Bloody shovel

Don't call it a spade

Why do people go to class

Not to learn, certainly.

David Friedman says:

I have long been puzzled by why lecturers were not replaced by books shortly after the invention of printing made books cheap. Video is just the latest incarnation of that puzzle.

Well if you’ve been puzzled for long, why don’t you think about it? Come on, Mr. Friedman. You’re a smart guy. If you don’t understand something, just think a bit harder. Or better still: think outside the box.

Some guys out there put theories about humans being wired to pay attention to lecturers, more than to books or videos. I don’t know. Certainly didn’t work like that for me. A boring lecture is a boring lecture whether on video or in person. I’m not the most patient guy so your mileage may vary but I surely didn’t pay much attention myself to my professors unless they were particularly good.

The answer to the question is obvious. I mean, come on. People don’t go to college to learn. They go because it’s the official way of attaining high status. That’s what education is for. The guy who just wants to learn already reads the book and doesn’t bother with the lecture. The fact that we still have lectures and pay lecturers, as some guy said over there, “pay thousands of professors to give exactly the same Calculus lecture”, is not to satisfy the market of kids who want to learn. That’s not the market that high education caters for.

Robin Hanson made what I consider the best claim: education is about making friends with high prestige people. “Impressive people”, as he put it. He would know, as he’s quite impressive himself, and he appears to understand that a lot of people try to be friends with him even though they aren’t at all interested in what he has to say. So for any average kid, a math professor is a high prestige guy. He’s smart. He’s impressive. Being in the same room with the guy means you have something of the social standing of that guy. You may not be impressive yourself, but you’re good enough to be in the same room as an impressive guy.

You’ll notice that’s the same logic for why people follow celebrities all over the world. What’s the freaking point in going batshit crazy over some singer, paying thousands and thousands of dollars? Why do people ask for autographs? Why do teenage girls go insane when some famous guy looked at them? Why the hell does every TV celebrity have millions of followers on Twitter? Because interaction is status. I have some connection with a high-status guy. Means I’m high status too. Sorta. It used to work like that in 100,000 BC. Not so much today in social media. But evolution is what it is. Gnon is lazy.


45 responses to “Why do people go to class

  1. Inquiring Mind February 15, 2017 at 03:34

    Boring Calculus lecture?

    Were the University merely serving up boring lectures in Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, and Microbiology, would we be so worried about what the University is doing to our young people?

    • spandrell February 15, 2017 at 06:55

      Sure, but not the same topic. The very fact that things like Math and Physics are taught in the same place as Genderqueer theory should tell you something about what college is all about.

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  3. jamesd127 February 15, 2017 at 03:50

    Since everyone is now on the internet, even extremely poor third worlders, our entire education system is obsolete. We need to school kids to reading, writing, and rithmetic, but everything after that should be replaced by exams and apprenticeships. Just test all kids at the start of puberty, give them a grade, and then formal schooling just ends.

    Problem is that priesthood gets an extended education, largely for reasons of indoctrination rather than anything very useful, so if priests are high status, everyone gets an extended education.

    • Alrenous February 15, 2017 at 06:57

      Mastery of true intellectual disciplines really does take a long time. Took me 14 years to master philosophy and that’s the only thing I’m not lazy about. The indoctrination is a parody of a real thing.

      • iFruit February 17, 2017 at 01:18

        This, I agree.
        Maybe many comments on university as an institution stem from what university has become: its own parody.

        Being in touch with people smarter than you can be thrilling from a social status angle, but it can be thrilling for someone who wants to learn and understand as much as they can too.

        For a period of time I was in close contact with a 150IQ guy when a student, and constantly harassed him :D. Was it the “celebrity attraction phenomenon”? No. It’s that chatting even on a topic I had learned on my own pretty well would, every single time, open new views to me.
        They’ll add a dimension to the picture you had on your mind, every time. The guy made me addicted.

