This was originally going to be my review of Bryan Caplan’s excellent new book, The Case Against Education. I was going to go over lots of interesting points where our ways of thinking differ. Instead, the introduction got a little sidetracked, so that worthy post will have to wait a bit.
To paraphrase a commenter on Slate Star Codex: suppose that there’s a magical tower that only people with IQs of at least 100 and some amount of conscientiousness can enter, and this magical tower slices four years off your lifespan. The natural next thing that happens is that employers start to prefer prospective employees who have proved they can enter the tower, and employers offer these employees higher salaries, or even make entering the tower a condition of being employed at all.5
Anyway: the natural next thing that happens is that employers start to demand that prospective employees show a certificate saying that they’ve been inside the tower. This makes everyone want to go to the tower, which enables somebody to set up a fence around the tower and charge hundreds of thousands of dollars to let people in.6
Rick (of Rick and Morty) knows:
Nassim Talib knows (quote is from Skin in the Game):
The curse of modernity is that we are increasingly populated by a class of people who are better at explaining than understanding, or better at explaining than doing. So learning isn’t quite what we teach inmates inside the high-security prisons called schools.
Talib considers this fact – that school is a prison – so obvious he tosses it out as an off-hand remark with no explanation. He’s right. If you’re looking at a classroom, you too know. Something Was Wrong. This isn’t a playground designed to teach useful knowledge and inspire creativity. It is a prison where we learn to guess the teacher’s password [LW · GW] and destroy creativity.
Robin Hanson knows: School is to submit. Signal submission. Submit to a life of signaling, obeying, being conscientious and conformist.
This cancer has taken our childhoods entirely. Often the rest of our lives as well. It replaces our hopes and dreams with hopes of survival via official approval and dreams of showing up naked to algebra class. Enough school so cripples your life, between losing time and being saddled with debt, that it severely damages your ability to have children. To get our children into slightly less dystopian prisons, we bid up adjacent housing and hire coaches and tutors to fill our kids’ every hour with the explicit aim of better test and admission results rather than knowledge. Then college shows up and takes everything we have left and more, with a 100% marginal tax rate.
School takes more than all of our money.
In exchange we learn little that we retain. Little of that is useful. Most of the useful stuff – writing, reading, basic math – we would have learned anyway.
In grade school I would often fake illness to get a day of solitary confinement in my room, where I could read books and listen to public radio. Also known as getting an education. I learned far more on those days.
In high school, I went to the hardest-to-get-into school in New York City. I had a great ‘zero’ period when I would do math competitions because I enjoyed them, and a great after school because I’d run off and play games. In between was torture. Literal clock watching. I spent history class correcting the teachers. I tried to take advanced placement classes, and they wouldn’t let me because my grades at boring classes weren’t high enough. So learned I could take the AP tests anyway, which I did.
I actually entitled my big English class project “get me out of here” and no one batted an eye.
For college, I majored in mathematics (STEM!) at a well-respected institution. I work with numbers constantly. I have never, not once, used any of that math for any purpose.
I was intentionally taught to write badly and read badly. I learned non-awful writing by writing online. “Appreciation” classes turned me off music, art and literature. If you compared what I got out of one statistics course (in which I mostly learned from studying a textbook) to what I learned from the rest of my college classes combined, and asked which has proven more valuable, I’m not sure which side wins.
I took one graduate math class, in analysis. The remember three things. One is that they asked us to note on our final exams if we were undergraduates, so they could pass us. The other is that the class consisted, entirely and literally, of a man with a thick, semi-understandable Russian accent copying his notes onto the board, while saying the thing he was copying onto the board.
The third thing is that it was the most valuable class I ever took, because it saved me from graduate school. Thanks, professor!
Instead of asking Scott’s question – why are DC’s graduation rates so low? – ask the question what the hell are these things called ‘high schools’ and what are we doing to the children we put inside them?
I know what we’re not doing. Teaching them to read, write or do arithmetic. That’s clear.
Instead? Fraud. We pretend to teach, they pretend to learn. Or rather, we tried that, and they couldn’t even pretend to learn, so we resorted to massive fraud and plain old not even testing the kids at all. We pretend to teach, and we pretend they pretended to learn.
We can’t even do massive fraud and really low standards right. Massive quantities of students fail anyway, barred from earning a living. Nice system.
