EconTalk |
Russ Roberts on Education
Apr 11 2022

Depositphotos_54721277_S-300x282.jpg What do crossing rivers and investing in stocks have in common? Real education is seeing the connection between things that seem very different. EconTalk's host Russ Roberts talks about education with Alex Aragona of the podcast, The Curious Task. Roberts argues that the ability to apply insights from one area to another with which we're unfamiliar is one of the ways that real education differs from the mere accumulation of knowledge. And when we combine insights from two areas into something completely new, we can not only navigate rivers and stock markets, but also scale the heights of the human experience.

Zena Hitz on Lost in Thought
Philosopher and author Zena Hitz of St. John's College talks about her book, Lost in Thought, with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Hitz defends learning for its own sake--learning that has nothing to do with passing an exam or preparing for...
Leon Kass on Human Flourishing, Living Well, and Aristotle
Leon Kass, long-time teacher of classic works at the University of Chicago and now Dean of Faculty at Shalem College in Jerusalem, talks about human flourishing with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Drawing on an essay from his book, Leading a...
Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


David M
Apr 11 2022 at 11:15am

Zach Weinersmith (a past EconTalk guest) published a relevant comic strip about liberal arts education this morning. Perfect timing!

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal – Liberal Education

Keivan MK
Apr 11 2022 at 1:50pm

Thanks for the interesting conversation. As a mathematician and math teacher I was somewhat disappointed
that Russ sorted mathematics (to be fair, just calculus) with practical skills. Mathematical ideas developed from thinking
from one set of problems have typically found applications in many others. Think of basic ideas of calculus (with roots in
celestial and late Newtonian mechanics, later to be used literally everywhere) or those of probability (with roots in games of chance, leading later to ubiquitous ideas like the Brownian motion). These ideas equally benefit from being discussed and re-discovered in a small classroom
with the professor playing the role of the facilitator.

Jay Stannard
Apr 16 2022 at 10:53pm

I was very perplexed that Dr. Roberts identified Mathematics as a STEM discipline as opposed to a liberal art. Liberal Arts and STEM are not mutually exclusive, at most universities mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology are in the college of liberal arts. If you look St Johns College, at a great books school, they read Archemides, Dalton, Euclid, Mendeleev, Pascal, Bacon, Copernicus, Newton,  Descartes, Ampere, Bernoulli, Feymann, and a few other’s I’m missing. Some those like Pascal and Descartes are double dipping as philosophers.

Moreover, Dr. Roberts tells us that education is about relating an idea from one field to another. Mathematics is the field of study most about abstracting and idea from one subject, for use elsewhere. The average and the maximum example he gives for rivers and stock markets is math concept based.

Apr 11 2022 at 5:04pm

Real education is relating an idea from one field to another; This is called THINKING.

I love this, so true, and it should be on a T-shirt.

I used to agree with you that in the realm of literature, reading the original source material was important to learning the lessons from that text. After you mentioned The Odyssey, now I’m not so sure.. When I was a kid, I watched The Odyssey (the 1997 version with Armand Assante) over 30 times. As a kid, Odysseus was probably my largest influence (along with Goku and Mulan), and absolutely my most important fictional role model. Do the lessons learned from the film version somehow have less meaning because they came from a remake? I didn’t read the Epic until my mid-20s, and it WAS epic, but when I imagine Odysseus, it will always be Armand Assante, and I don’t think it really matters since the themes of homecoming, using your brain to overcome obstacles, etc.. are relevant and inspiring regardless of which version you consume. Maybe I won’t be able to throw out verbatim Homer quotes to impress someone at a dinner party, but if I ever have to escape from a giant blind cyclops I’m gonna be ok (grab onto the bottom of his sheep as they leave the cave – if you didn’t know, now you do)

I’m not sure if software enriching and conveniencing our lives is ‘good’ from an education standpoint. Many times it simply ‘gives’ us the answer, when working to find it would undoubtedly provide a better tool to apply to other problems. You mentioned the idea of Maps/Navigation apps – Most people I talk to under the age of 20, if I ask them which direction lies a particular local landmark, they will have absolutely no idea. I don’t know if they even understand how Cardinal directions work… If they need to get somewhere it is just so many lefts and rights until they arrive. Don’t get me wrong, I use navigation apps as much as the next person, but I also can navigate without them if need be (and can apply that knowledge to other realms)

Shalom Freedman
Apr 12 2022 at 5:34am

This conversation was a bit unusual for Econtalk with Russ Roberts providing more of the answers than the questions. The focus was really on his Philosophy of Education and his understanding of what a good education means and how to attain it. Here he spoke about the importance of Literature, History, Philosophy a Liberal Arts education which encourages not simply acquisition of Knowledge but a personal effort at acquiring understanding. Here too the emphasis was on the value of learning in small groups in a setting of openness, and willingness to hear unfamiliar and even objectionable views. The belief is this kind of Education which may seem less practical than learning a profession or trade will also offer a way to earning and thriving in the world. It will above all create a kind of person who will grow in learning throughout their life, and in enriching themselves also enrich the community and society of which they are a part.

Michael Spires
Apr 12 2022 at 11:53am

Listening, I was disappointed that the focus was on “higher education” and the higher level thinking. The focus on skills and vocational training in HS and University comes back to the fact that the basics have not been taught well at the lower level and grade inflation has made it impossible to tell if someone is doing good work in HS and University.

The removal of standardized and IQ testing for work and hiring from the Duke Energy case have also contributed to this lack of respect for Liberal Arts education. Many jobs have specific requirements to get into safe harbor on hiring.

Similarly, the disrespect of Liberal Arts comes back to the way Liberal Arts are set up in universities in the US. Too many “Studies” majors where people are not doing what you suggest, but rather creating indoctrination factories.

Finally, as another commenter has presented, the core of basics (math, science, engineering and technology) often has the ability to explore these topics when students are engaged and brought to apply things outside to the focus. In math, infinity and randomness come through and in science, creation and the “why” of the universe is explored.

I am hopeful that I can teach an MBA course on Technology in Business and there is a lot of how SHOULD we think about things in my current outline. Often, the answers are not black and white. Outsourcing and offshoring as an example. It is problematic for the country where jobs are moving from, but a net productivity improvement for the company.



