The Things They Taught Me (Ep. 104)

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(Photo: Will Folsom)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is called “The Things They Taught Me.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript here; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

The episode grew out of our recent two-part podcast about the value of a college degree. (Part 1 is here, Part 2 here, and a related Q&A here.) The economists we interviewed argued that colleges generally turn out more productive and happier people, but none could explain exactly how that transformation happens.

So when Stephen Dubner recently had occasion to visit his alma mater, he rounded up three of his favorite professors to see if they could answer that question. In this episode, you’ll hear from Joe Murphy, a filmmaker and professor of media studies; Leon Lewis, an English and film professor; and Jim Winders, a cultural historian and musicologist. Winders talks about the very unpredictable art of teaching:

WINDERS: A classroom is a place where something is going to happen. And no matter how much the professor is prepared, no matter how receptive the student is, there’s no predicting what that’s going to be. And it always amazes me when a student will tell you years later, “I’ll never forget the day you said so-and-so.” You don’t remember saying that. But the student has remembered that and it has meant something to that person.

Plus, Dubner shares three life-changing lessons he learned in these professors’ classes, and asks if they remember them. Spoiler alert: they don’t.


95% of my professors teach straight from the book. Why go to class when I can learn at my own speed?


"The greatest university of all is a collection of books"- Thomas Carlyle, 19th century Scottish philosopher

Alex P

I also had Lewis at Appalachian State, but for his Intro to Film class. Great experience!


Most of the value I gained from school occurred while completing complex group projects, whether it came in the form of research and presentation skills or building friendships with my classmates (who I can still turn to today if I'm looking for a new job or business prospects).

The textbook information is secondary.

Seminymous Coward

That might be true with a degree in business, the humanities, or a social science, where the goal is to develop general and/or "soft" skills. It's not remotely true in a hard science, engineering, mathematics, or computer science. No amount of presentation skills will make a reaction, robot, proof, or program work. As far as friendships, you can make those anywhere, and a professional organization would be even more focused.


I am with you SC. I am a biologist and we learned many concepts and facts from our text books but we gained much greater knowledge in the labs. I will never forget my Quantitative Analysis class in the chem department in which we were given a few grams of an unknown compound and had to identify it or my Pathogenic Bacteriology lab in which we were given an aliquot of an unknown bacterium and had to perform tests to identify it. Good times!

Steve S.

Just a general question for the audience: If you could assign one book to be mandatory (either for entrance or completion) what would it be?

I'd probably go with Outliers or Think and Grow Rich; interestingly both are concerned with "success". FYI, the school I went to required us to read Lies My Teacher Told Me before the first semester.

Keith Lee

Cal Newport's (MIT CompSci PhD) new book, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You.”



While I do not normally encourage swearing, it is very humorous when you do it. Keep it up!


My experience was that the value added wasn’t really from any particular class. There were a few light bulb moments in some classes, but the real value added came in grad school where in taking on a thesis, I was responsible for a project from start to finish with real deliverables. In creating something that was original and new, I drew on many of the skills I had learned in all of the previous years of education. Further, in placing my name on the work, there was a sense of pride and ownership in the accomplishment and a greater sense of confidence in being able to accomplish things of value in the real world.


Stop the swearing, please. It's childish, takes the podcast very down-market and adds zero value to the content.

It also makes it impossible to listen to with the kids.


I was in the class of 84 from ASU with a major in History and English, so i listened to this with great interest. i even use to in live down the hall in Coffey from Steven Dubner, and had Jim Winders for several classes. My epiphany came in the History of Culture class and I got to tell Dr. winders about it years later when I asked for a letter of reference for grad school. My lesson was to question how emotions were shaping intellectual decisions about how the world really works, and I truly felt my mind open. A Liberal Arts education... Invaluable.


Sweet way to close it out with Bronze Radio Return! Shake!Shake!Shake!

John Caprice

Good show on the valure of a college education but I have tried to justify the current cost of a college education, "List Price" or "Net". That's a smoke and mirrors explanation, in 1978 there were scholarships, grants, and federal student loans just like today. In fact, my VA educational allowance, as a veteran, was $400.00 a month for 4 full school years. It covered almost my entire financial needs. Beer and Books as well.

The real question is why? Why have college tuitions increased so much. I graduated St. Johns University in 1978. I paid full tuition. ( I still have the receipt.) My last semester's 1978 tuition was $978.00. Yup! One full semester at full price. That same semester is now $18,000.00, a twenty fold increase in tuition. So....Wy such an increase???? I've been trying to fgure that out.
Energy costs have not risen at the same rate. Electricty rates went up 5X. Fuel 3X.
So its not energy to blame.

How about food? Hmmm....Processed foods rose quote a bit. But basic food products, meat, dairy, produce, and breads are closer to 5X the 1978 costs.
Labor was mentioned in the braodcast, running a college is very labor intensive. It always was that did not change.
So, in 1978 a professor earned a whopping $16,000 a year, base salary. Ah! here's a pretty good rise in salary, about $160,000.00 annually for a full professor.
That's 10X the 1978 salary.

Here's a biggie. Health Care Costs. In 1978, my monthy Medical Insurance was $150.00 for a family policy. That same policy (as close as possible) is now $1,500.00 monthly.
Still only a factor of 10X.

I do not have an answer to this question. Perhaps legacy costs have doubled the actual labor costs. I cannot verify, I only suspect this cost may be significant.

If anyone has a real answer, I'd really appreciate reviewing it.
Oh! One last thought. The Dow Jones insutrial average was around $900.00 in 1978.
Just as well, another "shoulda, couda, woulda" to add to the list.

John J Caprice RPh,



Check out Father Guido Sarducci's Five Minute University. And if you have another minute, you can go to his 1 minute law school.

Judith Kurland

I was very disturbed by the program's first choice in discussing successful??? people who didn't graduate from college - and the host chooses Carl Rove!!! Of all the people to choose, Rove was one who is trying to damage our democracy - buying it to suit himself and his millionaire cronies. He, of all people, could have used the benefits of a good liberal arts degree and a master's in social science. Perhaps then he could have u nderstood more of the world as it is and learned empathy and compassion. I was so disgusted, I just turned off the radio. Why Rove??? Interesting to see the numerous schools he partly attended and then left. Usually so he could make more money. Is this the be-all and end-all of life? Whoever makes the most wins the game?? Poor choice to start a program on the value of a real education.

Judith Kurland

I went to an excellent liberal arts college and majored in elementary education. Brooklyn College, part of the Univ. of the City of NY. At the time I went, 1954, it was free for all New Yorkers. with a 90 average from high school. Luckily for me otherwise I could n't have gone. However, I had 2 1/2 years of required courses and later allowed some electives. So I have an excellent education - literature of ancient Greece, modern British poetry, geology, art history, working in 3 dimensional art, writing and composition including writing papers in many subjects, math and basis of our number system. Also, Shakespeare, roots of modern art, Oriental literature and philosophy (ask me about Rumi) and a year of Spanish. Of course I also studied carefully prepared coursework in education and psychology of children and adults, volunteering in University Settlement House in the Lower East Side, and student teaching for one year in a public school. By the time I graduated I was fully educated and ready to tackle becoming a New York City public school teacher in the lower East Side. I also got my master's in education at Hunter Grad. school, (also free), earned a second master's in special education (this I paid for.) Finally now, at age 76 I am living and retired with a lovely pension after 25 years of teaching. And I am still enjoying all I learned during those wonderful years. Want to hear the first 10 lines of Canterbury Tales in middle English !! I still can remember it.