Pretending the kids pretended to learn doesn’t work. Why? School isn’t about learning. It’s a prison. The ‘test’ be in your appointed cell at the appointed time, every time. Because it’s a prison. We don’t care if the kids can read, write or add. We care if they get credit for time served.
DC Public Schools HS teacher here (although I’m not returning next year, as is the case with many of my colleagues). As noted, one of the biggest factors in the graduation rates is the unexcused absences–if you look at the results of our external audit and investigation here, you see that for many schools, a significant number of our seniors “Passed Despite Excessive Absences in Regular Instruction Courses Required for Graduation”–over 40% of 2017 graduates at my high school, for example.
So the attendance policy is being strictly enforced now, and you can see how from that alone, a ~30% drop in expected graduates is possible. Some more details about strictly enforcing the attendance policy though:
1: DCPS has what’s called the ’80 20′ rule: A student that is absent for at least 20% of their classes is considered absent for the whole day.
2: Most schools have 5 periods, so an absence in one class would be considered an absence for the whole day.
3: If you have 10 or more unexcused absences in a class, you automatically get an F for the term.
4: If you are over 15 minutes late for a class, that is considered an unexcused absence.
5: A majority of these absences are in first period.
6: A majority of students in my school and many others live in single parent households.
7: These students are typically responsible for making sure their younger siblings get to school, if they have any.
8: Elementary and middle schools in my neighborhood start at the exact same time as high school.
9: Their doors do not open until 5 to 10 minutes before the starting bell, presumably for safety reasons.
10: Refer to point 4.
There’s many other problems at DCPS to be sure, but this set of circumstances alone is causing the largest increase in failing grades and graduation ineligibility at my high school, and basically every other 90+% black school in the district. You could see how this accounts for quite a bit of the difference between white and black graduation rates as well. There’s a reason why across the board, DCPS schools were not strictly enforcing this policy in previous years.
Fifteen minutes late to unnaturally early class so you could take a sibling to their unnaturally early class? You missed the whole day. Do that ten times in a term? We ruin your life. For want of two and a half hours.
I have no idea how one can see this, and present a human capital model of school with a straight face.
The signaling model is optimistic. It thinks students signal to employers, rather than politicians and administrators signaling to and stealing from voters.
Bryan Caplan’s economist hat is permanently glued to his forehead. So he sees school not as a genocidal dystopian soul-crushing nightmare of universal incarceration, but merely a colossal waste of time and money. He looks at the economic costs and benefits, compares signaling explanations to human capital ones, and calculates when and for whom school is worthwhile. Worthwhile for which individuals, for their private benefit? Worthwhile to what extent for society, as a public good?
Reading The Case Against Education is to watch Bryan think. Bryan goes argument by argument, consideration by consideration, to consider the true costs and benefits of formal education.
At each step, you see the questions he asks, the way he sets up the problems, examines data, considers hypothesis and reaches conclusions. He acts like someone trying to discover how things work, sorting through what he knows and considering what the world would look like if it worked in different ways. You get a book about education, but you also get an education, where it counts – the question of how to think.
Bryan lives the virtue of local validity. This is super important; when Eliezer Yudkowsky calls it the key to sanity and civilization, he’s not kidding.
Because we get to watch Bryan think, we get tons of places where he and I think very differently. Many of them are worth examining in detail. There’s a lot of data that’s difficult to interpret, and questions without clear answers. Often Bryan is extremely generous to education’s case, and shows even generous assumptions are insufficient. Other times, Bryan’s logic leads him to be overly harsh. I got the distinct sense that Bryan would have been very happy to have been proven wrong. We get a consideration of education, its pros and its cons, as Bryan sees them – an explorer, rather than an advocate.
Overall, what does Bryan find? Time and again, Bryan finds that the signaling model of education fits the facts, and the human capital argument does not fit the facts. His arguments are convincing.
Bryan concludes that if you take what you’ve read and experienced and shut up and multiply, no matter how generous you are to school’s cause, you will find that social returns to schooling are remarkably terrible.
That’s most of the human capital you get from school anyway: Reading, writing, basic math and shutting up. You get selfish returns to school by signaling conformity, conscientiousness and intelligence. To not follow the standard procedure for signaling conformity and conscientiousness is to signal their opposites, so we’re caught in an increasingly expensive signaling trap we can’t escape.