Apr 13 2022 at 2:41pm

It is disappointing that the discussion does not respect that the human condition requires at some point separation from the family books and/or government payments. Universities have a role in preparing youths for this. The truly educated learns in academia and in life experiences, particularly in small groups, as Prof. Roberts indicates. Access to a broad liberal education is a costly gift to some for a few years in their twenties; may they value it and acquire, through their own efforts and the occasional excellent mentor, true insights into life and awareness of their personal limitations.

Umberto Malzone
Apr 17 2022 at 11:00am

Although they were touched upon in the latter half of the episode, I don’t think the practical hurdles to achieving the ideal education discussed can be overstated. I teach a class where if you do the math, I have 30 seconds a class per student. Although I think Russ Roberts is acutely aware of it, the prerequisite knowledge, the technical skills and information necessary to accomplish any higher learning is a huge part of an education, and sorely lacking. At an ‘elite liberal arts college’ like St. Johns (Shalem College may fall into the same category), the students are coming from a background where this element necessary to education has been provided, but to do education at scale, it is the limiting, and possibly most significant factor.

Throughout the episode, a dichotomy between the liberal arts, which teach you how to think, and to think about the big questions of life, and the ‘technical skills’ or ‘pre-professional training’ of STEM came up again and again. It felt like a caricature, with learning in the hard sciences treated as rote and uninspiring as solving elementary problems of addition and subtraction, pedestrian and unimportant as compared to philosophy or literature.  I’ve never understood the argument that a liberal arts education ‘teaches you how to think,’ as if physics or technology requires no thinking, or of a lesser quality than that of the liberal arts.

The dismissal of the idea that different opinions should be represented felt like it was in bad faith. The people who want different opinions don’t mean ‘whimsical preferences’, but reasoned out positions which rely on different assumptions and values. If education is turning your mind into a tool for achieving things, it means we want a variety of tools for achieving things to be represented.

The image of education presented in this episode is an inquiry with problems, concepts, and books, discussed in small groups culminates in an admonition to continue it in forms like a book club. If education is to continue after formal school, and it is possible to continue, then what is the relationship of institutions like colleges to education? The small group is championed as a good model, but what about self-education? For this kind of education, why do you need an institution at all?

It was a challenging episode for me to listen to, because I started with a position similar to the one espoused in the episode, and have discarded it, moving almost in the opposite direction as Russ Roberts.

Russ Roberts
Apr 18 2022 at 10:40am

I did not mean to suggest (and perhaps did not suggest) that STEM doesn’t require or teach thinking. I was mainly pushing back against the idea that a liberal arts education is impractical. I don’t think STEM is “rote learning.” The point I wanted to make is that much of modern university undergraduate education is rote learning. That’s true of economics and psychology and history when taught poorly. And finally–yes, knowledge and facts are necessary for thinking to emerge. An upcoming episode will focus on this issue.

Comments are closed.


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TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: March 7, 2022.]

Russ Roberts: Something a little different today. I was recently interviewed by Alex Aragona for the podcast, The Curious Task, from the Institute for Liberal Studies, where they explore economics, politics, philosophy, and other ideas from the classical liberal perspective. And, I was interviewed about the topic of education.

And so, we are going to co-release this episode alongside the podcast, The Curious Task. It was recorded it on March 7th, 2022. Thank you for listening.


Alex Aragona: So, our question today is: What's wrong with education? And I think the best way to go about this one is really to start with your overall perspective on what a good education might look like and how we might think on what an educated person might truly look like, and so on and so forth.

So, as a jumping-off point, I noted here, to start, what I think is a good place with a, quote, actually of you. This is from an article--we can leave it in our episode notes--where you're being interviewed about becoming the new president of Shalem College. This is from Roberts, as I was saying, listeners. You say, Russ,

"The ideal education is less of a focus on information, and more on open inquiry; less worry about the right answers, and more concern for asking the right questions."

So, there's actually a couple different points in there. So, as a jump-off point, let's just start with this idea that, right off the bat, you noted 'open inquiry' first. When we reset our minds on what you think a good education is, what do you mean by that open inquiry part?

Russ Roberts: Well, sometimes[?] I call it fearless inquiry: not being afraid of what you might discover. A lot of ideas make us uncomfortable. A lot of facts make us uncomfortable. A lot of ideologies make us uncomfortable. And, a real education, a person who's concerned about discovering what might be true, needs to be open about what they can let their minds consider. And, that's hard, really unpleasant. Most of us, including me, don't like it most of the time. It's taken me a long time to get interested in seeing that as a plus and not a minus. But, I think it's a crucial piece of the puzzle.

But it's not the only thing. I think a lot of people make a mistake. I learned this from a guest from my podcast named Zena Hitz. She wrote a book called Lost in Thought. And, one of the things she observes is that people complain about education, that there's not enough diverse opinion. And, as if opinion is what you go to acquire in being educated. And that's really not what education is about. It's not about, 'Gee, who's got the best opinion?' Because, most things are complicated. You might prefer one opinion to another opinion, but if you really want to master something or understand something deeply, you don't want somebody's opinion about, say, a policy or a philosophy of how government might be run or how you should lead your life. You're not looking for an opinion, a flag, a banner to get under. That's not education.

It's interesting. It might create community. It might create activism that you might want to be part of. But education is not about figuring out which opinion you should hold. If it were, then it would be really important and you'd have different choices and lots of opinions.

But, education is a lot deeper than that. It's so rare that--we encounter it so rarely as students in our lives that if we're unlucky, we don't even know what it is, how to recognize it. Never experienced a moment of real education. When you have, your head cracks open: You see things you didn't see before. You have a set of tools for how to live, for how to think.

So, real education is much more than just opinions and being exposed to different opinions. It's much more than information or facts, as I mention in that quote. It's really about turning your mind into a tool that can achieve things.

And by a 'tool,' I really--there's some unease about that word. I don't mean to suggest that it can build you a house. Although of course it can if you're a skilled in carpentry, if you have knowledge of carpentry. But, I really think of it as a way of encountering the world. And, when your mind is sufficiently well-honed, when it is--when you are well-educated--you're able to use your mind to understand things that otherwise you wouldn't. In that way, it's kind of simple.


