Tag Archives: Education

German University Life c. 1900

An American professor’s perspective as reported on Irwin Collier’s Economics in the Rear-View Mirror:

On an October morning, some years since, a recent Vermont graduate and I entered together the Aula of the Friedrich-Wilhelms-University at Berlin. Lectures were still two weeks away; but Germany is a country of leisurely beginnings and this was the morning of matriculation. The great hall was thronged with an interesting company. At a long table sat the Rector Magnificus, Harnack, the mighty theologian, and the professors of the various faculties. Moving about the room were students of three types: foreigners like ourselves; wanderers from other universities of the Fatherland; and boys from the “Gymnasium,” who had passed the “Abiturient” examination and become “mules” or freshmen. These last we regard with interest. They are unquestionably the best trained school boys in the world. For nine years they have been drilled by the best masters, every one a doctor, for some thirty hours a week. They have been taught not simply to remember, but to analyze, compare and classify, until, at the age of eighteen or nineteen stand often on a better footing than graduates of our colleges. But there is another side to the shield, as I learned when I grew to know them better. They have marred their sight — sixty per cent of Germans over eighteen wear glasses. They have hurt their health by long hours of work at home and by little play save perhaps skating in winter and gymnastic exercises on the “Turnboden.” With all his learning, the German Jack is often a dull boy. …

Harvard’s Admissions Policy

A paper by Peter Arcidiacono, Josh Kinsler, and Tyler Ransom offers some glimpses.

The lawsuit Students For Fair Admissions v. Harvard University provided an unprecedented look at how an elite school makes admissions decisions. Using publicly released reports, we examine the preferences Harvard gives for recruited athletes, legacies, those on the dean’s interest list, and children of faculty and staff (ALDCs). Among white admits, over 43% are ALDC. Among admits who are African American, Asian American, and Hispanic, the share is less than 16% each. Our model of admissions shows that roughly three quarters of white ALDC admits would have been rejected if they had been treated as white non-ALDCs. Removing preferences for athletes and legacies would significantly alter the racial distribution of admitted students, with the share of white admits falling and all other groups rising or remaining unchanged.

Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life”

In 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson argues for the kind of values instilled by a socially conservative parental home: Aim for paradise, but concentrate on today. Meaning is key, not happiness. Assume responsibility. Listen carefully, speak clearly, and tell the truth. And stand straight, even in the face of adversity.

Here they are, Peterson’s 12 rules:

  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back
  2. Treat yourself like you would someone you are responsible for helping
  3. Make friends with people who want the best for you
  4. Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who someone else is today
  5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
  6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world
  7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
  8. Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie
  9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
  10. Be precise in your speech
  11. Do not bother children when they are skate-boarding
  12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street

Peterson motivates the rules by telling stories and anecdotes from his experience as a clinical psychologist, which he mixes with interpretations of religious (mostly biblical) texts as well as Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Frankl, or Dostoevsky. Peterson gets politically incorrect when discussing his 11th rule: He strongly rejects postmodernism and nihilism; and he shows little respect for management science: “[T]he science of management is a pseudo-discipline.”

As so often, what the author has to say could be said much more concisely. The book is far too long to precisely communicate the core ideas. What are they? Dean Bokhari suggests the following three key quotes from the book:

“We must each adopt as much responsibility as possible for individual life, society and the world. We must each tell the truth and repair what is in disrepair and break down and recreate what is old and outdated. It is in this manner that we can and must reduce the suffering that poisons the world. It’s asking a lot. It’s asking for everything.”

“Clear rules and proper discipline help the child, and the family, and society establish, maintain, and expand the order that is all that protects us from chaos and the terrors of the underworld. Where everything is uncertain, anxiety provoking, hopeless and depressing. There are no greater gifts that a parent can bestow.”

“The successful among us delay gratification. The successful among us bargain with the future.”

He also offers a “tweetable summary:”

Always tell the truth. Admit and learn from the past, make order of its chaos, and work towards not repeating the same mistakes. Pay close attention.

Other reviewers stress that Peterson wants his rules to help us strike the right balance between order and chaos (see also Philippa Perry’s “How To Stay Sane”). For example, Wyatt Graham condenses Peterson’s thinking as follows:

… life (or Being) involves suffering. … So, “We must have something to set against the suffering that is intrinsic to Being. We must have the meaning inherent in a profound system of value or the horror of existence rapidly becomes paramount” (xxxi).

We need to embrace Being, to not give in to suffering, and to find meaning. We need to live in the border between chaos and order and find our meaning there. …

For Peterson, to find meaning is to take on the responsibility of Being. We find it when we realize “that the soul of the individual eternally hungers for the heroism of genuine Being, and that the willingness to take on that responsibility is identical to the decision to live a meaningful life” (xxxv). He continues, “If we live properly, we will collectively flourish” (xxxv).

