The proper goal of education is utility, not learning
By Scott Sumner
Alex Tabarrok has a couple of recent posts that discuss the student evaluation of college teaching. One post ended as follows:
Indeed, the correlation between student evaluations and student learning is at best close to zero and at worst negative. Student evaluations measure how well liked the teacher is. Students like to be entertained. Thus, to the extent that they rely on student evaluations, universities are incentivizing teachers to teach in ways that the students like rather than in ways that promote learning.
It’s remarkable that student evaluations haven’t already been lawsuited into oblivion given that student evaluations are both useless and biased.
The final sentence is a good example of what’s wrong with our legal system. To an increasing extent, the courts are outlawing voluntary behavior between consenting adults. Perhaps student evaluation forms are next. I have no opinion either way on the effectiveness of these forms (even after using them for 35 years in my classes.) But I see no logical reason to outlaw consumer feedback in the education industry, while allowing consumer feedback in other industries.
While many of my former colleagues would agree with Tabarrok’s argument, I worry that too many educators miss the bigger picture. We’d like to believe that education is about learning, but in fact it’s ultimately about utility. Learning is just a means to an end, and not the most important role of our educational system.
Bryan Caplan has persuasively shown that much of what we teach our students has little practical value. Students are forced to learn an enormous amount of irrelevant trivia, and quickly forget what they cram into their minds before exams.
College can boost utility in two ways. First, students can learn things that make them more productive. That increased productivity can then lead to higher incomes, which boosts utility. Second, colleges can directly provide utility through entertaining classes, sports, parties, etc. In my view, this second type of utility augmentation is much more effective. I wish it were not so, but that’s my impression after 35 years of teaching.
If we start putting more weight on learning and less weight on student evaluations, then there’s a danger that our educational system will begin to resemble some of the more dysfunctional regimes in East Asia, where students lose the best years of their lives endlessly cramming for exams with information that will be of little value to them in their later life, in a zero sum game of trying to be more successful than their classmates.