Because We’ve Always Done It

From the latest edition of the Freakonomics Radio podcast, titled Think Like a Child, this exchange between the host Stephen Dubner and Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. They’re discussing the differences between the way young children and adults learn about the world.

DUBNER: Implicit in that is while we have this strong set of priors, right, prior beliefs that we act on. And also implicit in what you’re saying is we have a lot of heuristics, we have a lot of shortcuts that we’ve learned work well enough, and so we do them always, right?

GOPNIK: Exactly. Let me give you an example in the universities for example. It’s a good example, my world.  We give lectures. And the origins of that are the days when there weren’t printed books, so you had one manuscript and the professor was reading from the manuscript because the students didn’t have books. It is literally a medieval instructional technique. But we’ve been doing it for hundreds and hundreds of years. It’s kind of what you do when you’re a faculty member. And the fact that we have no evidence at all—in fact, we have some evidence to the contrary—that this is a good way to get anybody to learn anything, doesn’t keep us from doing it. Mostly we’re doing it because we’ve always done it.

I’ve stashed that phrase “medieval instructional technique” away in my notes for later use.

Gopnik continues.

I think what they say is, ‘Well, we’ve kind of always done it, and it seems to work OK, and we’re good at doing it.’ And I think, here’s the most relevant thing: It would take so much work to try and think through all the alternatives, and try them out and see which ones work and which ones don’t. That would just be such an effort that, even if maybe in the long run it would be a bit of an advantage, in terms of my short-run utilities, and in particular, just for me, it’s not going to make a difference.

Think about it. That whole paragraph could describe the American education system, even after the reform efforts of most politicians and billionaires are applied.

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