The Dirty Secret of Education, Revealed!

Academia has been very, very good to George Mason University economics professor Bryan Caplan, as he admits. Yet he also wants you to know that the service he has a cushy life selling to you isn't all it's cracked up to be:

Many educators sooth their consciences by insisting that "I teach my students how to think, not what to think."  But this platitude goes against a hundred years of educational psychology.  Education is very narrow; students learn the material you specifically teach them... if you're lucky.  

Other educators claim they're teaching good work habits.  But especially at the college level, this doesn't pass the laugh test.  How many jobs tolerate a 50% attendance rate - or let you skate by with twelve hours of work a week?  School probably builds character relative to playing videogames.  But it's hard to see how school could build character relative to a full-time job in the Real World.

At this point, you may be thinking: If professors don't teach a lot of job skills, don't teach their students how to think, and don't instill constructive work habits, why do employers so heavily reward educational success?  The best answer comes straight out of the ivory tower itself.  It's called the signaling model of education- the subject of my book in progress, The Case Against Education.  

According to the signaling model, employers reward educational success because of what it shows ("signals") about the student.  Good students tend to be smart, hard-working, and conformist - three crucial traits for almost any job.  When a student excels in school, then, employers correctly infer that he's likely to be a good worker.  What precisely did he study?  What did he learn how to do?  Mere details.  As long as you were a good student, employers surmise that you'll quickly learn what you need to know on the job.

The signaling model means that more people getting more education has a tendency to create the demand for more people to get more education (which is great for people in the business of selling education) because:

In the signaling story, what matters is how much education you have compared to competing workers.  When education levels rise, employers respond with higher standards; when education levels fall, employers respond with lower standards.  We're on a treadmill.  If voters took this idea seriously, my close friends and I could easily lose our jobs.  As a professor, it is in my interest for the public to continue to believe in the magic of education: To imagine that the ivory tower transforms student lead into worker gold.  

Caplan writes on occasion for Reason.

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  • Esteban||

    Pretty much how I got my job. The bosses thought "He went to a good school and did well so he must be smart and learn quickly." So I have a job in a field completely unrelated to what I studied in college. Liberal Arts FTW and FTL

  • Almanian||

    ^^This^^

    Still remember a friend of my mom's telling me, "Contact me when you get out of school. You're a smart kid, I'll give you a job."

    I went in another direction, but...there it was.

  • tarran||

    It's not just signaling;

    A practical, unintended consequence of the Civil Rights Act, an employer is generally not allowed to use testing to screen prospective employees for fitness.

  • o3||

    "Education is very narrow; students learn the material you specifically teach them..."
    _

    not true in liberal arts

  • #||

    right, because a history exam isnt 95% regergitating what you heard in lecture.

  • o3||

    compare & contrast lecture comments with mel brooks history of the world pts 1 & 2.

    >limit answer to 5 pages max.

  • Professor brooks||

    i see what o3 did there

  • jtuf||

    Yes. In the Liberal Arts, 95% of the grade is based on your willingness to suck up to the professor.

  • Zeb||

    I think dipshit may have a point here, but only for smart, self motivated students who are actually at college because they care about what they are studying and not because it is the easiest thing to do after high school.

  • shorter zeb||

    dipshits know the answer

  • Zeb||

    Ooh, I've never had a "shorter zeb" troll before. Too bad it doesn't make sense.

  • ||

    Megan McArdle had a really good post about this in the context of elite firms only hiring from elite schools.

    Forget about the effects on society, though; this is terrible for organizations. You see this in Washington all the time--a friend who went to a lesser-known state school said he could always tell the people he wasn't going to like when he met them at cocktail parties, because the minute he told them where he'd gone to school, they became extremely interested in going to get another drink or find the cheese dip. This is one of the smartest, most consistently interesting and original, most talented writers I know. Having actually attended one of those elite schools that apparently make you fascinating, I can attest firsthand that statistically, the elitists were vanishingly unlikely to be as interesting as the person they abandoned because he'd gone to a state college.