Alex Aragona: Right. And, that's why I liked at the end of that, quote, too, you said like, 'Less worry about the right answers,' as you said, and, 'more concern for asking the right questions.' So, it's the idea of, instead of what to think more, but how to think, and having the tools to think on your own terms.

And, interesting here too, you also said, education is not currently preparing students to ask questions, as, "What is a life well-lived?" Or even in the case of someone working in tech, for example, you said, "Will the technology I'm developing help human beings to flourish?" Like, these bigger sort of questions. And I find that that was very interesting too, because that even broadens the conversation on education further than just, for example, how to think and think critically and so on. You're also talking about absolutely coupling the bigger questions, even to what might appear relatively be the more straightforward, minor things in life that people are doing. At least that's what I got from that.

Russ Roberts: No, that's exactly right. I think we often confuse the acquisition of skills or knowledge with education. And of course they're not unrelated, but they're not the same thing. A lot of education is what we might call pre-professional. It prepares you for a profession. It prepares you either with a set of tools that are useful in that profession--accounting, say; computer science say; medicine, even. Very practical things, very important things, but those are not the only aspects of education.

I like to make a distinction between where you're going and how to get there. Waze, or Google Maps, or some other app you might use on your phone is really good for figuring out how to get somewhere. It tells you nothing about where you want to go. We get so obsessed with getting there as quickly as possible, we sometimes forget that maybe we should be going someplace else.

So, when we think about pre-professional education, which can be very useful. It's not the only kind of education, but we can define it. And so, it's a temptation, like Waze, to say, 'Well, I'm going to gather this mix of skills and then also credentials to get to this place.'

And, to me, a serious education also has a component of trying to think of where you want to go. And, at Shalem College here in Jerusalem, we really love it when students show up and say, 'I'm not sure what I want to do when I get out.' And, that's okay. And, there are people who know, that's great. Some people at 18 know what they want to do with the rest of their life. It's a little bit surprising because you don't know very much when you're 18, even though you might think otherwise. I did, when I was 18--I thought I knew most of everything. That's kind of what it is to be 18. But it's okay to say, 'I need to learn more before I want to think about what I want to learn.'

And, that's a crazy idea, but I think that's in many ways the essence of a good education. And, I think when you mention flourishing and a life well-lived, there's a component of education that is also involved with both values--which is related to the idea of where you want to go--but also related to understanding yourself--understanding your own shortcomings, your weaknesses, your flaws, your self-deception. These are aspects of the human experience that I think a good education should alert you to.


Alex Aragona: Right. And, I suppose connected with that is also the idea of, if you're trying to be an educated person, to challenge yourself on what you might think would be defined as, like, a successful person or a successful life, because in a narrow sense, that might just mean, as you said, sort of: You do your preprofessional education, get into your professional, make a bunch of money, have a great house. That might be one definition of success and that's great. But, I think when we tie this conversation of education, broadening the idea of what a successful life is, I probably suspect you'd think it's a little broader than just what I outlined.

Russ Roberts: Right. There's, again, nothing wrong with that. It can be a--certainly a pleasant part of existence is to have material wellbeing and material comfort. But you might be open to the possibility that there's more to life that and there's more to success, as you used the phrase.

I want to get this, quote, right. So, John Stuart Mill, in his book, Utilitarianism, said, "It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied." That's an interesting perspective. It's not a true-or-false statement. I was going to say, 'Is it true?' It's obviously something each person has to think about for themselves. Is there anything wrong with being a pig? Enjoying sitting in the mud, eating a lot, having a good life. Maybe you're a pet pig, even better. You're not going to be cut up for food. Slaughtered. Is there anything wrong with that?

Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." Is Socrates right? Can't just be a pig. Be happy. It seems pretty good. So, the question is, what's missing from that life? Obviously, John Stuart Mill felt something was missing. He says, "A human being dissatisfied is better than being a pig satisfied." Meaning, there's something in the human experience beyond physical pleasure, comfort, pleasant feelings, and so on.

And so, that's--part of education is to think about that. Is that true? Is it a life well-lived, simply: good career, nice home, pleasant, plenty of food to eat, lots of nice vacations to the beach, the mountains, warm places you want to go? Is that the life well-lived? Some would say it is, and they're welcome to it, if they want, that's okay.

Others would say there's more to life than that. There are parts of life that involve our humanity that go beyond our physicality, that involve our relationships with those around us, our achievements, the meaning that we might have, the purpose that we serve life as having, if any. And, exploring those questions that don't have simple answers and don't have direct answers--that's part of the educational process. For me, it's part of becoming a grownup. It's part of being a full, realized human being.


Alex Aragona: And, connecting that thought to sort of where we can get sources of wisdom to sort of fuel how we each think on these things and where we want to go and so on and so forth, I want to connect this to another one of your thoughts. You said: We're only going to flourish, both as individuals and as communities,

when we not only focus on the future, but also explore the wisdom of the past, and come to appreciate all that it can teach us.

Now, I really like your phrasing of that, because I think it's safe to say that a lot of us, whether through conventional education or unconventional education, learn about the past, and we might remember some facts and understand some things that happened. But this idea of exploring the wisdom of the past, because--you sort of jump into that a little further, because clearly you would differentiate that from just learning about the past. What do you mean by "exploring the wisdom" of the past?

Russ Roberts: Well, I think--I have more to say--I don't know why I say it that way. Because, for me, it's not simply--I certainly agree with you that it's not enough to know what happened. Some people think that's history. 'History is finding out what happened.' Seems almost true by definition, that's history.

Alex Aragona: Right.

Russ Roberts: But, that's kind of thin definition of history.

The next level up would be: Why did what happened, happen? Need it have happened? Are there other things that could have happened instead? Did people make mistakes? What role did individuals play? What role did cultural forces play? What role did a special, a unique person who intervened in history--did they play a special role or would they have just been replaced by someone else? Those are some of the things that you talk about in history.