  4. Dave February 15, 2017 at 05:43

    I can think of two reasons to have professional instruction: (a) because when something doesn’t work, you can just *ask* instead of spending hours trying to figure it out yourself, and (b) a teacher checking your work might notice gaps in your knowledge that you were completely unaware of.

    Really smart people can learn a lot on their own, but they learn even more when they work in close physical proximity to other really smart people. This “law of increasing returns” is why colleges were established in the first place.

    This breaks down if you try to impose a particular racial or sexual balance on the student body — then the dumbest white or Asian male is vastly smarter than everyone who is not a white or Asian male. Do keep a pool of high-IQ white and Asian women nearby for breeding purposes, however, because single guys get tired of every social event being a sausage-fest!

    • spandrell February 15, 2017 at 05:47

      There’s plenty of ways to get a way to ask or get your work reviewed by an expert. That’s what tutors are for. Having identical lectures done by the thousands is about the most stupid way of achieving the same thing. Which it really doesn’t as most professors don’t really answer questions nor give a shit about their students.

      • FenderJazz February 16, 2017 at 21:24

        Especially since many lecture classes have 100 – 200 students. How could professors possibly answer any questions, even if they did care about their students?

        in addition to the absurdity of a classroom lecture of 100+ students, many of these courses are online lectures. So, students pay for expensive housing just to sit in a dorm room listening to an online lecture.

  5. Alrenous February 15, 2017 at 07:14

    Regarding human nature, Friedman’s head is so far in the clouds it’s a private space program.

    He likes it there. Don’t ruin it for him.

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  7. Frank February 15, 2017 at 08:28

    Perspicacious as always. But I think you discount the fact that the vast majority of engineering students (110-130 IQ range) lack self-motivation to master a domain on their own. If these people weren’t ‘herded’ to go to an engineering school, study for the quizzes and the exams, imitate their peers, they would never even begin to learn the foundational stuff. Insofar as higher education is actually useful at teaching something, it does it by creating a micro-culture of newbie pupils that are highly –and artificially– incentivized to talk about, read about, and show off about, a specific domain of knowledge, in a specific time frame.

    On the other hand, one could ask if 110-130 IQ people really need to learn about the foundations of the engineering tools they use. Maybe object level knowledge, via apprenticeships, is all they’ll realistically make use of, and all they’re capable of, after all.

    • spandrell February 15, 2017 at 08:34

      That’s the best counterargument. Schools do provide structure and structure is certainly valuable.

      But the optimal way to provide structure is a military boot camp, not a lecture setting, as your last paragraph.

      • ricksean February 15, 2017 at 11:39

        My university certainly looked more like a bootcamp. I remember spending most of my time on assignments and exercices, which were reviewed individually by the professor’s assistants. The professor would give us books, tell us to read them by ourselves outside class hours, and classes were question / answer sessions with the professor. Professor would ask the top students of the class if the assignments were hard enough, and adjust for next year. It was assumed you had 60H work week.

        But I’m not sure that was what’s best for students. Getting to know the right people, and having a diploma perceived as valuable is as important as knowing your stuff. All in all, I guess american universities (as far as engineering is concerned) have found the right balance.

        And for the useless sociology and psychology studies, I’ve always assumed that parents were sending their daughters there so they could find a doctor, lawyer or a engineer to marry.

      • Night Boat to Cairo February 15, 2017 at 16:23

        What would be the ideal mechanism to provide structure for learning? Boot camp might be it, but if you look around the better workers around you how many would thrive in a boot camp style of system?

        I hated the amount of sheer useless things you learned. You came in smart, you learnt most of the valuable stuff on the job, so what was the point of all those years in education? You want a flexible system where you study what you need at the pace you want to learn it.

        Also I thought a big part of the value of a degree in the US was because IQ testing is outlawed.

    • jamesd127 February 15, 2017 at 08:48

      > t I think you discount the fact that the vast majority of engineering students (110-130 IQ range) lack self-motivation to master a domain on their own.