    The Ivy League is full of smart, interesting people. But it is not full of all of the smart, interesting people in the country, or even a majority of them. And given the resumes required to get there, it produces a group of people who are narrow in certain predictible ways. (I include myself in this: just because I can see it operating doesn't mean I can escape it.)

    http://www.theatlantic.com/bus.....ol/248734/

    Beyond McArdle's point, the other problem is that we have an education system that rewards conformism. Unless you are an idiot son whose parents can buy your way in, you are not getting into an elite school without perfect or nearly perfect grades. You don't get perfect grades by making a habit of telling your teachers what they don't want to hear. You also don't get perfect grades by having many interests outside of getting perfect grades. So the meritorious pool for these schools is limited to people who are either conformist enough or cynical enough to tell their betters exactly what they want to hear. And entire organization of such people is a recipe for disaster.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Beyond McArdle's point, the other problem is that we have an education system that rewards conformism. Unless you are an idiot son whose parents can buy your way in, you are not getting into an elite school without perfect or nearly perfect grades. You don't get perfect grades by making a habit of telling your teachers what they don't want to hear. You also don't get perfect grades by having many interests outside of getting perfect grades. So the meritorious pool for these schools is limited to people who are either conformist enough or cynical enough to tell their betters exactly what they want to hear. And entire organization of such people is a recipe for disaster

    Most of these elite schools are Anglophilic to the extreme. Thus, they were modeled after schools designed to do exactly what you said: develop loyal subjects to serve in high positions in the British Empire's civil service.

  • Auric Demonocles||

    I went to one of the Ivy's and I was shocked by the confusion that occurred when it would come up that I hadn't traveled and my reason was "too expensive". A similar thing happened when it came up that I didn't have any contacts to give me an internship.

  • Zeb||

    Well, if you couldn't afford to travel, why didn't you just go stay at your parents' ski lodge in Aspen?

  • Gooey Rob Reiner||

    Well, what about your beach house in Hawaii, or the one in Mexico?

  • ||

    My wife works for a just short of Ivy League school that runs about 50K a year. 40% of the undergrads are full pays meaning their parents just write a check for the full amount. That is a staggering amount of disposable income.

  • Auric Demonocles||

    One time my dad wrote a check for $2k for the room and board that I didn't get covered by scholarships/teaching assistantships. He's never let me hear the end of it.

  • protefeed||

    What John said.

    The third of these is totally not true: Good students tend to be smart, hard-working, and conformist - three crucial traits for almost any job.

    My oldest daughter is struggling with the conformist thing -- she is so intent on getting straight-As, but getting those means putting too much effort in subjects you dislike, and kowtowing to her socialist teachers who are trying to indoctrinate rather than educate, and mock and dismiss her when she contradicts the party line they are dishing out.

  • protefeed||

    I screwed up the italics -- above should read:

    The third of these is totally not true: "Good students tend to be smart, hard-working, and conformist - three crucial traits for almost any job."

  • ||

    You don't get perfect grades by making a habit of telling your teachers what they don't want to hear.

    That depends. If you're disrupting class constantly, then you don't deserve good grades imho. If you're merely voicing unpopular opinions in a situation where voicing opinions is appropriate, very, very few teachers will dock your grades for that.

    You also don't get perfect grades by having many interests outside of getting perfect grades.

    Extracurricular activities are huuuuuuge in modern college admissions. You have to prove you're "well rounded" and shit.

    Now, imho this does force conformity because it forces such kids to spend their free time doing things they can put on their application (ie, debate club, NHS, school sports teams, etc) but not things like hanging out at the library, poking around interesting corners of the net, playing basketball with your friends, etc, all of which help make one truly well-rounded.

  • ||

    And here i thought the engineering classes were to acquire useful knowledge. In reality though, it was just a signaling mechanism. Bastards!!

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    My conscience, however, urges me to blow the whistle on the system anyway. Education is not magic. Professors can't make students better at whatever job awaits them with learned lectures on arcane topics. I'm glad I have a dream job for life. I worked hard for it. But society would be better off if taxpayers saved their money, students spent fewer years in school, and sheltered academics like me finally entered the Real World and found a real job.

    You should really do something about all that self-loathing, Caplan. Furthermore, the idea that "human resource manager", "decision analyst", or "operations system manager", as occupations, are any more or less "real" than any job in academia is risible.

  • Almanian||

    I'm making a shit ton of money as a "human resource manager". If it be "less real", then let us make the most of it!

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    If it be "less real", then let us make the most of it!

    Huzzah!

  • Sparky||

    But...but... I've been told that getting a "second-rate" education at a Community College doesn't make me good enough to play with the big kids. Never mind the fact that I have a decent paying full-time job already without a degree in anything.