But there's a deeper idea that I want to add to that, which is: understanding who you are, and recognizing that who you are is not simply a product of your genetic endowment that you get from your biological parents. Who you are is--you're a person certainly in a family, you're a person often in a nation, you're a person within a culture. You come into the world as a thinking, semi-fully realized adult, meaning at 18 or 21, or if you're lucky a little earlier, if you're not lucky a little later. But, you're influenced in all kinds of ways by currents that you don't fully appreciate.

If you don't study history and you don't study culture and you don't study literature and you don't study ideas, you won't understand how you came to be who you are. You might think, 'Oh, if I were born in'--fill in the blank--'Country X, I'd be just as successful as I am now.' It's not necessarily true. Where you were born, what religion you were brought up in, if any, what culture your community embodies--if you don't understand that, you're handicapped a little bit in understanding who you are and why you are the way you are. And, understanding that is useful. It's also fascinating. To me, again, what makes us uniquely human and not a pig.

It's not unimportant. But, it's amazing how easy it is for us to imagine that we're just a blank slate: 'I can believe whatever I want. I just look around and see what I think is true.' But if you can't fully understand where you came from, you can't understand what your limitations are intellectually, emotionally, and culturally, and thinking about what you might want to become.

I think a lot lately about aspiration--the idea of what you might aspire to. And, it's tied in with this idea that what you might aspire to is sometimes limited by what you've experienced and what your culture has experienced and brought to the table for you. And also, it can be liberating. It can allow you to flourish in a way that wouldn't be possible for someone coming from a different background and a different culture.

The West is different from the East. The Middle East, where I live now, is very different from America, where I lived most of my life. When you make a move like I've made to Israel, and you realize that the norms of educated people who feel like you are not quite the same because they grew up in a different culture. They grew up in a different set of ideas that molded them in ways that they don't fully understand. And, then you realize, 'Oh, I've got the same issue. I don't fully understand what molded me.'

And so, I think part of education, when we talk about the past, is understanding what brought us to where we stand as individuals and as members of a culture, or members of a nation, members of a community, members of religious group or an ethnic group.

All those things affect us. And, as you start to peel back the onion and think about who you are, you get a much richer picture than if you don't know about those things or think about them.


Alex Aragona: Russ, I thought the first half was a great setup, especially to explore what you think of education, a good education might look like in general, what an educated person might strive to do, if they're trying to be more of an educated person, I should say.

I want to shift gears a little bit now here to, as we'll drill deeper into sort of what kind of frameworks, institutions, and so on can, like, provide that kind of environment for a person to improve their education and so on. So, starting a little bit more general on this pillar. And, I don't mean here, like, specific universities or programs or diplomas and degrees, but just as an outlook overall. What do you see as the fundamental differences between sort of a liberal arts education or outlook versus more of a STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] one?

Russ Roberts: It's hard to put into words, but I think it's really important to think about it because I think most people think--when they hear the word 'liberal' education--most people don't know what liberal arts education is. It's usually misunderstood. But, what I mean by it is the study of philosophy, literature, and history. But, it's more than that. It's grappling with the great ideas that are embodied in those fields in a way that is different than you might learn, again, a preprofessional skill. And, I think it's easy to misunderstand what those fields are about.

So, let's take them one by one. A lot of people, I think, would say that, well, history is--you have to understand the past. That's the study of the past. Literature is, like, reading fiction. And philosophy is, like, what people think is, like, the purpose of life. Well, that's disturbing because--first of all, we don't really know what the purpose of life is. Philosophers don't agree about. If that's all philosophy is, that's bad. That's discouraging. If literature is just reading fiction and nice books and having a pleasant few hours while you read them, it's nice; but is that really what you should go to college for? And, similarly, if history is just learning about what happened, you can get that on Wikipedia.

So, I think it's important to understand the subtlety of what a true liberal arts education is trying to achieve. Or, let's just call it a real education--that's not, as you say, STEM. That's not the acquisition of, say, the precepts of engineering, not how to code in computer science, not the acquiring of certain mathematical abilities in this formal study of mathematics. The 'S' of STEM is Science--physics, chemistry, biology. All have well-established sets of knowledge and techniques all up for refutation, if new evidence comes along. But, certainly there's a formal body of knowledge at any one point in time, as to what's true in those fields, as best as we understand it, given our limited understanding and perfect understanding.

And, I think what we're talking about, what I'm talking about when I'm talking about education, is something richer than that. It's more than just, 'Well, I read a lot of interesting books and I feel like I learned something,' or, 'I learned about the past and now I know more about where I came from.' Or, 'I learned what a lot of smart people thought added meaning to life or what we might call philosophy.'

What I'm really talking about, in a cliché, is learning how to think. It's a cliché, right? Most people would say, 'Oh, yeah. Liberal arts education, that's teaching you how to think.' What does that really mean?

And, what it means to me--to go beyond the cliché--is that: a great education teaches you the power of a set of skills that are not obvious when you're studying facts or information. When you're studying facts or--you have to have facts and information, by the way. If you don't have them, you've got nothing. You may as well--I don't know, I can't even think of what the right analogy is. But, you have to have facts and information.

But, as you start to acquire a perspective on the great minds of the past, as you read books like The Illiad and The Odyssey, when you read the plays of Shakespeare, when you read great thinkers in philosophy like Nietzsche or Plato or Aristotle. When you first encounter them--or you read a great book, like The Sound and the Fury. Read The Sound and the Fury, the first time, you don't get much out of it. It's like, 'I don't even know what's happening. I don't know who's talking, that's a waste of time.' That is a reasonable first reaction. Most of the ideas in these great books are hard. They're not obvious. It's not a list. It's not something to memorize. It's not something to be tested on. It's something to be internalized and used. It is to grapple with these great texts and in the experience of trying to understand them and seeing their richness giving you a set of ideas and a set of perspectives that you can point elsewhere.

That's real education. Real education is when you realize that an idea that you read in one place is actually related to this other idea over here; and when I put them together, I get something new. That's called thinking. Right?

We tend to think of thinking as doing a big math problem, or--what would be another example? Creating a molecule. Now, creating a molecule in chemistry lab requires creativity. It requires deep understanding of the fundamentals. But some of it's trial-and-error. Nothing wrong with trial-and-error. It's a huge part of the acquisition of knowledge and experience.

