An interesting article from last week’s WSJ (“Taking Knowledge out of College,” by Jonah Lehrer) deals with the issue of college education. Surely this topic cannot be viewed in isolation from the other educational phases of a student’s time spent in school, but what is interesting is an unstated assumption which pervades the topic in most conversations of this type: that people go to college to get a job! It is in no way a foregone conclusion that colleges and universities have transformed themselves into white-collar trade schools that prepare, at no cost to their beneficiaries (employers), “smart, hardworking and conformist…workers.” This is also the case for the readers of the article–only 4 or 5 comments hinted at questioning the prevailing assumption, at the time when the total comment count was around 45.
(BTW: perhaps that last characteristic listed may give some hints about why education and, perhaps, other aspects of society are in the shape the article finds it. In one path-breaking step, AT&T tried to follow an alternative path for a brief period in the 1950’s and
[u]nderlying their change in training philosophy was a deeper Cold War concern. Evidence from industrial psychologists suggested that the AT&T educational experience [in which young middle managers were sent to study humanities at the University of Pennsylvania] made workers more knowledgeable about and tolerant of alternative social and economic systems, including socialism. Workers also showed less commitment to “getting ahead” in business. As a result, executives saw costly humanistic training as a threat to the free enterprise system and quickly terminated the program. [emph. added]
The author seems to apply to current bits of news the syllabus of an MBA class in decision-making that puts emphasis on the views of Kahneman and Tversky, a.k.a., the “heuristics and biases” or the behavioral model. His articles have addressed other related topics including creativity and unreliability of memory (vivid memories/recency bias). The idea that college attendance is a signal about the attendees rather than a place to be educated is also part of that portfolio. Moreover, there is also evidence that even after college (or, perhaps, because of it), the interviews students undergo when pursuing a job are surprisingly poor predictors of success with the particular employer (see, e.g., the research of Howard and Dawes on improper linear models and, of all things, marital bliss, Bloom and Brundage (in 1947!), Hunter & Hunter, etc.). These observations also usually come with recommended cognitive repairs (Heath, Larrick, Klayman), e.g., nudging people (Thaler & Sunstein) into acting in their own benefit to quit smoking, take the long view of events, get a free software update or save for…college. Without falling into arithmomorphism, this article is no exception.
“Thinking about thinking” is the repair, cognitive and also pedagogical, according to the author. The sophomoric (pun intended!) aspect of making this recommendation is that it subjects itself to the irony of the idea not two paragraphs down: that “follow-through” is a beneficial trait for success–not much is teased out from the “thinking about thinking” approach. Ideally, students should indeed go to school to learn how to think, in the first place. Thinking requires objects or at least topics therefor, facts (thus the underlying empiricism of even arch-rationalists like Descartes: even in his “cogito” there is something that has to be experienced). And how “thinking about thinking” informs self-control, conscientiousness and other “preschool skills” is not at all obvious.
In any case, with “thinking about thinking” one may overreach and overstate his case although that does improve on Descartes’ difficulty. Would students then go to college to learn how to a priori synthetic judgements are formed? That would be a tremendous measure to control the “exorbitant tuition” costs: only one textbook would be required (alongside the iPhone and preferably on the iPhone): The Critique of Pure Reason. Herr Immanuel would be thrilled. The downside is that college would last “forever.” First the students would learn to make the judgments; then they spend the remainder of forever contemplating all the possible meanings of the question “can we consider a priori synthetic judgments knowledge?” until it becomes clear…inescapably.
Ribbing aside, it is true that the higher education paradigm is different in other parts of the world where college is not advertised or understood to be for everyone, for better or worse. But if thinking about thinking is to be more that a catchy phrase, then it could be taken to mean thinking about oneself and others, not about “thinking.” Controlling thoughts (how these are formed and transformed into “passions” is a totally other 480-page tome and the Exomologetarion of St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite would be a good starting point) would be a very valuable skill for business and society at large. No wonder some of the “preschool skills” include self-control and conscientiousness; now if only college could add love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness and gentleness…
 Robyn Dawes, “The robust beauty of improper linear models in decision making”, American Psychologist, Vol 34(7), Jul 1979, 571-582.
 Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, Harvard University Press, 1971 (reprinted by iUniverse, 1999). Georgescu-Roegen’s view of the psychology of the customer certainly pre-date Kahneman and Tversy; see, for instance, “The Pure Theory of Consumer’s Behavior,” Quarterly J. of Economics, August, 1936, Part VI ff.
- Jonah Lehrer, “Taking Knowledge out of College,” The Wall Street Journal, 28 April 2012, p. C2
- Mark D. Bowles, THE ORGANIZATION MAN GOES TO COLLEGE: AT&T’s EXPERIMENT IN HUMANISTIC EDUCATION, 1953-1960, The Historian, vol. 61, 1998
- Kahneman and Tversky, “Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases”, Science, New Series, vol. 185, No. 4157. (Sep. 27, 1974), pp. 1124-1131.
- Jonah Lehrer, “How to Be Creative?”, The Wall Street Journal, 10 March 2012, p. C1
- Jonah Lehrer, “When Memory Commits and Injustice”, The Wall Street Journal, 13 April 2012, p. C18
- St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite, Exomologetarion, Uncut Mountain Supply Press, 2006