      Not what I observe. If you are going to remain employed as an engineer, you will continually master domains on your own.

      Conversely, there seem to be a lot of computer science graduates who are no more able to write a simple program than they were when they started.

      • Frank February 15, 2017 at 21:10

        Come to think about it, it’s not obvious how trait:self-motivation is distributed among ≥IQ 120 people. My bad.

        Still, I’ve seen people that would otherwise never try to learn to code on their own, be taught programming by following structure. In fact this kind of people were majority in my anecdotal college experience. It’s not like they can’t master domains on their own, but they’re not self-driven. They don’t explore things unless they’re graded/evaluated on it. Maybe in the absence of engineering schools, businesses would have to try and find non-self-driven intelligent people and provide the motivational and incentive structure themselves.

      • Steel T Post February 17, 2017 at 20:01

        One of the big banks in NYC refuses to hire college grads for their IT department. I wish I had saved the article from a few years ago; I think it was in Forbes.

    • M. Levine February 20, 2017 at 02:23

      Object level knowledge and apprenticeship was exactly how perspective Engineers were trained until very recently. There were 1-2 year programs that would metriculate through employers who largely selected from pools of higher intellect technicians. I went through in the 70s as one of the first bachelor level engineering students and my first employer scoffed at the idea we learned anything of import from the extra 2-3 years of training.

      Granted there are research level positions today in the very bleeding edge of science and technology where I wouldn’t doubt many years of formal and structured coursework would be a boon; however, these are tens or hundreds of jobs in a general field where millions are employed. So to be completely honest, from my relatively long experience in the field, I wouldn’t actually agree that perspective engineers need all the herding they get these days. Entirely too much time being devoted to things that abstract mathematicians and scientific researchers will do isn’t helping our new engineers perform their duties and, arguably, it’s tracking far too many of them into low-demand niche markets (queue a torrent of adverts on google for XYZ Engineering – the FASTEST GROWING FIELD EVER) rather than where employer demand exists.

  8. mitchellporter February 15, 2017 at 08:47

    “People don’t go to college to learn. They go because it’s the official way of attaining high status.”

    Again, this seems to be an upper-class perspective. For most people these days, getting a degree is about getting a decent job.

    • spandrell February 15, 2017 at 09:03

      “Decent job” is just a high status job. “status” doesn’t mean psychological benefits as understood by decadent aristocrats , it does come with real perks.

      • mitchellporter February 15, 2017 at 12:13

        But if the perks are almost entirely economic, calling it “status” only obscures the reality. Apparently about a third of the Australian workforce have university degrees. Since most degrees are actually functional, in the sense that they certify your competence to perform a particular economic function, that suggests that the people who grant degrees are economic gatekeepers, for about a third of all jobs. If we include the other forms of certification that are handed out by technical colleges, that fraction would be even higher.

        Education is an industry now. There are people making billions off it. Degrees are marketed to people as the difference between being on the bottom and being on the top of the economic heap. And being the middleman between a student and the qualification they seek, is how hundreds of thousands of people are earning a living. So while I certainly don’t deny that there are non-economic factors at work throughout tertiary education, I have to think that economic factors – like the human need for money, or the division of labor required to make an information society work – are the primary determinants here.

        • spandrell February 15, 2017 at 12:26

          That’s a different topic. The question is why college works the way it does, if the point is to teach functional knowledge. There are much more effective ways of doing so. Like, say, learning on an actual job.

    • grey enlightenment February 15, 2017 at 10:01

      it’s about signaling by having the degree

      • Karl February 15, 2017 at 13:00

        No, it’s not about the degree. You can get a degree by from a distance university. Just read the books, send in your homework and pass the exams. You can get a Ph.D, J.D. or whatever without ever attending a class.

        The question really is why do universities offer classes? Part of the answer is probably tradition.

        Anyway, in my experience students very often do not attend classes. Some of those read the books instead. The others probaly shouldn’t be enrolled.