But, the idea of education that I'm talking about would be to take a concept like, say, randomness. Randomness is not hard to define. We understand 'random.' It means, 'Oh, it's not regular. It doesn't have a formal process, perhaps, that has a predictable outcome.' That's a bad, but not a horrible definition of randomness. But, to understand randomness--to spend your lifetime thinking about it and getting a deeper and deeper and richer understanding. Same thing would be true of risk, uncertainty, data. How to think about those things.

Take a trivial example. I want to understand something. It might be income, in a nation. It might be how long it takes people to travel a certain distance. It might be a particular group of people, how tall they are. And, we have statistical methods for doing those things. And, the most common one is the average. Now the average is a really amazing tool that somebody thought of, to think about how to summarize a very diverse set of information.

So, most people, I think, listening know what the definition of average is. You take all the observations in the sample that you're looking at, you add them all up, and you divide by the number of observations of the sample. That's the definition of an average. So, now, you know what an average is. But you don't understand the average. You might be fooled into thinking you do, because you know the definition, but to understand it deeply? Just to throw a few things out, first thing you might want to worry about is, 'Well, how representative is the average of the group?' I mean, is the average a good measure of the average, meaning the--in everyday life we use the word average to mean, like, typical. Is the average person typical? Is the average income typical?

If you want to understand data, you start to think about the idea of an outlier--something that's wildly different from the average, not similar to the other observations. That would be one example.

Or: How deep is this river? I can't swim. So, I'm worried if I cross it, I'll drown. It's a very wide river. How deep is it? Well, on average, it's a foot deep. Oh, okay. Then I can cross. Well, no. That would be dangerous. It could be safe to cross, even though the average is only a foot, there could be many large stretches that are much deeper than a foot, and you'll drown and die. 'Oh, yeah. I get that. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Okay. Okay. Okay.' As you start to think and learn more and more about the complexity of variation within any data set, you start to realize that average is really complicated.

And so then you'll have an illustration of that, like I just gave you on the river. 'Oh, okay. I get that. Oh, that means that if I'm crossing a river and I can't swim, I better know more about it than just how deep it is on average.' I probably want to know what's the deepest it gets, and for how far? 'Oh, okay. I got that. I got that.' Great.

Well, does that have something to do with the stock market? 'Well, how could it? I mean, really. The stock market [?] is nothing like crossing a river and swimming isn't anything like investing. That's silly.' But, when you start to think about it, you realize, if somebody says that the average return of some stock exchange has been 8% over the last 80 years, should that make you feel comfortable or not comfortable? Well, you might want to know how--what's the worst it could be? How deep could it get and how long?

Could it go down 10%? Could it go down 25%? How long would it last for? Would it be for three months, a year, 10 years?

Well, you should probably look into that before you cross that river, before you make that investment in that stock exchange. And, then you might want to worry about the fact that--you can actually imagine measuring the depth of the river at its deepest point and for how far that depth persists, but you cannot know how much the stock market will go down in the next year based on the past, because the future could be different from the past. And, even though the stock market you're looking at has never--the stock exchange has never, ever, ever not once in the last 100 years gone down more than 12%, it doesn't mean it can't go down by more than 12% next year.

And, when you start to realize that, you realize, 'Wow, this is more complicated than I thought.' You start to see other things it applies to. And, then you start to think about, how do I use this knowledge that I'm starting to acquire in areas beyond swimming and the stock market?

And that to me is education. When you take an insight and you can apply it to things that you weren't taught about before, that's knowledge.

My favorite course evaluation I ever received was from a student who gave me a one out of five and said my economics class was unfair because, quote, "Professor Roberts expected us to apply the theory to material we'd never seen before." And I thought--after that, I always announced on the first day of class, I said, 'Let tell you what this class is about. This class is exactly about that. So, I don't want you to think it's unfair. You don't want to be in it, you don't want to be a part of it, that's fine. Don't stay. But, this class is about learning to apply what we've learned to something we haven't seen before.'

That's knowledge, that's education, that's learning. And, then to be able to take something totally unrelated, and you combine it with that insight into, say, average or expected, and realize, 'Wow, when I add those together, I get something I hadn't of before.' That's knowledge, that's power.

It's more than that, though. It's one of the greatest pieces of the human experience. It's part of what it means to not be a pig. Even if it's not useful--forget about crossing rivers and investing your money because I think it's about a lot more than that, by the way. It's not just practical, those insights into average/expected. But, the idea of what human beings have been able to understand about the human heart, and courage, and fear, and bravery and cowardice, and risk-taking--those are all the richest parts of who we are as human beings. And, to me, they have a value in and of themselves, even if they don't help you in the stock market.


Alex Aragona: Right. No, I absolutely agree. And, as you said, a value in it and of itself, those processes.

I said earlier that we were going to probably shift at some point to talking a little bit more practically about your thoughts on the school system. And, I think that's an excellent place that you just ended to jump into that. Because, on that exact note, on the exact same train of thought that you were saying, if that's what an education really means, I want to sort of talk about what there probably would be in terms of fundamental problems with what people view as the current education system, if you will. So, based on everything you just said, then--and this is at least my observation, so please don't allow the question to be based on something that you might think is unfair. I think it's fair and you could tell me. Based on everything you said then, do you find it disturbing that kids are meant--again, in my opinion--to spend approximately two decades in educational institutions that end up being, sitting down, shutting up, listening, remembering things, and doing tests? I think we need to be serious about that amount of time doing that kind of thing. And then how we expect people to maybe pop into a university after. And, as you said, be comfortable with the idea of applying knowledge and education to materials they've never seen before.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. No, I find most of the current educational system around the world--whether it's in the United States, here in Israel, high school or college--deeply disturbing.

One way to think about it is: of all the things you know--and I heard this from an economist, David Henderson--of all the things you know, how many of them came from school? Some, for sure. Everything I know about calculus came from school and obviously everything I know about baseball came from not-school. It's amazing, if you think about how much comes from conversations, how much comes from your parents, how much comes from your own reading outside of school versus what you learn in school. And, that would be okay, except you spend a lot of time in school. You're asleep seven, eight hours a day, when you're younger. You spend about eight hours a day in school. And then you got to have some time for eating and basic life stuff.