Yet others offer longer summaries, for example u/AresProductions on reddit, James Razko, or Neil Soni. Nat Eliason collects quotes from the book. Here is my summary of the summaries:

  1. Dare. Show strength in the face of adversity.
  2. Avoid self contempt. Be self-conscious and have a vision.
  3. Assume that you chose the easy path, and then take a different one. Improving is much harder than the opposite. “If you have a friend whose friendship you wouldn’t recommend to your sister, or your father, or your son, why would you have such a friend for yourself?”
  4. Focus on taking one step at a time. And take it.
  5. Teach your kids to behave properly (not least, to make them socially desirable). Discipline is not revenge.
  6. Conduct yourself as if Being is more valuable than Non-Being (or risk becoming a serial killer). Set your own house in order before trying to improve the world. Blame yourself—not for life’s tragedies, but for surrendering to them.
  7. Search for meaning, not for happiness. Sacrifice, i.e., invest.
  8. Be authentic. Avoid life-lies. Tell the truth to yourself and others. Big Wrongs are based on countless small lies. Only truth is compatible with meaning.
  9. Listen.
  10. Lack of precision breeds chaos. Precise speech brings things out of the realm of the unspeakable. Precision separates the unique terrible thing that happened from the others that might have happened—but did not.
  11. Respect culture, and human nature. Pity today’s boys.
  12. Our vulnerability is what makes us human. So celebrate the small joys of life.

In The Guardian, Tim Lott summarized Peterson’s worldview as follows:

“Life is tragic. You are tiny and flawed and ignorant and weak and everything else is huge, complex and overwhelming. Once, we had Christianity as a bulwark against that terrifying reality. But God died. Since then the defence has either been ideology – most notably Marxism or fascism – or nihilism. These lead, and have led in the 20th century, to catastrophe.

“‘Happiness’ is a pointless goal. Don’t compare yourself with other people, compare yourself with who you were yesterday. No one gets away with anything, ever, so take responsibility for your own life. You conjure your own world, not only metaphorically but also literally and neurologically. These lessons are what the great stories and myths have been telling us since civilisation began.”

In another discussion in The Guardian, John Crace made it even clearer that he didn’t like the book at all.

Goodreads contains many reader reviews. Wikipedia page.

Inequality in Switzerland

In a paper, Reto Föllmi and Isabel Martínez document trends in income and wealth inequality in Switzerland over the last 100 years.

Daniel Hug reports in the NZZaS (figures below taken from NZZaS).

Data (World Wealth and Income Database, based on tax records).

Some findings:

  • Income inequality has been rather stable and is modest …
  • … although social mobility as reflected in educational attainment is low.
  • Income inequality at the very top has increased.
  • The top 1% of income recipients earn at least CHF 300 000 annually (net income before tax), the top 0.01% at least CHF 4 million.
  • Wealth is distributed much more unequally. The top 1% own roughly 40%, slightly more than in the United States and twice as much as in France and the UK.
  • The wealth distribution is more equal if retirement savings in the second and third pillar are accounted for. PAYG funded pensions (first pillar) also contribute towards reducing inequality after taxes and transfers, much more so than taxes.

Who Voted for Brexit?

In a CEPR Discussion Paper, Sascha Becker, Thiemo Fetzer, and Dennis Novy argue that education and income mainly explain voting outcomes. In the abstract of their paper, the authors write:

We find that exposure to the EU in terms of immigration and trade provides relatively little explanatory power for the referendum vote. Instead, … fundamental characteristics of the voting population were key drivers of the Vote Leave share, in particular their education profiles, their historical dependence on manufacturing employment as well as low income and high unemployment. … within cities, we find that areas with deprivation in terms of education, income and employment were more likely to vote Leave.

Benjamin Todd’s “80,000 Hours”

80,000 hours, that’s how many hours we typically spent working over a lifetime, according to Benjamin Todd and the 80,000 hours team. They have published a book/ebook on how to make the best of it.

Their advice for a dream job: Look for

work you’re good at,

work that helps others,

supportive conditions: engaging work that lets you enter a state of flow; supportive colleagues; lack of major negatives like unfair pay; and work that fits your personal life.

The book discusses strategies to build a career plan, and a career. The main text closes with this summary:

Explore to find the best options, rather than “going with your gut” or narrowing down too early. Make this your key focus until you become more confident about the best options.

Take the best opportunities to invest in your career capital to become as badass as you can be. Especially look for career capital that’s flexible when you’re uncertain.

Help others by focusing on the most pressing social problems rather than those you stumble into – those that are big in scale, neglected and solvable. To make the largest contribution to those problems, consider earning to give, research and advocacy, as well as direct work.

