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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Bryan Caplan Needs to Get Out More #change11

Bryan Caplan, who often presents himself as the paragon of reason and reasonableness, has written an incredibly illogical article about education called "The Magic of Education." Here, Caplan uses "magic" as a shorthand for "things he doesn't understand." This is a common trick for self-proclaimed reason-meisters to dismiss anything that involves more complexity than a land-line poll as "woo woo." Caplan mocks his own profession (he's an Economics professor, but I bet you guessed that based on his glasses) by describing how he thinks unenlightened teachers view the education process:

Step 1: I open my mouth and talk about academic topics like externalities of population, or the effect of education on policy preferences.

Step 2: The students learn the material.

Step 3: Magic.

Step 4: My students become slightly better bankers, salesmen, managers, etc.

This is, of course, a huge straw man argument. Obviously no one (except the insane) over the age of 8 believes in magic. By using this term, Caplan creates a slam dunk argument for himself. To disagree with him is to believe in fairies, the power of crystals, and auras. This is lazy.

He complains that academics don't live in the real world (more on this later), but that isn't Caplan's problem at all. He needs to get out of his department more and run his articles past the Philosophy Department in order to correct his soft thinking. (This is not to mention that most economic theories have more in common with magic than does traditional pedagogical thinking.)

Here is Caplan's biggest philosophical error, and it's based on such a terribly trite bit of rhetoric, we might suggest he head over to the English Department after visiting the logicians. It's that tired line that some kind of "real world" exists, its outward circumference becoming visible just as College Street begins its ascent up the hill toward the glistening ivory tower where absent-minded, bearded, sandal-wearing gnomes frollick in the clouds and pass around 300-page dissertations on the anti-agrarian symbolism of Joyce's use of the semi-colon in Ulysses. (Okay, some of that is true.)

Here, Caplan is free to leave fantasy land and explore the real world of any office setting. (NBC's The Office, to many people I know, is not a farce, but a striking bit of realism. Many doctors have also told me that Scrubs is the most realistic depiction of hospitals television has ever seen.) This is not to mention the proliferation of magical thinking found in Anywhere, USA. Does Caplan honestly think that harder-working, more reasonable people will be found if we simply hop over the brick walls of the academy and mingle among the "commoners," you know, the residents of the real world?

What a silly, stupid distinction. It crumbles upon the slightest questioning. Is an over-worked adjunct with two kids and a freelance job in the real world or the fake world? Is a lazy, frequently unemployed construction worker who believes in Voodoo in the real world or the fake world? What if he jogs a few blocks to the local college? What if he takes one class on campus? What if he straddles the property line of the campus while holding Chaucer in one hand and the National Enquirer in the other?

If there is no magic occurring in Bryan Caplan's classroom, it's probably his fault.

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