Bryan then bites quite the bullet:
Most critics of our education system complain we aren’t spending our money in the right way, or that preachers in teachers’ clothing are leading our nation’s children down dark paths. While I semi-sympathize, these critics miss what I see as our educational system’s supreme defect: there’s way too much education.
He means there’s way too much formal education. I don’t think Bryan thinks people spend too little time learning about the world or acquiring skills! He thinks they do so via other, far superior paths, where they remember what they learn and what they learn is valuable.
People don’t know things. People need skills. It’s a problem. School doesn’t solve the problem, it exacerbates it.
Bryan’s proposed remedy is the separation of school and state. At times he flirts with going farther, and taxing school, but recoils. We don’t really want to discourage school the way we discourage, say, income. Do we?
Meta/Life Note: I will be hunkering down at work for a bit. So posting, including the continuation of this point and my responding to comments, will likely continue to be slow for at least a few weeks. And please use texts or phone calls for things that need responses quicker than a day.
Zvi, I went to what I am 99% certain is the same high school you did.
It was four of the most enjoyable years of my life.
I learned a lot. Even in the “useless” classes (like Drafting), I learned skills that I still use. The Computer Science classes were amazing. So were the math classes. So were the “Tech” classes. I made friends who are still my friends, almost two decades later. I got my first job working for the school (and it was tremendously fun, and very educational). The “math team” was great, too.
Most of the classmates with whom I’ve spoken have similar things to say.
Perhaps people who hated school just complain louder?
Pretty sure you're right that we went to the same school.
I see it as, yes, it was way better than many other places, and lacked the worst dysfunctions. It had really smart kids. It was basically what you'd want it to be, aside from teachers being chosen by seniority, which resulted in some bad/crazy ones that did their best to run my life for months on end or (via grades) permanently.
And yeah, Mr. Geller and the math team were world-class and awesome. Can't complain about the math side. Computer science they wouldn't let me take due to not good enough average, so I can't comment there.
To me, it's not "I went to a terrible high school" because I didn't. It's "I went to an exceptionally good high school and it was still the thing that it was."
Even if you are correct, this still points to a massive failing.
Lets say 95% of students feel as you feel. My feelings on primary and secondary school are more upset and angry than Zvi has expressed here, and had about twenty people in my graduating class; perhaps every other student in my class loved it. In that case, it's still a system where one in twenty children are bored, stifled, and hurt. A system that was exactly like the current system but where those children like me and Zvi who would take "sick days" to get out could freely get out feels like it would be a much better system.
But that’s not the claim being made, is it? The claim is that the system is just terrible, for basically everyone, and that it would be best to just burn it down wholesale.
And that’s silly.
Let me be clear about something. The high school that I went to (which, again, I am 99% certain is the same one that Zvi went to) was, and is, very selective. What’s more, it was selective purely on the basis of performance on a single entrance exam. Admission criteria did not take into account “extracurriculars”, recommendations, attendance in middle school, grades in middle school, “character references”, personal essays, or any other such nonsense. The result was that only “smart kids” get in.
This makes a huge difference in the learning environment. There’s basically no bullying, there are no “jocks” to speak of, and the concept of being made fun of for being smart, or for being a “nerd”, or for being focused on schoolwork, is absurd even to contemplate. If anything, the school might encourage too great a focus on academics, studying, schoolwork, etc. (such criticisms have been made, at any rate, though I’m not sure I agree with them). In any case, it was, truly, a learning environment.
My point, in explaining all of this, is this:
Most schools are not like the one I went to. I am entirely willing to believe, therefore, that most schools are terrible. What I find to be an absurd claim, however, is that all schools are terrible, and, even more so, the claim that all schools are necessarily terrible. That is simply false as a matter of empirical fact.
So, by all means, destroy most of the system, and tile it with copies of my high school (and then do something else for kids who aren’t smart enough to get into such a place; I don’t know what, but I also don’t really care). And, by all means, allow some particularly smart, particularly independent-minded or whatever, kids (like, perhaps, Zvi) to excuse themselves. But the idea that there’s a fundamental “case against education” to be made, that includes my high school among its targets, is unsupportable.
There’s basically no bullying, there are no “jocks” to speak of, and the concept of being made fun of for being smart, or for being a “nerd”, or for being focused on schoolwork, is absurd even to contemplate.