Keep adapting your plan to find the best personal fit. Rather than expect to discover your “passion” right away, think like a scientist testing a hypothesis.

And work with a community.

In an appendix, the authors advise (potential) undergraduates to

aim for the most fundamental, quantitative option you can do i.e. one of these in the following order: mathematics, economics, computer science, physics, engineering, political science / chemistry / biology,

or otherwise,

focus on developing communication skills in philosophy, history or English.

The best choice is a combination. There is high demand for people who can understand quantitative topics and communicate clearly.

Appendix 8 contains useful career review summaries with “facts on fit” and “next steps” (see also this link for updates). For example, the authors advise that

[a]n economics PhD is one of the most attractive graduate programs: if you get through, you have a high chance of landing a good research job in academia or policy – promising areas for social impact – and you have backup options in the corporate sector since the skills you learn are in demand (unlike many PhD programs). You should especially consider an economics PhD if you want to go into research roles, are good at math (i.e. quantitative GRE score above 165) and have a proven interest in economics research.

But they warn that an Economics PhD takes a long time and

[d]oing highly open‐ended research provides little feedback which can be demotivating.

A final appendix discusses areas where people who want to help others possibly can have a large impact. As very promising areas, the authors identify

  • Biosecurity,
  • Climate change (extreme risks),
  • Factory farming,
  • Global priorities research,
  • Health in poor countries,
  • Land use reform,
  • Nuclear security,
  • Risks posed by artificial intelligence,
  • Smoking in the developing world, as well as,
  • Promoting effective altruism (the movement related to the book).

Polarized Labor Markets

In the NZZ, Thomas Fuster and Jürg Müller interview David Autor. Autor on polarization:

Der Arbeitsmarkt wird immer polarisierter. Auf der einen Seite haben wir viele gutbezahlte, hochqualifizierte und interessante Stellen. Auf der anderen Seite stehen schlechter entlöhnte und niedrigqualifizierte Stellen, bei denen es quasi darum geht, dem Wohl und Komfort der Wohlhabenden zu dienen. Das ist keine gesunde Entwicklung. Sie schlägt Stufen aus der Leiter des wirtschaftlichen Aufstiegs. Das hemmt die Mobilität.

Nobel Laureates? École Normale Supérieure

In Nature, Tom Clynes reports about research indicating that École Normale Supérieure has the highest proportion of undergraduates that eventually win a Nobel prize. The California Institute of Technology comes second ahead of Harvard, Swarthmore, Cambridge, École Polytechnique, MIT, Columbia, Amherst, and Chicago.

Scandinavian Fantasies?

In an NBER working paper entitled “The Scandinavian Fantasy: The Sources of Intergenerational Mobility in Denmark and the U.S.,” Rasmus Landersø and James J. Heckman argue that

[m]easured by income mobility, Denmark is a more mobile society, but not when measured by educational mobility. … Greater Danish income mobility is largely a consequence of redistribution … policies. While Danish social policies for children produce more favorable cognitive test scores for disadvantaged children, these do not translate into more favorable educational outcomes, partly because of disincentives to acquire education arising from the redistributional policies that increase income mobility.


Last year, the IMF has joined the MOOC movement. On edX, the online education platform founded by Harvard University and MIT, the IMF contributes a set of “IMFx” courses developed by its Institute for Capacity Development. Courses cover

  • Debt sustainability analysis;
  • Energy subsidy reform; and soon
  • Financial programming and policies (analysis and program design) as well as
  • Macroeconomic forecasting.

Drivers of High Skilled Migration into Switzerland

In the December Issue of Die Volkswirtschaft, Ronald Indergand and Andreas Beerli argue that increased high skilled migration into Switzerland mainly resulted from (i) higher educational attainment in the source countries and (ii) stronger demand by Swiss firms for high skilled labor.

The authors argue that the agreement between Switzerland and the European Union on the free mobility of labor (which is in force since 2002) did not contribute to an improved skill mix. Rather to the contrary, lower barriers to migration for EU citizens might have contributed to a slight reduction in the average skill of immigrants from the EU.

Cochrane for Growth

In a blog post, John Cochrane proposes step-by-step (politically unattractive) measures to increase growth:

  • Smarter (growth-oriented) regulation, in particular
  • Higher equity requirements and less short-term funding rather than complex financial regulation
  • Deregulation of health care supply
  • More cost-benefit analysis in environmental policy
  • Broad-based consumption rather than investment taxes
  • Clear separation of allocative and distributive fiscal policy
  • Focus on distortions in social programs
  • Deregulation of labor markets
  • Rational immigration rules distinguishing between permits to entry, reside, or work and citizenship
  • Less government intervention in the student loans market
  • Less protection, more free trade
  • More spending for the legal and criminal justice system
  • Etc.

