, beyond her positive experiences.

I posted two sets of six Twitter polls (ave. 203 responses each), asking, out of eight different social functions, which one “has pressures to achieve it most shaped the details of universities” and which one “do you most want the details of universities to be shaped to achieve it”. Here are function weights that fit their responses, relative to 100 for the most common choice:

As you can see, Callard’s fav function, “get intellectual goods” is 2nd highest out of 8 for what people want to shape universities, but 4th lowest out of 8 for what people think has shaped them. So Agnes, what can it even mean to say that your fav function is what universities “are for”? And what evidence would you offer for that claim?

It seems to me that most complex social institutions just don’t have a single thing they are for; they are for many things. And the functions that most shape our institutions are usually substantially different from the functions we wish would shape them. Just focusing on what we wish would shape them seems to be, well, wishful thinking.

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Why Not Extend Formal Social Systems?

Once humans had only informal systems of gossip and norm enforcement, but now we also have formal systems of law. These formal legal systems supposedly have many features designed to overcome problems with prior informal norm systems. For example, with gossip we tend to support the claims of our immediate associates without investigating contrary evidence, but we require formal law judges to instead consider evidence from all sides before making their judgments.

We seem to believe these claims that formal law systems overcome informal system failings, because we are quite reluctant to give up our formal systems. Few of us support dropping our formal law systems, and replacing them with informal gossip and mobs. But if so, why do we still use informal norm systems to deal with so many topics, instead of law?

We often say that we rely on informal norms when formal law systems are too slow or expensive. But when offered specific proposals for ways to drastically reduce the time and expense of formal legal systems, so that they can be used more widely, most people seem quite reluctant to endorse such changes. But if law fixes serious problems with informal norms, and if we could replace such norms with law in more places, why not do so?

What makes this even more puzzling is the fact that centuries ago in the U.S. our formal legal systems were much simpler and lower cost. The law was simpler, most people could go to court without a lawyer, and juries made most decisions. All of which did allow the law to deal with more kinds of conflicts. The scope of law has declined over the last few centuries as we’ve allowed law to get more complex and expensive.

One theory is suggested by the idea of “snitches”. Children punish each other for complaining about each other to parents or teachers; they are supposed to instead rely on informal systems among children. Insiders complaining to outsiders can make any group look bad to outsiders, and thus loyalty to a group can require that one keep one’s complaints inside the group. Thus we may prefer informal systems as ways to show loyalty to our groups.

Just like we’ve added formal systems of conflict resolution to our prior informal systems of gossip and norms, we’ve also added formal systems of abstract conversation to our prior informal talk systems.

For example, in academia we have many norms regarding how we present abstract claims and arguments to each other in books and journal articles, and how we evaluate such things. For most of these norms, we have stories about how they fix problems with informal talk. And few academics would endorse getting rid of all these norms and just reverting entirely to informal talk.

And yet, as new mediums and genres of conversation have appeared over the last few decades, we’ve seen relatively little support for extending the usual academic norms into these new places. I expect many would offer knee-jerk explanations saying that academic norms take too much time and energy to apply to these new places. But that seems to me mostly an excuse; I doubt that they’ve actually thought much about actual time and energy costs.

Regarding both dispute resolution and abstract conversation, it seems that we mostly just want to continue with formal institutions in their current scope of application, but not to apply them more widely, even when that becomes feasible. Perhaps because we prefer to show loyalty to the communities that manage our informal norm systems. But loyalty signaling doesn’t seem a good reason to think this is better for the world, or for our larger societies.

Added 10a: Speculative markets are another area where we don’t want to get rid of the ones we have, but we also don’t want more of them, to aggregate info into consensus on more topics. The cost of creating them has come way down, allowing a lot more of them, that we don’t want.

Property registries is yet another area. The cost of managing them have come way down, yet we don’t have official registries for many more kinds of property than we once did.

Perhaps the simplest theory here is that we’ve lost our taste for social change. Whatever was continues, but nothing new shall be added.

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