I didn't see any mention of bullying or the like in the OP? (Leaving aside the fact that putting forward "just select the smartest kids w/ a high-stakes entrance exam" as a solution to bullying is preposterous.) OP's complaints have to do with ineffective teachers and institutional red tape, and if top-class high schools are so bad, I struggle to think what the average school must be like!
I didn’t see any mention of bullying or the like in the OP?
I didn’t say otherwise. The purpose of my description was to paint a picture of the environment, not necessarily to respond to specific things in the OP.
(Leaving aside the fact that putting forward “just select the smartest kids w/ a high-stakes entrance exam” as a solution to bullying is preposterous.)
Why leave this aside? In my experience (at no less than three schools of this sort, across two very different countries!), this is precisely the solution, and it works outstandingly well. (Or, rather, it’s part of the solution; and to be even more precise, it’s the necessary first step toward the solution, the entirety of which is of course not quite so easy, but mostly has to do with selectivity plus sufficiently engaging academics.)
That aside… to be honest, I have to ask whether you read the part of my comment where I explicitly state my purpose in describing my high school experience.
OP’s complaints have to do with ineffective teachers and institutional red tape, and if top-class high schools are so bad, I struggle to think what the average school must be like!
I am saying that top-class high schools (or, at least, one top-class high school) are not, in fact, “so bad”. The claim that the average school is terrible is one which I also explicitly mentioned, and readily assented to.
All in all, I get the impression that you’re responding to the comment you imagine I wrote, not the comment I actually wrote.
I am saying that top-class high schools (or, at least, one top-class high school) are not, in fact, “so bad”.
But OP is saying that they are, and you don't really address any of his claims. Seriously, if you can be spending most of your time correcting your own lecturers when they get things wrong, and being otherwise bored to death-- or being denied access to electives because of your scores in unrelated subjects-- that's terrible enough. We wouldn't accept this in any institution which was attempting to provide even minimally-"engaging" academics.
if you can be spending most of your time correcting your own lecturers when they get things wrong
If you’re sufficiently smart and academically inclined, you can find yourself correcting some of your teachers without the school, or even those teachers, being bad. Finding very skilled teachers is not easy. Finding teachers who are so skilled that they are never caught in a mistake by a roomful of students selected for intelligence and academic inclination from a city of eight million is even harder. The question is: how prevalent is this?
In my experience at the high school in question, such things (correcting the teachers) tended to be relatively common in subjects like history and so on, and fairly rare in STEM-type classes. This was, of course, because the school had math, science, and technology as its focus.
Likewise, if you’re sufficiently smart and academically inclined, and also insufficiently loaded down with schoolwork, you may find yourself bored to death. In my four years of high school, I did occasionally find myself in a state that could be described as “bored”, but would be more accurately described as “falling asleep due to having so much difficult and time-consuming schoolwork, what with taking college-level science classes, participating in mathematics competitions, and taking extra programming classes on weekends”. Naturally, in the interesting classes (read: science, math, and tech), I was engaged enough to counteract this drowsiness; in the useless classes (read: literature, art, music, foreign language), I was not.
Now, you can blame the school for this, and you might well be right. Let us be clear, however, that the accusation to make would be “this school falls short of Platonic perfection”, and not “this school is terrible”.
being denied access to electives because of your scores in unrelated subjects
I can comment only generally, as I do not know the details of Zvi’s academic situation and I don’t recall what the rules were—it has been some years since I graduated. So, if you like, this may have been a boneheaded policy. There were enough of those, certainly.
That said—just what exactly is wrong with this policy? If everyone wants to get into an elective, but there aren’t enough seats in the class, then why not give them preferentially to the highest-performing students? I struggle to discern any fundamental unfairness in this approach.
We wouldn’t accept this in any institution which was attempting to provide even minimally-“engaging” academics.
Ridiculous. Let’s please avoid the hyperbole. Again: if the claim is “Zvi’s/Said’s high school failed to live up to the Platonic ideal of the perfect educational environment”, then, yes: guilty as charged. But if the claim is “this is clearly terrible”, then I’m afraid that is simply absurd.
Naturally, in the interesting classes (read: science, math, and tech), I was engaged enough to counteract this drowsiness; in the useless classes (read: literature, art, music, foreign language), I was not.