Crime and Punishment

In a blog post, Alex Tabarrok argues that Gary Becker was wrong to argue that an optimal punishment system combines a low detection and punishment risk with a very severe punishment conditional on detection. Tabarrok argues:

We have now tried that experiment and it didn’t work. Beginning in the 1980s we dramatically increased the punishment for crime in the United States but we did so more by increasing sentence length than by increasing the probability of being punished. …

Why did the experiment fail? Longer sentences didn’t reduce crime as much as expected because criminals aren’t good at thinking about the future; criminal types have problems forecasting and they have difficulty regulating their emotions and controlling their impulses. … As if that weren’t bad enough, by exposing more people to criminal peers and by making it increasingly difficult for felons to reintegrate into civil society, longer sentences increased recidivism.

Instead of thinking about criminals as rational actors, we should think about criminals as children. … So what is the recommended parenting approach? … one thing all recommendations have in common is that the consequences for inappropriate behavior should be be quick, clear, and consistent.

Schools in Sweden

An OECD report proposes measures to slow the decline in the performance of school children in Sweden. They include (pp. 8-9):

… setting clear and high expectations for all students, building on current curriculum goals with a focus on developing core skills and enhancing skills for the 21st century.
…ensure a better disciplinary climate and teaching and learning approaches that respond to diverse student learning needs, including low and high performers.
Improve the access of disadvantaged families to information about schools and support them in making informed choices. In addition, introduce controlled choice schemes that supplement parental choice to ensure a more diverse distribution of students in schools.


The Economist featured a special report on universities. Some elements:

On the value added of university education (see this article):

Employers are not much interested in the education universities provide either. Lauren Rivera of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management interviewed 120 recruiters from American law firms, management consultancies and investment banks. Their principal filter was the applicant’s university. Unless he had attended one of the top institutions, he was not even considered. “Evaluators relied so intensely on ‘school’ as a criterion of evaluation not because they believed that the content of elite curricula better prepared students for life in their firms…but because of the perceived rigour of the admissions process,” Ms Rivera wrote. After the status of the institution, recruiters looked not at students’ grades but at their extracurricular activities, preferring the team sports—lacrosse, field-hockey and rowing—favoured by well-off white men.

On rankings (see this article): More than 50 of the top 100 universities (according to the Shanghai ranking) are located in the US. Switzerland has the highest density of these institutions per capita (6.2 top universities per 10m people, next is Sweden before the Netherlands).

On public and private funding (see this article):


The Purple Plans

Laurence Kotlikoff appeals to “fellow economists and concerned citizens” to endorse plans for

Dietrich Schwanitz’ “Bildung (Cultured Education)”

Dietrich Schwanitz’ book (Wikipedia) covers “Wissen” und “Können” against the background of the German “Bildungskanon”, the liberal education of a cultured, well-bred German-speaker. The very ambition of the endeavor is breath taking and provokes disagreement and objection. But Schwanitz delivers. A lengthy book of nearly 700 pages it is concise and dense and contains lots of food for thought.

Among hundreds of tidbits, here are some:

  • Footnote on the footnote (pp. 461–462).
  • On Switzerland (p. 596):

Was die Schweizer auf dem Hintergrund ihrer eigenen Geschichte bei den Deutschen am wenigsten begreifen, ist, daß sie mit der antiautoritären Kulturrevolution alle bürgerlichen Tugenden so restlos über Bord geworfen haben. Es sind die Tugenden, die ehemals als besonders deutsch galten und jetzt nur noch in der Schweiz eine Heimstatt haben: Solidität, eine gewisse Ordnungsliebe und Pedanterie, Zuverlässigkeit im Ausführen von Aufgaben und Präzision bei der Produktion von Apparaten, und ein Standard der Sauberkeit und Wohlanständigkeit weit über dem europäischen Durchschnitt sowie ein fest verankerter Glaube an Normen und Regeln.

  • In the section about intelligence, a ranking of what might have been the 10 most intelligent men ever (p. 604):

1. John Stuart Mill; 2. Goethe; 3. Leibniz; 4. Grotius; 5. Macaulay; 6. Bentham; 7. Pascal; 8. Schelling; 9. Haller; 10. Coleridge.

  • Short summaries of “books that changed the world” (pp. 635–654).

Heritable Privilege

The Economist argues that with the importance of intellectual capital “privilege has become increasingly heritable.” As contributing factors the newspaper lists

  • assortative matching
  • more stable homes of highly educated parents
  • more stimulation of children of highly educated parents: “children of professionals hear 32m more words by the age of four than those of parents on welfare”
  • high cost of higher education
  • teachers’ unions
  • a school system that aggravates disparities

The background articles are here and here.