"Yale on $0 a Day" Sparks a Wonder Moment

Thom Lambert —  15 February 2007

We’re so immersed in the benefits of a market economy that I fear we sometimes fail to notice what a marvel capitalism is.

Today’s Wall Street Journal points to yet another of capitalism’s benefits. A growing number of very, very fancy colleges with very, very talented professors and very, very expensive tuition are offering their course materials online for free.

MIT, for example, “posts the syllabus and class notes for more than 1,500 courses online for anyone who wants them.” By next November, it will “publish materials from virtually all 1,800 of its courses across all its schools.” Notre Dame posts materials for eight courses, “including everything from class plans, links to required readings, lecture notes and homework assignments.” It aims to offer 30 free online courses over the next two years. Yale “has announced it will produce digital videos of undergraduate lecture classes and make them available free to the public.” Seven such courses are currently being taped and will be posted next fall. Bryn Mawr has similar plans in the works.

Just think, a vast amount of knowledge — knowledge that has been organized into a useful format and given the stamp of approval of a fancy school — is becoming available for free to anybody who’ll take it. If you stop and ponder it a second, it’s sort of startling.

But then we see this sort of thing all the time. We can flip on our TVs and watch, for free, some very high-quality programming that has been specifically designed to appeal to our senses of humor and natural curiousities. Of course, we have to sit through some commercial advertisements, but even those are designed to entertain us — and they inform us as well.

Why do the creators of this information and entertainment offer it as a freebie? Perhaps a few of them (Steve Bainbridge?) are motivated by a desire to propagate learning and art. Most, though, are trying to sell something. With TV, that motivation’s obvious. It’s also behind the colleges’ online learning initiatives. The WSJ explains:

[S]chools aren’t interested only in the public good: Schools say that offering materials online can draw in potential applicants curious about what an actual course looks like. An MIT survey of users showed that about a third of freshmen who were aware of the site before attending said it made a significant impact on their decision to enroll.

Thus, Adam Smith’s old adage rings true once again: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” That’s the wonder of the capitalist system — it can take people’s natural selfishness and turn it into social surplus: from entertainment programming that unites a nation (think how American Idol and The Office have boosted our sense of national community) to free high-quality education for folks who, for whatever reason, could never go to a fancy college.

Perhaps it’s silly to find profundity in this WSJ article. I admittedly slept poorly last night and am a bit over-caffeinated. I’m comforted, though, by the fact that some very smart people who thought long and hard about the capitalist system had similar wonder moments.

Hayek, for example, took time to “marvel” at the elegance of the price mechanism:

I have deliberately used the word “marvel” to shock the reader out of the complacency with which we often take the working of this [price] mechanism for granted. I am convinced that if it were the result of deliberate human design, and if the people guided by the price changes understood that their decisions have significance far beyond their immediate aim, this mechanism would have been acclaimed as one of the greatest triumphs of the human mind.

Similarly, Frederic Bastiat had what I would classify as a capitalist wonder moment when he sat back and observed how peacefully Parisians slept, confident that free exchange would provide their needs. In Chapter 18 of Economic Sophisms he wrote:

On coming to Paris for a visit, I said to myself: Here are a million human beings who would all die in a few days if supplies of all sorts did not flow into this great metropolis. It staggers the imagination to try to comprehend the vast multiplicity of objects that must pass through its gates tomorrow, if its inhabitants are to be preserved from the horrors of famine, insurrection, and pillage. And yet all are sleeping peacefully at this moment, without being disturbed for a single instant by the idea of so frightful a prospect. On the other hand, eighty departments have worked today, without co-operative planning or mutual arrangements, to keep Paris supplied. How does each succeeding day manage to bring to this gigantic market just what is necessary—neither too much nor too little? What, then, is the resourceful and secret power that governs the amazing regularity of such complicated movements, a regularity in which everyone has such implicit faith, although his prosperity and his very life depend upon it? That power is an absolute principle, the principle of free exchange.

Sometimes it’s good to be astounded.