  9. CJ February 15, 2017 at 08:56

    Lectures in the university remain because they are flexible and cheap means of delivering course content. I think lectures do have their place for those who want to learn, particularly in more theoretical subjects. I think they work best as supplements to reading materials and (if it applies to the subject) practical exercises, as starting points for further learning. Lectures, while having much lower information density than written materials, can be more engaging when done correctly, and I say this as an avowed bibliophile.

    Having said that, I agree with the main thrust of your argument, although I say it more broadly: people go to university for mostly economic and social reasons, not intellectual; finding their social betters to suck up to is just one reason out of many. This probably accounts for the high female:male ratios seen on modern Western campuses (hell, even in Iran that’s true). I doubt the young 18 year old Psychology major is there because of a love of psychology or learning in general. She is there because (a) that’s what society says you should do, (b) all her friends are doing it, so why shouldn’t she? and (c) try and find some alphas to mate with, until she can find the one to permanently provide for her. I distinctly remember one girl, upon seeing this thick book that I was reading, admit that she didn’t like to read. Another, complaining about her economics and sociology classes, wondered why shouldn’t just find a rich guy to marry. I think guys of the same intelligence of those girls are more willing to not give a fuck about what society wants from them (although they care about what their bros think and are especially concerned with mating).

    Is this a good or bad thing? Well, the media will fret from time to time about this trend as a part of the “End of men” and whatnot. Economically, it may all come out a wash. True, many of old blue collar jobs are being abandoned or automated, but then we’re coming to a point where so will many white collar jobs … and at least those plebs didn’t wasted their twenties pretending to care about gestalt theory, utility functions or Performance Studies (look at the Humanities PhD part – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more useless class).

  10. Melampus the Seer February 15, 2017 at 16:09

    In the Medieval period, no one had books. Everything was gotten by lecture and writing your own commonplace book. Later, when everyone had access to books, the lecture was supposed to be an example of a coherent piece of scholarship on the material in the readings. The lecture was designed for imitation, an intellectual model. The lecture was analogous to the the clinical part of a doctors education rather than the academic part.

    Then students stopped reading. No, really. Students don’t read the material. Part of the reason is that the materials are so very bad. For example, college books for algebra and calculus are dreadful. Another part of the reason is the the intellectual level of students is much lower, and they have no interest in reading the material. If a rigorous geometry course (one that’s all proofs) was required, how many students at a typical university could pass it? Very few.

    It’s true that students don’t go to university to learn. That’s a good insight. They don’t want to learn the material because well, they really can’t. That’s a more disturbing insight.

  11. Jefferson February 15, 2017 at 21:32

    Most people aren’t sociopathic status maximizers, but status lemmings. Why do people attend boring lectures? Because sociopathic status maximizers saw high status people getting a boost from college, and wanted to signal just how committed they were, and now everyone else gets to suffer instead of being able to call it a horse. India’s caste system looks better and better by the day…

    (sorry if this double posts; I consider being able to use a smart phone proficiently to be extremely low status)

    • spandrell February 17, 2017 at 00:48

      The Chinese are nationalistic, and they rightly feel that things like the Tibetan independence movement are CIA fronts to fuck with their great nation.

      Asian students aren’t exactly high-status in the West; national pride is one of the few things they can get status-kicks from. If China weren’t the huge power that it is, they’d be even lower status, so they’ll defend it with whatever it takes.

  12. Steel T Post February 16, 2017 at 16:53

    Why people go to class is the same reason why people drive cars, even though automobiles are actually slower than walking.

    “Extremes of privilege are created at the cost of universal enslavement.”
    -Ivan Illich

  13. iFruit February 17, 2017 at 01:09

    “The answer to the question is obvious. I mean, come on. People don’t go to college to learn. They go because it’s the official way of attaining high status. That’s what education is for. The guy who just wants to learn already reads the book and doesn’t bother with the lecture. The fact that we still have lectures and pay lecturers, as some guy said over there, “pay thousands of professors to give exactly the same Calculus lecture”, is not to satisfy the market of kids who want to learn. That’s not the market that high education caters for.”