  • Chinny Chin Chin||

    Education is very narrow; students learn the material you specifically teach them...

    Perhaps if you're a college prof whose teaching toolbox seems to contain only the lecture. And even then, I'm sure some of Caplan's students have learned valuable lessons in combatting boredom that he never intended to teach.

  • Almanian||

    Fuck, lost my comment.

    One more time - agree and disagree with aspects of this. However, I will definitely note that degrees are primarily used by companies to filter candidate pools to reasonable levels to make life easier for recruiters. Even fields like engrg and comp sci are chock full of people who can flat do the job, but don't have the degree, so "sorry, we're not talking to you."

    And, inevitably, we run into the case of the genius we just have to have, who flat KNOWS X and is the only person we can find with experience on this control system or that manufacturer's electronics...and they don't have a degree but we need to hire them.

    I always feel bad for the 500 other people I blew out for "not having a degree" when I hire the inevitable 1 or 2 every couple of years, but....that's the only way to keep it manageable.

    Also, "confirmation bias."

  • Cliché Bandit||

    I hired two developers both of which did NOT have degrees. They were beyond exceptional, and sure as fuck not cheap. I must have interviewed 15 or so degreed individuals, none could hold a candle...one guy had been develpoing actively for only six months and was self taught. When you come to the interview with working mock-ups though that speaks volumes.

  • ||

    Doing what you did takes work and thought. That is beyond most people. So, instead it is easy to just hire someone based on their degree and hope for the best.

  • Sparky||

    I can't remember the number of times I've been forced to work with a degreed person that was completely clueless. A very few make an effort to learn and become good at the job. Most quit after a couple weeks and go off to ruin some other company.

  • Almanian||

    Yep - we're hiring ANOTHER controls engineer w/no degree basically under the same circumstances. The guy knows his stuff cold, has been doing it on contract for umpteen years, and we can't find anyone else...and we're afraid someone else will snap him up and leave us with no one.

    Degrees? WE DON'T NEED NO STINKIN' DEGREES!

    Exprience and demonstrated accomplishments are ALWAYS the best indicators of potential future success. Always...

  • Cliché Bandit||

    STEM. Only degrees worth a shit. Not saying that others wont get you a nice cushy taxsucker job but on the whole a holder of a STEM degree is, in my opinion, a bazillion times better thant a liberal arts degree.

  • Vites acidae||

    STEM. [The] [o]nly degrees worth a shit. Not saying that [the] others won[']t get you a nice cushy taxsucker job [,] but [,] on the whole [,] a holder of a STEM degree is, in my opinion, a bazillion times better thant [sic] a liberal arts degree.

    If you paid more attention in those liberal arts class, you wouldn't write as if you were a 4th grade special needs student.

  • Cliché Bandit||

    +1 bandit

  • ||

    This is a flerking blog comment section, not a lifetime masterpiece for the ages.

  • Zeb||

    What about a liberal arts math degree?

  • ||

    That's the M in STEM

  • ||

    In the future, the value of formal secondary education will decline. Probably sooner than later.

  • ||

    Good students tend to be smart, hard-working, and conformist - three crucial traits for almost any job.

    In other words, ass-kissing sycophants who can be relied upon not to rock the boat.

  • ||

    Having actually attended one of those elite schools that apparently make you fascinating,

    Sorry Meg- it didn't work in your case.

  • lurker||

    Education is very narrow; students learn the material you specifically teach them

    This is just stupid. Having graduated with an engineering degree over 20 years ago, I learned general purpose problem-solving skills as well as facts and techniques specific to my specialty. Ditto for my core liberal arts courses which exposed me to literature, philosophy, etc., that I otherwise would have missed out on.

    How many jobs ... let you skate by with twelve hours of work a week?

    This is stupid too; 12 hours of lecture/week + homework/projects + exam preparation time + labs is close to or beyond 40 hours/week - not to mention the fact that I and most of my fellow students took typically around 15-16 hour loads rather than 12.

    As a professor, it is in my interest for the public to continue to believe in the magic of education: To imagine that the ivory tower transforms student lead into worker gold.

    This last statement sounds as though Caplan thinks he is teaching at a vocational school rather than a university.

  • Auric Demonocles||

    This spring I went from a master's program to a full time job. I've got about 20-30 hours per week of additional free time now.