***

UPDATE: I just checked Bainbridge’s site and I see (here) that even he is trying to sell something. I suppose I should have heeded the second half of the Adam Smith statement quoted above: “…We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.”

Thom Lambert

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I am a law professor at the University of Missouri Law School. I teach antitrust law, business organizations, and contracts. My scholarship focuses on regulatory theory, with a particular emphasis on antitrust.

7 responses to "Yale on $0 a Day" Sparks a Wonder Moment

  1. 

    Huge differences exist between the quality of education at a state university and an elite university. Not so much in the quality of the teaching, as the surplus of available teachers means that mediocre state universities can hire excellent professors. The difference is in the quality of the students, and probably 70 percent of the educational experience involves students teaching each other. Simply stated, students at Ivy League schools and elite liberal arts colleges take ideas much more seriously than do most students at state universities. The other variable is class size, where well-endowed small liberal arts colleges clearly hold an advantage. But students at Yale are not merely purchasing a degree. And the idea that Harvard and Yale, compared to Chicago, teach dreck, is simply silly.

  2. 

    I would never say there was no value to the four-year education received in college; I said there was no difference between the quality of the education at a state university and an elite university.

  3. 

    It has indeed often been said that the primary advantage of an Ivy League education is the degree and not the content, and that it would be at least a K-H improvement to dispense with the four years of “education” and just let employers hire admitted high school students.

    But then why don’t they already? Why aren’t employers poaching Harvard first-years? (Or are they?)

    My friend Seth who commented on my last post on UOP would say it’s because there is some intrinsic value in a well-taught liberal arts education (i.e., content matters). But what does he know? He went to Chicago where the content probably does matter, but who could say the same of the dreck they teach at Yale and Harvard (I’m kidding, people. Sort of.).

    But supporting Thom and Marc, others have said that there is also signaling value in completing a rigorous four-year curriculum, and that universities provide not one, but two valuable sortings: One at admission and the other among their students at graduation.

    And don’t forget the marriage market (again, with a nod to the great Armen Alchian). Perhaps less important than it once was, but probably still important nonetheless.

    At any rate–I agree: There’s likely little cost to Yale in giving away a portion of its course content, for all these reasons and many others.

  4. 

    Josh–thanks, and I’m interested in this TV wonder moment. I assume it was the plummeting prices that caught you.

    M. Hodak–I had a similar reaction to yours (in addition to my wonder moment). One of the Yale folks said that broadcasting courses online doesn’t threaten to reduce applications because the online courses can’t replicate the student/prof interaction. True — but they also can’t replicate the Yale degree, which is what most applicants are willing to pay big bucks for.

  5. 

    Although I’m with you on the “marvels of capitalism” stuff, I actually had a very different reaction to the posting of course materials by elite colleges.

    Seeing them do this reinforced the sense I have that the difference between elite schools and the rest has nothing to do with the quality of the classes. One of my best friends at Penn was someone who, like me, went to Maryland as an undergrad. We were amazed that the difference in teaching, course materials, etc. between the two schools was indistinguishable, and could not possibly explain their difference in reputation. We were young.

    In fact, the joke at Penn was that the Ivy League got the best students going in and didn’t screw them up too badly on the way through, and that accounted entirely for the difference in our prospects graduating from there rather than a school with less prestige. It was the sorting, not the teaching.

    I thought the moral of this story is that perhaps the elite schools are merely recognizing the fact that giving away their course content isn’t really giving away much at all. Their value is in their degrees. You still have to pay for that.

  6. 

    Thom, next to Hayek and Bastiat and your wonder moment of thinking about all of the free high-quality educational materials out there on the web, I am a bit embarrassed to declare that mine occurred out shopping for big-screen TVs. There. I said it. I realize they are not free. But still.

    On a more relevant note, free internet class notes and the like were a resource I relied on a great deal in graduate school. The sheer amount of educational content that is out there for public consumption is a truly amazing thing.

    In any event, I mostly just wanted to say that I really enjoyed this post. Thanks.

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