Understood. But even allowing that this school did feature quite a few engaging classes (and again, it's not like OP denies this), is it really fair to praise a school as 'top-class' or 'the best school in city X' when its narrow STEM focus leads it to provide markedly-substandard education in such subjects as literature, art, history and foreign languages? Note that this is not at all an unrealistic or "Platonic" standard, since there are plenty of schools that obviously succeed in engaging their students academically wrt. these subjects (in a relative sense, obviously)! So what exactly is "ridiculous" or hyperbole about such a claim?
is it really fair to praise a school as ‘top-class’ or ’the best school in city X’
Of course it’s fair. That this school is top-class cannot be seriously disputed. (I will leave it to others to substantiate this claim, if desired; it would be unseemly to focus overlong on the objective merits of a school from which I myself graduated. The information required to do so is available from public sources.)
As for “the best school in [the] city”, please display for me where I said that. Your use of quotation marks indicates that you’re quoting my words, when in fact that is not so. I never said anything about it being the best. (Neither, for that matter, did Zvi.)
narrow STEM focus
A focus on science, technology, and mathematics is not “narrow”. Those subjects constitute, in fact, most of what it is actually important to teach in a formal academic setting, especially to high-schoolers.
markedly-substandard education in such subjects as literature, art, history and foreign languages
Where are you getting “markedly-substandard”? Please do not put words in my mouth. The education we received in literature and history was, in fact, quite a bit above standard (as evidenced by my, and my classmates’, stellar scores on standardized tests in said subjects, as well as everything I have seen since then concerning the average level of knowledge of these subjects in the general population).
(The “art appreciation” class was, of course, mostly worthless—an “easy A”, so to speak—as well it should have been; it would’ve been better for there not to have been such a thing, of course, but, as I said—the place wasn’t perfect. As for foreign language classes, indeed those were exactly as awful as you’d expect from non-immersion-based non-intensive language instruction. But in both of these cases, I would be shocked to find that the quality of instruction we received was actually substandard!)
You are the kind of person for which school, especially schools like the one you attended, *least* fails. But that kind of person is one which least *needs* school. I'm confident you could have had much of the same experience doing anything with a group of similarly intelligent people.
I'll grant that it's possible and likely that you in fact did enjoy it.
You wrote (down-thread):
The claim is that the system is just terrible, for basically everyone, and that it would be best to just burn it down wholesale.
And that’s silly.
I think the claim *still* stands. You're an outlier. You're not a member of the set "basically everyone" and therefore hurting you or people like you to "just burn it down wholesale" is probably *still* warranted. Or are you claiming that your enjoyment of school, or anyone else's, is sufficient to justify school in *exactly* the form it takes now (and at the same cost)?
You are the kind of person for which school, especially schools like the one you attended, least fails. But that kind of person is one which least needs school. I’m confident you could have had much of the same experience doing anything with a group of similarly intelligent people.
In my experience, this is diametrically false. The idea that any intelligent person is able to thrive academically, and make progress in the acquisition of academic knowledge, etc., in the absence of the sort of structure that school imposes, couldn’t be more wrong.
You’re not a member of the set “basically everyone”
Are the other three thousand people I went to school with also not a member of the set “basically everyone”? What about all the people who just didn’t make the cutoff for the entrance exam, or who could’ve made it in, but declined to apply or to accept, for other reasons, though they would’ve done as well as I did—are they also not members of the set “basically everyone”? Are you going to claim that most of them were more like Zvi than like me? But I’ve spoken with enough of my former classmates to make that claim unbelievable. Or do you simply exclude everyone above, say, +1.5 SD of intelligence, from “basically everyone”?
If your claim is “everyone with your aptitudes and mindset is irrelevant; we will happily harm you and your kind to benefit the rest”, well, I suppose that’s honest, in its own way. It also makes you my enemy, of course. Was it your intention to proclaim exactly this?
 Such as the long commute via public transport—not at all a trivial concern for the parents of a 12-year-old in New York City (especially a girl).
I often find it productive to ask myself the question: if the world I'm living in right now is a dystopia, what are its most dystopian features? School is near the top of that list, as is circumcision.
I know. I still feel psychologically wrecked/burned by it all and afraid to be proud of expressing myself (my strengths and weaknesses), and still overly judged by other people's notion of what it means to make proper progress. It defines and tracks *everyone*, it limits our social circles (and confines us to permanent bubbles), and it makes us feel guilty over doing anything that's different. I frequently feel like I'm on the defensive. I wish I could have a childhood I was fully proud of - that I want to show off to the rest of the world (and create value for others), but it has all been destroyed by my desire to please others. I also wish I could have an Internet history I was fully proud of.. rather than one I'm defensive about..