You spend a lot of time in school. Now, you can't learn every minute. I'm not saying it's a waste because you don't maximize how much time you spend learning. A lot of times, learning takes place when we're not trying to learn--when our brain is working on its own, doing the kind of synthesizing I was talking about earlier.

But, as you suggest, the idea of sitting in your chair listening to a lecture and writing stuff down, as long as you have to do that--I don't want to over-romanticize real education. Like I said, you need facts and you need an understanding of certain basic knowledge to be able to think. But, what you don't want to do, is what somebody said to me the other day: To know something is to know what other people know about it. That's a really low standard of knowledge.

Alex Aragona: Yeah, I agree.

Russ Roberts: And I think too much of education is that kind of learning. It's: finding out what other people said, taking notes on it, being tested on it, and then showing that you were paying attention.

And, think about it: For an academic, that is education. Education for them, for the academic life--the academic life is, you're supposed to know what other people have said about Schopenhauer, or what other people have said about The Illiad, and then adding something that hasn't been said before. Either adding it from a new ideological perspective, a new philosophical perspective, seeing an insight into it just from the text. And so, to do that, you have to know what other people have said about it.

But, to read The Illiad and The Odyssey and to learn from them--to learn with them--is not to learn what other people have said about it. It's for you to uncover what the text means, what it says to you, what its insights are for the human experience. It's to grapple with the richness of possible interpretation.

You can read The Illiad or The Odyssey, or Hamlet. In 1722, 300 years ago, a person could read The Illiad and The Odyssey and Shakespeare and get a lot out of it, even though they didn't read any of the academic literature on those things.

Alex Aragona: Mm-hmm.

Russ Roberts: That's why they're Great Books. That's why they're still worth reading.

Now, it doesn't mean you can't learn anything from the academic study of great works of literature, history, or philosophy. You can. But the text itself is of great value. We come back to the first thing, the first quote you read at the very beginning: The wisdom of the past, the fact, to quote William Faulkner--William Faulkner in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech talked about the human heart in conflict with itself. That challenge--the human heart in conflict with itself--that's a really old challenge. It doesn't get any older than that. That's at the heart--pardon of the phrase, pardon the word--that's at the essence of who we are: That our urges and wants and aspirations often don't work so well together. And, now what?

That's what Faulkner argued is the essence of great literature, great art. That never gets old. As long as we're human and not a machine or a robot, it never is going to get old. And, thinking about that and struggling with it and reading what great thinkers have said about that and their insights--it's timeless. You don't need the latest journal article, peer-reviewed journal article, to really appreciate great literature and great philosophy and great history.

So, I think--here's the problem: Those ideas and the acquisition of those ideas--the attempt to fully understand those ideas--those don't work so well in a factory setting. At the university level, it's a factory. You have a big group, you have a big room, and you have a professor at the front of the room speaking. The students are taking notes. Many of them aren't there. They're going to watch it later on a recording.

And that's--that's not of no value. It's of some value, just like reading a book is of value. You can't discuss with the author directly. But, what you can do, is you can discuss with your classmates what the author might have meant and to come to a richer, deeper understanding through that process.

But, that doesn't scale very well. It doesn't work well in a large group setting. You can try. I used to do it a little bit. When I'd teach large classes, I could still have some give and take with the class. But it's very hard to do. And, it's limited. It's a different experience than a small group of people exploring something within that group, in conversation both with each other and the author. The authors could be dead--certainly not in the room 99.9% of the time--but you're still in conversation with the author because you've got their text in front of you.

And, that's a tough sell, right? Because, to do that is expensive. It's expensive literally: it takes small classes, skilled people to facilitate that conversation. The professor plays a very different role in that setting. The professor isn't the font of wisdom. The professor is on the exploration alongside the students. But, my point is that the professor is not dispensing knowledge. The professor is facilitating the acquisition of knowledge.

There's a subtle point we haven't talked about yet, which is, I think in real education, which is that: When you're told something, you might remember. Even if you remember it, you might not be able to use it. But, if you acquire something--if you acquire knowledge--if through your own effort and work, you come to understand what an author is driving at, that knowledge has a different quality inside you. It is much more likely to be able to be used because you've internalized it.

And, I had this experience with one of my colleagues here at Shalem. Assaf Inbari, a professor who was teaching to a faculty colloquium, a poem by Yeats. And, he could have told us in three minutes what the poem meant. When I first read the poem, I got nothing out of it. I had no idea what it was about. It's called "After Long Silence". It was a poem of Yeats's I'd never heard of. I had no idea what it was about. He didn't tell us what it was about. We worked at it together and came to an understanding that I'm sure it wasn't the same--I'm sure every person in the room had a different level of rich thinking about what Yeats wrote in that poem.

But whatever level you had at that end of that hour and a half, the professor could have just told us, couldn't he, what Yeats, quote, "really meant?" And then after about a week, I'd have forgotten it. And, it just would be totally gone.

But, because I worked at it, I think I have it forever, actually.

And when I see something that's related to those insights, I'll be able to pull on that, draw on that set of insights from that experience of studying Yeats.

It's totally different than if I'd read an essay, or it'd been told by the faculty member or by the professor, what the poem means. Obviously, first of all, it doesn't really mean one thing. So, it's not like, 'Oh, this is what it means.' Again, there are layers of understanding. It's a richness of understanding. But there's something totally different when you acquire that knowledge through your own effort than when you're told.

And so, much of what we learn I think at the high school and university level, certainly in the United States, certainly here in Israel, is just being told. Again, being told can be powerful. You can hear a speech or a presentation or a lecture that makes you think. I don't mean to suggest there's no learning or knowledge that takes place there. But it's different when you work at it yourself and you come to your own understanding and you own it. There it is.

Alex Aragona: Absolutely. And, that 'own it' part--there's something different about using your mind to sort of mix your mental labor, if you will, and come up with conclusions that you yourself own. You might not be the first person on the planet to think of these things, but that's beside the point: it's your own sort of effort and your own acquisition versus using it as basically a copy-and-paste device, right? Because we can do that with our [crosstalk 00:43:19], too.

Russ Roberts: Correct. Yeah. Exactly.