    Maybe as a person of comparatively low IQ I can provide some insight you are still missing.
    It’s essential to consider the IQ of the learner, the IQ of the lecturer (specially if being in class you can actually interact with them) and the IQ the book content and the course are intended for.

    If you can interact, during the class or when it’s over, with the lecturer, and IQ (lecturer) – IQ (learner) is >10, then that’s a huge help.
    Conversely, if IQ (learner) – IQ (course and book) is >10 then you have little, if any, reason to attend classes.

    We know Plato stated the superiority of direct teaching vis-a-vis teaching by book: he even refused to write down his exoteric doctrines. Listening to a voice and having a human tell you what you can read in a book helps. If you don’t appreciate this, it’s probably because you needed no heat at all.

    YouTube class vs “real” class: only difference is in the interaction, with the lecturer and fellow students. Even the companionship of a few friendly guys who shared the same burden with me helped me study. Being able to ask a question to a lecturer can make you entangle an issue in 10 minutes, when doing it alone would have taken 2 days.

    Every discussion about school issues should take IQ into account, because things change completely for people in different IQ ranges.

    • iFruit February 17, 2017 at 01:10

      “needed no heat at all” was “needed no help at all”. Typos come two at a time…

    • Rhetocrates February 17, 2017 at 06:35

      You missed the point because spandrell was being a bit flamboyant. The question isn’t, “Why don’t people just read books,” but rather, “Why do people go to college?”

      Lectures are not the only way to get face-to-face dialectical teaching. In fact, they’re piss-poor at that.

    • Steel T Post February 17, 2017 at 09:24

      You do make a good point lumping Plato and educrats together; they’re all bullshit artists advancing nothing but “sophisms, futilities, and incomprehensibilities.” Another sage observed it too:

      “Education is chiefly in the hands of persons who, from their profession, have an interest in the reputation and the dreams of Plato. They give the tone while at school, and few, in their after-years, have occasion to revise their college opinions. But fashion and authority apart, and bringing Plato to the test of reason, take from him his sophisms, futilities, and incomprehensibilities, and what remains? In truth, he is one of the race of genuine Sophists…”
      -Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams Monticello, July 5, 1814

  14. Rhetocrates February 17, 2017 at 06:34


    Of course I’m not in a PhD program just because I want to learn the material. Just learning the material is something I could do on my own. Sure, a rigorous program is helpful because it keeps me from being lazy, but I could just hire a tutor.

    I’m in a PhD program because a) it gives me that piece of paper by which to convince gateholders to money (viz. employers, granters, etc.) that I learned the material (and put up with the shit test), and because being in the PhD program allows me to make potential professional connections with the professors and other students.

    Is this somehow not obvious to people who don’t go to grad school? Because, let me tell you, it’s dead obvious to people who do. It’s why they do it, and they know it’s why they do it, and lack of that awareness is treated as a social and professional malfunction.

    Or are you talking about lower-level (e.g. undergrad) courses of study? But undergrads are children, and therefore not expected to understand the professional world. This is why their parents involve themselves in helping said undergrads choose a school.

  15. Clark Cooper February 17, 2017 at 17:30

    You’re right. The main reason people attend universities and go to classes is to attain higher status.

    But one advantage of a lecturer over books & videos is the possibility of asking him a question.

    • Steel T Post February 17, 2017 at 19:58

      Although not too tough of questions, which can be dangerous. :)

      “Since he has asked no questions there is now no way to cut him down.” -Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

  16. Epaminondas February 18, 2017 at 00:17

    In this day and age there is no excuse for NOT being educated. The internet has put everything you need at your disposal. Every other method of acquiring information is a waste of time and money. If you want prestige, that is another thing entirely from information.

  17. asdf February 20, 2017 at 23:37

    Starts at 3 min.

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