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Fake Nike T-shirts and College Education+ #28

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Quote of the Week

“Why, anybody can have a brain. That’s a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the Earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain. Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning, where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts and with no more brains than you have. But they have one thing you haven’t got: a diploma. – The Wizard of Oz

Hi, this is the GenWise team– we bring out this newsletter to help parents and educators to complement the work of formal schools and associated systems. We can help our children thrive in these complex times only by exchanging ideas and insights and collaborating on this.

This week’s main post, ‘Fake Nike T-shirts and College Education’ is from the ‘Economics for Everybody’ website run by Ashish Kulkarni and Vasundhara Sen. The post elegantly points out the ‘signaling’ function of college education vis-a-vis the goal of actual learning.

You are invited to be an early member and beta-tester of the GenWise Club (ages 13-90), a community of interested students, parents, and educators. Check out this link for more about the club and how to join it. It is open to all in the current beta phase. 

Join this conversation on learning, by commenting on our posts, or joining our club community for more regular and closer interactions.

Do block 6 PM, Oct 29 for the inaugural expert talk of the Gifted India Network by Dr. Paula Olszewski-Kubelius, Head of the Center for Talent Development, Northwestern University on ‘The Importance of Non-Cognitive Skills in Talent Development’. More details in the Upcoming Events Section.


Fake Nike T-shirts and College Education

Upcoming Courses @GenWise

Upcoming External Events

Fake Nike T-shirts and College Education

This post is from the ‘ EFE (Economics for Everybody)’ website run by Ashish Kulkarni and Vasundhara Sen, and the original post is titled Signaling, Bundling and College. Ashish will also be teaching a 1-week course ‘Seeing like an Economist’ in our upcoming residential program in December 2021.

In our opinion, higher education is in a state of flux at present. College Credentials continue to be important as the number of applications to well-ranked colleges shows. At the same time, people are getting disillusioned with how college enhances their prospects for employment and prepares them for the world of work, not to speak of the costs involved in college education. People wanting to build their skillsets have started choosing alternatives like Lambda School (which teaches you to code and recovers fees only after you are hired by an employer).

Does this mean that colleges and universities will soon become irrelevant? We don’t believe so- we believe they can and do offer valuable learning and that learning is not just about skills for the workplace.

This is a long and complex conversation and we can start by looking at what Ashish Kulkarni has to say about the signaling aspect of college education. Please share your thoughts on this topic by commenting below.


What is bundling? It’s selling more than one thing for a single price. When you buy a cup of coffee, you’re buying a cup of coffee.

But when you’re buying a cup of coffee at Starbucks, are you just paying for the coffee, or are you paying also for the air-conditioning, the Wi-Fi, the chairs and the overall ambience? In fact, for quite a few folks who choose to work out of Starbucks, the coffee might end up being the least important of the things they’re paying for. That’s bundling.

Here’s an MRU video about the topic:

What’s signaling?

This thought experiment is borrowed from Bryan Caplan, author of the book ‘The Case Against Education’:

Take your pick: a world class education while you were/are in college, from the very best in the world in your chosen field. You get to pick your dream educators, your dream college, you get access to absolutely world class faculty, libraries, whatever. The works. But: no degree. You will never be able to show or prove your credentials to anybody. World class learning, but no proof that it took place. OR A certificate from whichever college and course you pick in the world. Harvard PhD? Here you go. B.Tech from the IIT of your choice? Check. But: no learning. You will never be able to attend classes and learn in that college. You’ll get the degree, but sans learning.

If you chose the latter option (I would and I do), you know what signaling is.

Here’s an extract about signaling and education from this Wikipedia entry:

In contract theory, signalling (or signaling) is the idea that one party (termed the agent) credibly conveys some information about itself to another party (the principal). Although signalling theory was initially developed by Michael Spence based on observed knowledge gaps between organisations and prospective employees, its intuitive nature led it to be adapted to many other domains, such as Human Resource Management, business, and financial markets.In Michael Spence’s job-market signaling model, (potential) employees send a signal about their ability level to the employer by acquiring education credentials. The informational value of the credential comes from the fact that the employer believes the credential is positively correlated with having the greater ability and difficulty for low ability employees to obtain. Thus the credential enables the employer to reliably distinguish low ability workers from high ability workers.

There’s many variants of the Caplan question that are possible. For example, would you prefer to wear an original Nike T-shirt without the logo, or a fake Nike T-shirt with the logo?

If I may be permitted to veer into slightly dark territory: would you prefer to be in a happy relationship, or show that your relationship is happy?

We are, all of us, signaling all the time. Modern society wouldn’t be possible without signaling, because the cost of communicating in a world without signaling would be too high.

But education? It doth signal too much, methinks.


Let’s go back to bundling, and think about education. What are you buying when you enroll in a college?

