Sridhar Vembu on ‘Placebo Effect’ in education

Beyond the physical infrastructure (mostly decent, at least in the popular colleges) and faculty (mostly pitiful, even in the popular colleges), the most valuable function a college provides is to bring bright, energetic young people together. The more popular a college, the more ambitious a crowd it attracts, resulting in the well-understood power law phenomenon. It is this social function that is the most valuable service provided by a college. The peer pressure can be intense: if the popular students in a cluster are aiming to go abroad to get an MS or take the entrace exams towards a coveted IIM MBA, most students emulate them. Colleges also do effective marketing using their placement records and the percentage of students who go on to MS or MBA programs, so the already present peer pressure gets further amplified. Often the MS aspirants aim to publish research papers in conferences and journals, which would help land them at a good university abroad for graduate study. Such students team up, and the result is often surprisingly good work. But the key thing to note is that most such work is self-initiatied and self-directed on the part of the students, and not the result of guidance provided by the faculty. As usual, exceptions may exist, but the vast majority of interesting student projects are self-directed, with the college at best providing encouragement and moral support, and at worst, actively putting up roadblocks in front of bright students – yes, that is known to happen often too.

So what is the placebo in this placebo effect? It is the social function of bringing bright young people together, and letting positive peer pressure do its magic. Bill Gates mentioned this when he donated the Gates Computer Science Building at Stanford University a few years ago. He said during the dedication ceremony something to the effect that a university like Stanford brings great young minds together, and if we he had not met great collaborators in his youth, Microsoft may never have been born.

Source: Collge education and The Placebo effect

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