Alex Aragona: And, on that exact note, sort of looking at the future of education, if you will--and there's a lot of discussion right now from politicians, even, intellectuals, what's called sort of leaders of industry now in places like Silicon Valley, and so on and so forth on the tech side about where education is going in the future--and, in a way there's sort of an optimistic tone about what they're saying, which is basically, 'With all this technology right at our fingertips, the sort of classroom-style learning is a thing of the past.'

And, again, I should say this is applying in their minds from everything through almost K [Kindergarten] to, like, university now. They're saying, you're saying, 'Hey, the classroom is a thing of the past. With our telecommunications devices, computers, so on and so forth, we can be in the same room together virtually; we can sit and listen to a lecture. With our Google search or any other internet device, we have every answer right at our finger tips, if we need. We don't need these big tests anymore. We can just get the facts and then spit them back out.' In the longer-term future, you have people talking about things like neuro links in our head and how we'll just be able to think of an answer and get it.

And, in one sense, there's a tone of optimism about all this because it's being viewed as a great improvement on, quote-unquote, "education." That, we don't have to be as inefficient with these classrooms, and so on and so forth.

To me, and this is ultimately the question I want to throw back at you: For people to talk about that technological improvement as solving the problem of education in a certain way is sort of, to me, in a way, outlining exactly what the problem of the fundamental outlook on education is. By them saying, we're going to be able to do all these things, I think they're describing the problem with what we view it as it is, if you see what I'm trying to say.

Russ Roberts: I know what you're trying to say. I think you're onto something. Technology--by the way, there was a lot of optimism that education was going to be revolutionized by technology. This goes back about maybe eight years when platforms like Udacity and Coursera and others were going to scale, like we were talking about a minute ago. They were going to be able to teach hundreds of thousands of people. And, of course, it works for some things and it's fabulous. One thing to keep in mind is that, if you have a horrible teacher, a technology-based teacher could be a lot better. If you are sitting in a small, intimate classroom with 10 other students and the teacher is awful, you're not going to learn very much. You're at a tremendous disadvantage. And, one of the promises of the application of technology education, which is wonderful, is the idea of letting great teachers teach more than 12 people. Teach a hundred, teach a thousand, teach 100,000.

And, there are some classes--so, I'll take calculus as an example. Calculus is not part of the liberal arts. It's a STEM-based discipline. There are calculus classes online that reach tens and hundreds of thousands of people, where the instructor was so fabulous that they're much better than the class that a person might take at their local school with only 10 or 12 or 15 students. Because in that class, even though it's small, which has promise, the faculty member is--the teacher isn't capable of leveraging that small size effectively. They don't know how to help you acquire the kind of insights we were talking about a minute ago.

In fact, there's a famous example I sometimes talk about on EconTalk--not famous, sorry. The people are semi-, not-even famous. It's famous because I like the example, I guess.

Alex Aragona: Fair enough.

Russ Roberts: But, if I remember it correctly, it was Alfred Marshall, the British economist, who at the time was probably considered, if not the greatest living economist, but certainly one of the top handful. He had a student, A.C. Pigou, who became--and I think I'm getting the youth versus old person right, the teacher and the student. Pigou took a class from Marshall. Well, it turned out he was the only student in the class. And, that didn't stop Marshall from going to the front of the class, opening his lecture notes and lecturing. Didn't take any advantage of the fact that he had only one student, that he had effectively had a--he was a tutor to one student. He taught the lecture as if there were a thousand students in the room. So, I don't know--Marshall may have been a fabulous teacher, I don't want to criticize. I have no idea.

But, if you have a bad teacher of calculus in person, an online version of calculus could be much, much better because that person who is teaching it, even though it's not face-to-face, even though you're watching a video, even though you can't ask questions directly--it can be a great learning experience for a field like calculus.

It's much harder to do that with Shakespeare. You can watch a series of great lectures on Shakespeare. It's pretty good. You can get something out of it. It's a value, but there's a limit.

And, I think what we've found, a lot of the earlier enthusiasm you were referring to that still persists--there was a lot of enthusiasm in the beginning, that the whole school system was going to be revolutionized. People are going to stop going to class. They'd just sit at home. They do self-directed tutorials online. They'd acquire all this stuff that now they have to spend too much money on. You could have one great teacher teaching a million students, a million teachers teaching--excuse me, I'll say a 1,000 teachers teaching a 1,000 students badly in each class.

The whole thing was going to change. And it changed a piece of the industry of education. It did have some impact. And it could be that in the future, they'll get better at it. There's always this promise: 'Well, the testing isn't very good. We'll get better. It'll just get better and better.'

It's not the testing that needs to get better. It's the interaction between the student's mind and the material. Certain kinds of material, the kind of technological solutions you're talking about may work very well. Maybe acquisition of language. Maybe acquisition of certain formal techniques like mathematics. But, for the kind of questions that we're talking about now, about the human experience, it doesn't work quite so well. It works much better in smaller groups.

That's frustrating. It means, if we want it to happen, we have to devote many more resources to it than we would otherwise probably be prepared to do. And, we don't do it very well. It's also something that is not done well by lots of people. There aren't, like, zillions of great teachers laying around who can do the kind of facilitating and exploration that I'm talking about.

So, that's frustrating, and it's hard. People are always hoping there's a fix. We just get this software--I mean, think about it: There's so many problems that we have in our lives, software fixes them. Right? I know how to get from A to B. We talked about that earlier, how to travel. I can figure out what movie I'm probably going to like. There's so many ways that software makes our lives easier. The kind of things we're talking about, not so much. That's disappointing. We'd like to think it's going to turn out differently. But, I'm not optimistic about the ability of technology to teach us the big questions of life.

Alex Aragona: Fair enough.

Russ Roberts: And, a lot of it, by the way, a lot of it's comes from living. We talked earlier about the education you get that's not in the classroom. It's a lot of things that until you cross that river and go under, you really don't know: you don't internalize it until that moment. You realize, 'I'm in over my head. Uh-oh.' The school life will always be a great educator.