  • Sparky||

    Having graduated with an engineering degree over 20 years ago, I learned general purpose problem-solving skills as well as facts and techniques specific to my specialty.

    That was 20 years ago.

    Ditto for my core liberal arts courses which exposed me to literature, philosophy, etc., that I otherwise would have missed out on.

    Did you learn them all from the same teacher?

    12 hours of lecture/week + homework/projects + exam preparation time + labs is close to or beyond 40 hours/week - not to mention the fact that I and most of my fellow students took typically around 15-16 hour loads rather than 12.

    You do realize that he's talking about how much time the teacher puts in right?

    This last statement sounds as though Caplan thinks he is teaching at a vocational school rather than a university.

    So the only way a person can be considered smart and competent is to get a degree from a school you approve of?

    Your statements sound like they are coming from someone who spent a good amount of time and money getting an important degree from a big name school. I congratulate you on your accomplishment, but to assume that that is the only way to be considered worth anything is just foolish.

  • Zeb||

    "You do realize that he's talking about how much time the teacher puts in right?"

    No, I'm pretty sure he is talking about the hours students put in. The "50% attendance" part should have given that away (professors are generally expected to show up for class). Of course, it is equally laughable to say that typical college students or professors only work 12 hours a week.

  • Sparky||

    My apologies, I misread that part of the article. However, the rest of my comment stands.

  • lurker||

    So the only way a person can be considered smart and competent is to get a degree from a school you approve of?

    Your statements sound like they are coming from someone who spent a good amount of time and money getting an important degree from a big name school. I congratulate you on your accomplishment, but to assume that that is the only way to be considered worth anything is just foolish.

    My apologies; my comments were not intended to sound elitist. In fact, I attended a state university with a very low tuition. While it was a good school, it was neither a "prestiege" school nor a big-name school.

    What I meant to say (and did a lousy job of saying) is that "creating workers" is the primary charter of a trade or vocational school rather than of a university. Getting a job is certainly one desired outcome of a university degree, but universities have other purposes as well, e.g. prepare the student for graduate school, instill a well-rounded education including the humanities and natural sciences as well as vocational, etc.

    I do not look down on non big-name universities (I graduated from one) or on vocational/trade schools; I only meant to state that Caplan's focus on converting students into workers is more appropriate to a trade or vocational school than to a university.

  • Sparky||

    I see where you're coming from now. I think the problem he is pointing out is similar to what you're saying though. People go to universities because they're told they have to by every teacher they encounter along the way. They go through however many years to get a degree in something they're interested in only to find out it's not worth what they thought it was going to be worth.

    Some people can take that experience and still make something of it. Some come out of college and end up at OWS thinking the world owes them stuff.

    My brother has a BA in business management and is currently employed as an exterminator. I have no degree and am working in the infrastructure management team at my company.

  • lurker||

    Yes, it sounds like we are all saying the same thing. I've worked with (and hired) outstanding people with university degrees, vocational degrees and with no degree. I've also worked with clueless people in all three categories.

    My feeling is that a university degree is a good and valuable thing, but it is not (nor should it be) a guarantee of employability, nor is it a requirement for employability, even in highly skilled vocations.

    I particularly share your impatience with people who think that because they have a degree the world owes them a great/high-paying job.

  • jtuf||

    Good students tend to be smart, hard-working, and conformist - three crucial traits for almost any job.

    Yes, and a fancy college degree that is unrelated to the job opening is also an honest signal of the applicants willingness to spend $100,000 grand on something with no practical benefit. So, if you want a yes man who will put in long hours spending your company into bankruptcy, hire a Harvard graduate.

  • ||

    Why would you want a whole office of conformist yes men?

  • ||

    Because your ego demands it, and you can be sure that will keep your golden parachute fully funded, that's why.

  • Sparky||

    +1 real world

  • ||

    Err, I'm told.

  • ||

    Depends on who "you" is.

    If "you" is the office manager, what RC said applies.

    If "you" is the owner/shareholders, you don't, but you also don't want to bother intervening in the hiring process.

  • Zeb||

    Does everything you spend money on have practical benefit?

    I have come to the conclusion that too many people go to college, there are too many liberal arts degrees and that there is probably a higher ed. bubble happening. But Education still does have value in and of itself if, for whatever reason, it makes your life better or more enjoyable. If you believe it is a guaranteed job, you are an idiot, but there are other reasons why it might be a good thing to spend that much on education.