If you are an optimistic sort of person (more cynical folks would call you naive), you might say you’re buying an education. If Michael Spence has made an impression on you, you might say that you’re buying the credential.

By the way, if you’ve ever asked the following question in a classroom – or even been tempted to – you’re buying the credential, not the education:

“Is this a part of the syllabus?”

And I’ve yet to meet a student (to be clear, myself included) who hasn’t asked that question.

But hey, it’s Econ101. If you’ve asked the question, you are minimizing learning. You are learning, but only to get on the path to maximize marks. Marks, I would argue, are more about credentials than they are about learning.

You’ve chosen, through your actions, signaling over learning.

Upcoming Courses @GenWise

With the COVID situation showing significant improvement, we are hopeful of running a 2-week residential program from Dec 18-30, 2021. 4 courses- on Forensic Science, Economics, Neuroscience and the Physics of Electricity will be offered and students will have the option of attending one or both of the weeks. We will be announcing the program in the next week or so.

Upcoming External Events

The below events are free to attend unless otherwise specified.

Science is used in so many places– This week’s edition of ‘Talk to a Scientist’ features Dr. Karishma Kaushik and Snehal Kadam who will discuss the different jobs that use science- a science artist, a science journalist, the CEO of a science company and so on. This interactive session is targeted at children from ages 6-16 . On Sat, Oct 16, 2021 at 5 PM IST Register here.

Up close with science: Controlling chemical reactions using low energy electrons is part of the highly popular Chai and Why series from the cool TIFR outreach team and is scheduled on Sunday, Oct 17, 2021 at 11 AM. Zoom, YouTube & FBLive links available here. Here’s what the session blurb says-

Welcome to the world where physicists study chemical reactions! How do electrons actually interact with molecules and form ions? The molecular dynamics and control lab performs experiments to understand the interaction of low energy electrons with molecules, especially the formation of negative ions. This has led to some interesting new findings about the dynamics of negative molecular ions. Such studies are important in areas ranging from astrochemistry to understanding radiation damage to biomolecules like DNA or proteins at a molecular level. The information from such studies may one day make it possible to control chemical reactions using electrons or even improve tumour therapy. We’ll get up close with science in this session, live from the molecular dynamics lab at TIFR.

About the speaker: Prof. Vaibhav Prabhudesai in the Dept of Nuclear and Atomic Physics at TIFR works on low energy electron collisions with molecules in their ground as well as excited states. He also works on molecular interactions with strong light fields and is interested in combining the two realms to explore the control of chemical reactions.

Science of the Indian Kitchen is part of the Kuriosity During Kuarantine (KDK) series and is scheduled on Sun, Oct 17, from 4 to 530 PM IST. Krish Ashok, the author of Masala Lab: The Science of Indian cooking, will be speaking on this topic. His book uses simple, first-principles, middle-school level science explanations and hand-drawn illustrations to break down what happens in the Indian kitchen and recommends algorithms and meta-models for common dish types and regional Indian sub-cuisines. The session blurb says-

The kitchen is the chemistry lab where we turn sugars, proteins, fats, salt and flavour molecules into an astonishing array of delicious dishes. This talk will take the oriental mystique out of Indian cooking and use simple, high-school science to explain what’s happening behind the scenes and arm you with knowledge that will make you a better, more adventurous cook. You can register for the session here.

About the Speaker: In his day job, Ashok is the Global Head – Digital Workplace for Tata Consultancy Services (one of the world’s largest technology companies) and helps Fortune 1000 companies reimagine the future of work, a role that is at the intersection of technology, design and culture. He is also a regular columnist on food, science, and culture for publications such as Mint, The Hindu, Scroll and BuzzFeed.

He is a trained Indian classical violinist who also plays the Cello and electric guitar and composes and produces music that you can listen to on all major streaming platforms. A particularly popular playlist is Sanskrit Rock, where he translates and adapts popular heavy metal and classic rock songs into Sanskrit. His music was featured on NPR.

The Importance of Non-Cognitive Skills in Talent Development

This is the inaugural expert talk of the Gifted India Network by Dr. Paula Olszewski-Kubelius, Head of the Center for Talent Development, Northwestern University on Fri, Oct 29 at 6 PM IST.

3 types of questions spring to mind when we think about developing children’s talents-

Is giftedness natural ability or achievement or both? Can you start gifted and become ‘un gifted’?

How does one translate potential into achievement? What is the process of talent development?

I am providing my child opportunities I never had- but she doesn’t focus, she gets anxious… What’s going on?

This session will address all 3 questions and particularly the importance of psychosocial skills in talent development.

A  large component of developing talent into high achievement in school  and productive careers in adulthood are psychosocial skills such as  optimism, effort, resiliency, openness to feedback and challenge. In  this session we will discuss how parents can cultivate these skills in  their children so as to maximize their talents and abilities.

The details of the talk and the registration form are available here.  The talk is relevant to both parents and educators.


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