Alex Aragona: And, I have one more question as our time winds down here; then we'll move to the formal wrap up. My last question is more of a social and cultural question, more of a thing for you to reflect on, let me know your thoughts. In my experience, at least--and, I was born in the 1990s--what was dominant, at least, for my generation coming up, even if liberal arts or sort of a broader idea of education and something somebody was interested in and wanted to continue and pursue for example--a lot of parents or even friends and people that other folks would look at as mentors and advisors and things like that, guidance counselors, whatever--at least in my experience, the dominant trend of people answering those more interested in liberal education or a wider education was sort of: 'Well, what are you going to do with that degree?'

Obviously, every generation has its problems, and I think there's a lot of good intention behind a lot of this when people say this. But, as someone who was born in the 1990s, and I think this is interesting to throw back to you because you happen to be older than me. So, I'm thinking--I think we're going to look back at sort of that industrial trend from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, as doing a lot of damage to the idea of education, where a lot of people were peppered with the idea of, 'Hey, like, you might be interested in exploring some of the finer points of philosophy, but anyway, what are you actually going to do with that? Is that going to get you X, Y, and Zed job?'

I don't know. I'm very uncomfortable looking back on that, being the dominant thought in my head by the culture around me and the people supposedly advising me, and I know others have a very similar experience. What are your thoughts on that?

Russ Roberts: Well, I think about it a lot as the president of a liberal arts college. Just as an aside, I think a lot of people think the 'liberal' in 'liberal arts' means political, on the Left. And, they think arts has something to do with sculpture, painting, watercolor. But, you know, it's 'arts' because it's a craft, not a science; and it's 'liberal' because it's open and it's free exploration. So, it's important just to say that. Again, I try to say 'real education.'

But, I think it's a really deep question. And, because this question of, whether it's--how do we encourage students to study various things? What's it good for? So, you know, I always say: studying philosophy, literature, and history makes you thoughtful. It doesn't just help you think. Those are two things. They're both really important in life. Learning how to think and learning to be thoughtful, being aware of your shortcomings, being aware of your humility in the face of the knowledge you don't have. Understanding the complexity of problems. Those, to me, should be the part of what you get from a liberal arts education. They're really important.

And, most people would like to hire someone who is thoughtful and that sort of thing. Communicate, read, write, listen. If you're in a small group of people arguing about what's really going on in The Odyssey or The Illiad, or Hamlet, you better be a good listener or you're not a good member of the intellectual community.

So, those are really powerful skills. And, our students at Shalem College here in Jerusalem are in great demand. They may not know that when they enter. They may be thinking, 'Oh, I'm doing this for a lark. I'm doing this because it's going to be fun and I want to learn.' And, they romanticize it. But it's quite valuable in the workplace.

So, I think it's good for a lot of things. It does not work the same way as accountant or dentist or computer engineer or a mechanical engineer.

Alex Aragona: The forehead-stamp, credential kind of thing.

Russ Roberts: Right. Where, it's a barcode and they scan it and they go, 'Oh, he knows how to do this. She knows how to do that. We'll hire them. We need somebody who knows how to do that, or this.' There are jobs like that. They pay well and nothing wrong with that.

But, I think there's an assumption that if you study, say, philosophy, or literature, or humanities, you're not good for anything. It's not like you're going to make less. You haven't acquired any skills. You have, if you go to the right college and you study the right stuff.

I think the reason a lot people gave that advice to you--the reason it was in the air; this is the other side of the equation we haven't talked about--is that, in the 1990s and in the 2000s a lot of places gave up the field. The humanities became really weird and highly political and not interested in the human heart in conflict with itself, but rather various ideological missions, activism, and so on.

And so, that's not good for much. In that sense, you got good advice. But I believe deeply that there are great, valuable parts of a real education. First, they do help you get a job, they do help you have a good career. And, most importantly, they teach you what it's like to be a full human being. That's worth a lot. And I would not treat it lightly.


Alex Aragona: Excellent. I think that's a great place to move to our formal wrap up. Russ, as you know, in each episode, I want to make sure the guest ultimately has the last word to tie things up, bring it full-circle, put a finer point on our exploration of the question. So, let me officially ask you our official last question to every guest, which is: What do you ultimately hope are the main takeaways for someone listening to you here on how we should think on education, and what's wrong with the current approach to education? In other words, if you wanted someone to leave this chat with one or two, or just a few takeaways, if anything, from the whole chat, what would those takeaways be?

Russ Roberts: I think the--we've had a very quixotic conversation. 'Quixotic' is a reference to Don Quixote, and that's just a simple factual thing you can actually look up. It's not real education, but it's a useful kind of fact to know, to know what a word means. Those are kind of the basics that we were talking about earlier. But, we're talking about a more radical reformation of education that most people are willing to consider. To think about the trends in the world, educational reform--they're depressing. I mean, the things that are on the table in most places are not the things that we're talking about here.

A lot of what I'm talking about, again I think there are a handful of places where this approach is paramount, is front and center. A handful of high schools, a handful of universities, a handful of colleges. So, I don't want to paint too negative of a picture. It's easy to pick on the bad, depressing state of things and get overly pessimistic. But, I think a lot of what I've said, I hope is useful to people for their own lives, not for where they go to college or what they study when they go there. That might be relevant, not for educational reform, although, it'd be great if it had an impact and we allowed more experimentation, encouraged more diverse approaches to how we teach.

A lot of colleges tragically to me--and high schools--are just cookie cutters of this more--memorize a bunch of stuff, write it down, forget it a week later; and move on, and take your credential, and move out into the world. If you're going to take anything away from this, listeners, it's that: there's great education out there. Certainly, pick your courses wisely, your faculty members that you learn with wisely, places you attend wisely. But, more than that, spend some time in your life after college thinking and reading and struggling with great books. There's so many things to read. There's so much distraction that we fall prey to on our phones. There are great minds to spend time with. If you don't know how to read, learn how to read. There are ways to acquire this knowledge and this experience outside of your formal classroom, outside of your formal college career. Find friends who are interested in ideas, find friends who want to read books with you. Join a book club, have a serious conversation about these ideas. And grow.

If I had to pick one lesson here, which you haven't explicitly said, is: Great education is about growth. It's about adding to what you understand. Not what you know, simply in terms of facts and knowledge. What you understand. And, to do that, you have to read, and you have to read widely and thoughtfully. Get started.

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