  • Trespassers W||

    But Education still does have value in and of itself if, for whatever reason, it makes your life better or more enjoyable

    True. And it's also true that you don't need to pay five or six figures to get that.

  • cynical||

    Heh. You know how the president was thinking about trying to make it illegal to discriminate in hiring on the basis on unemployment?

    We should use the White House petition thingie to put a petition up making it illegal to discriminate for employment based on degree (excluding cases where a specific degree bears exact relevance for the position.) It would play the economically illiterate bleeding-heart left against the academically privileged upper middle class left.

  • ||

    Yawn. How many times do we need to see this argument rehashed.

    (1) "students learn the material you specifically teach them.". First, I don't believe this is true. Second, even if it is true, all it tells me is that Caplan is a terrible Prof. if he recognizes this and *still* can't design classes that teach useful skills. My gawd, Caplan -- if students learn what you teach them, then why not try teaching them something useful, you idiot!

    (2) Is 'Education as a Signaling Mechanism' really so bad. Don't we want smart and hard-working people to get the jobs? Hell, if you want dumb, lazy and "creative" types, I don't think you need a "lack of degree" to help you identify them. And, from the sounds of the previous comments, it doesn't sound like you need a degree to get hired if you are smart, hard-working and creative.

  • ||

    Is 'Education as a Signaling Mechanism' really so bad.

    It's really credentials as a signalling method, which would be fine if the credential had substance.

    When it doesn't (as a college degree increasingly doesn't), then, yes, its a bad thing.

  • ||

    Meh. I'm not convinced this is true. Credentials are only one part of an applicant's resume.

    If all an employer looks for is "presence of degree", then they deserve what they get, imo.

    Frankly, even if degrees don't provide 'job skills' (which I don't even believe to be true), I'd still rather have a populace that has been exposed to lots of ideas (which is, after all, what degrees mostly provide) than one in which everyone stops at high-school and just gets 'work-experience'.

    The notion that 'work-experience' is somehow more conducive to creative thinking than the allegedly automaton-producing University is laughable, and doesn't bear serious scrutiny in the history of the Western world. It works for the geniuses who have the freedom to explore -- but for the masses, it just starts the clock earlier on their conformist unthinking working life.

  • ||

    How many times do we need to see this argument rehashed.

    Reason.com, rehashing the same arguments until people finally fucking listen.

  • ||

    This. To the infinity power.

    Plus, many courses absolutely do not tolerate 50% absence and 12 hours a week is the time in class, not including homework and studying time. You don't do those things, you don't pass.

    There ain't many jobs that you have to pay tens of thousands of dollars a year to be allowed to do, either.

  • ||

    According to the signaling model, employers reward educational success because of what it shows ("signals") about the student. Good students tend to be smart, hard-working, and conformist - three crucial traits for almost any job. When a student excels in school, then, employers correctly infer that he's likely to be a good worker. What precisely did he study? What did he learn how to do? Mere details. As long as you were a good student, employers surmise that you'll quickly learn what you need to know on the job.

    And why, exactly, is this a case against education?

  • Mr. Mark||

    Few fields are as loaded with so much meaningless drivel-fluff-filler as education, instructional design, instructional psychology, instructional technology, blah, blah, blah...what-have-you.

    However:

    "Many educators sooth their consciences by insisting that "I teach my students how to think, not what to think." But this platitude goes against a hundred years of educational psychology. Education is very narrow; students learn the material you specifically teach them... if you're lucky. "

    We learn from experience. Instruction is just one form of it. When you go out and apply what you learned in the real world, you get feedback. (It worked, it kinda worked, it didn't work, send lawyers guns and money...)

    Understanding one narrow subject does carry over some advantages to related subjects, though specific transfer (the closer the relationship between subjects and environments, the greater the specificity) is the only strong form of transfer with empirical evidence to back it up.

    If an experienced person is clueless, you can't entirely blame their education.

    "Good students tend to be smart, hard-working, and conformist - three crucial traits for almost any job."

    Conformist? Good?

    Good for idiots who are utterly incapable of forming an original thought, making a quick decision based on judgment, addressing a situation for which no specific guidance has yet been provided? Good for them?

    Why do they call it management, when I think they mean to say herding?

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