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Social value of academia

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This page discusses the social value of academia | View other pages on the social value of particular activities

This page elaborates on the social value consideration for academia as a career option. Academics do research and teaching, each of which can contribute social value, and we discuss these separately.

Research

Your measure of the social value of academia depends to some extent on how you define social value, but the general conclusion is that academia passes the social value test only in one of these two cases:

  • You are really good at it, so that you can change the paradigm of thinking.
  • The discipline you are picking has high social value, so that every minor contribution there counts for a lot.

See also:

Also, this page deals with social value in the sense of impact on the real, existing, social world. Some people view academic work (research and teaching) as a merit good -- expanding the frontier of knowledge is valuable in and of itself, independent of the practical benefits.

The following need to be kept in mind:

  • A number of disciplines, including many branches of mathematics, have advanced far, far ahead of anything that might be of practical relevance, and further progress in these is unlikely to be of use. However, a counterpoint is that a number of mathematical techniques that were considered to not have much application have been quite important: differential geometry was useful in relativity, matrices and linear algebra were important in physics, statistics, and eventually all the natural and social sciences, and number theory is critically important to much of modern cryptography. There is considerable debate on whether current work in mathematics will be similarly useful later, but the evidence currently does not seem to be strongly in favor.
  • Even for disciplines that are in principle of practical relevance, the theoretical questions considered in academia are often orthogonal to the manner in which those disciplines would be relevant. For instance, many questions asked in philosophy are relevant to practical ethics, but the mode of discourse of philosophy is unlikely to settle these questions. However, this may be more a question of it taking time for the insights to percolate into the real world. Many deep theoretical insights from statistics and economics have percolated into the general intelligentsia from as recently as 30 years ago.
  • There are huge differences between academic disciplines in terms of both the expected impact and the variance in impact. For instance, for disciplines such as biomedical research, it can be argued that every bit of research helps at the margin, by investigating and eliminating particular research pathways. In a discipline such as theoretical physics, coming across a fundamental insight comparable to quantum mechanics would revolutionize the subject, but most work is likely to have zero impact.

The following blog posts from the 80000 Hours blog are relevant (we intend to eventually incorporate and discuss these article when we expand this page):

Teaching

It's difficult to evaluate the social value of teaching within academia, but we would guess that the social value that professors contribute through their teaching is generally lower than the value of what they would be doing in another profession. Some relevant considerations are below

The degree to which most college classes increase human capital appears to be small

Economist Bryan Caplan makes the following points in The Magic of Education:

  • While literacy and numeracy are important for most jobs, subjects such as history, art, music, foreign languages, poetry, and mathematical proofs are not used in the vast majority of occupations.
  • There's a strong base of evidence that coursework doesn't teach most students "how to think."
  • The degree to which college classes improve students' work habits is smaller than the degree to which job experience improves people's work habits.

College classes do teach important employable skills in some cases, for example:

  • Writing is an important skill for many jobs, and some college courses may improve writing ability.
  • Students who are pursuing technical professions such as science and engineering may learn relevant background knowledge from their science courses.
  • For students who are pursuing academia, undergraduate courses may be good preparation for graduate school.

But the degree to which college courses improve writing ability is unclear, and most people don't become scientists, engineers or academics.

The consumptive value of college courses is questionable

Many students attend college because employers require it rather than because they enjoy learning the material in the courses. So the amount that they're willing to pay for the courses doesn't reflect the degree to which they enjoy the courses. Of course, it's arguable that when one takes into account all of the benefits of college courses, the cost is worth it: the point here is just that for the average student, the consumptive value alone doesn't seem high enough to justify the cost.

The impact that most individual instructors can have on the quality of courses is questionable

  • Some college courses have rigid syllabi, such that there aren't opportunities to improve students' educational experiences.
  • If you're not a substantially better teacher than the person who would otherwise take your job, you won't improve students' educational experience. Few professors have the ability and energy to be much better than their potential replacements. Unless you have reason to believe that you'd be one of them, you shouldn't expect to be able to improve students' educational experiences by a lot.

The impact of improving the quality of a course on students' experiences is questionable

Many undergraduate students don't enjoy learning from their classes, independently of the quality of the instructor. Unless you're one of the few professors who's able to get a job at an elite university, you may find that your students are unresponsive to good teaching.

There's an important counterpoint, which is that many students will enjoy being in an entertaining teacher's class even if they don't enjoy learning the material. So if you enjoy and are good at being an entertaining lecturer, you may be able to improve students' experiences (though not necessarily their learning).

The value of improving grades as a signal may not be high

In The Magic of Education, economist Bryan Caplan argues that the primary value of a student's educational record to employers is as a signal of qualities that employers find desirable, such as intelligence, work ethic and conformity.

Undergraduate grades feed into medical school admissions, law school admissions, business school admissions, and graduate school admissions, and employers sometimes look at undergraduate grades directly.

If you're an instructor, you may be able to add social value by designing your grading system and exams in a way that better measures intelligence, work ethic and conformity.

This may be the primary value that most college instructors can add. We're agnostic as to the magnitude of this value, but would guess that it's not high enough so that the social value that professors contribute through their teaching is higher than the social value that they would be contributing in a different profession.