And because of the system, I still feel constantly on the defensive for justifying my current life path.
People should be proud of what they learn - they should want to show it off to the rest of the world, rather than throw all their assignments away. They should also be proud of how they're unique/different from others (including their weaknesses that *others* can fill them up in), especially if they process the world in a weird/neurodivergent way (and can't necessarily learn the same way that others do) or if they work best in a "support role" who make smart people feel comfortable. They should be unashamed of showing how they might be wrong (and how their thinking can be fixed in the future). They overrate independence and ability to be seen as "better than others".
And they should take advantage of their comparative strengths when their neuroplasticity/fluid intelligence is at its *highest*, and receive feedback from older people who actually have experience interacting with the rest of the world (rather than in their own bubbles)
BTW - I took a unique extreme in going for maximizing my own knowledge rather than optimizing for the meta-game of figuring out what knowledge I should learn and what knowledge is best left in the heads of others (and I seem to have better memory for knowledge in the heads of others than most people do).
An interesting thing to look at here is the history of literacy in England. Here's a graph of illiteracy, declining from 90% to 5% (for men) from 1500 to 1900. Of interest is that the compulsory schooling acts--basically the adoption of a system very much like our modern system--happened in 1870, at which point male illiteracy was already down to 20%. So how were 80% of men learning to read before then? Well, the government was subsidizing education starting in about 1830, even though it wasn't compulsory. But male illiteracy was only 40% then!
The answer seems to be something like: there were schools that people paid for, or they did Sunday school, or they got tutored individually, or they got tutored in small groups, much in the same way that people might learn any other skill now, like art.
I agree wholeheartedly with Zvi's aesthetic opinion, which is that schools seem absurdly terrible, like a kind of dumb, terrible joke. I certainly wouldn't want to have to go to school again myself. I might rather select some different kind of minimum-security prison if I could.
However, I am not a child any more. When I was a child, I was different and I had a different personality. I went to a public school and a STEM magnet high school, and it was fine. It was a big waste of time, mind you. (I declined to go to college.) But it wasn't an incredibly unpleasant big waste of time, and unlike Zvi's experience it wasn't obviously worse than if my parents had just left me at home alone.
(I'm actually curious if Zvi would elaborate on his negative experience, which I didn't really understand yet. What's so unpleasant about sitting in class expending a tenth of your brainpower, if you are a smart kid? I sat in my class expending a tenth of my brainpower and I passed notes to people and programmed my calculator and read books and did math and thought about chess. That doesn't sound maximally productive, but it certainly doesn't sound torturous.)
There are many children like Zvi, who self-report hating school. Probably there are also many children who are ready to do something other than dick around in day care until they are N years old. I hope alternative arrangements flourish for those children and I am hopeful that my future children are among them. But there are definitely many, many children who are more or less OK with schools as they are, and all their stupid mediocrity. I'm wary of our crowd of outliers with our adult eyes looking with vicarious horror at something which is not actually that bad for the principals involved.
I suppose I should also chime in with "school wasn't that miserable for me," but I do recall thinking there was an obviously better option at the time--just spending my time alternating between reading in the library by my house and running around in the park by my house.
I also only recall two dominance contests with teachers, and remember myself as winning both of them--my guess is that many smart adults who are bitter about school are bitter about being forced into those sorts of dominance contests (and losing them).
I agree with the feelings presented here. This particular equilibrium has an awful lot of reinforcing points against it.
The Wikipedia page for compulsory public education describes the movement as being about homogenizing immigrants and keeping federal money out of the hands of the Catholic Church, which agrees with the conformity argument.
The page for child labor laws cites compulsory education as being paired with child labor laws - which is to say, a big chunk of the motivation for public schooling seems to have been keeping children off the street when they were not allowed to work anymore. This agrees with the childcare argument.
At first blush, the historical context suggests that our complaints about the system are only that it costs a lot while working as intended.
So I suppose the question becomes: should we consider a new form of institution with the singular goal of increasing human capital?
I'm not sure your points reject the thesis "the goal of schools is increasing human capital".
"Conformity" is really common knowledge, which is a very useful thing.
"Keeping children off the street" doesn't directly raise human capital, rather, being "on the street" might lower it. The children are going to learn something from someone, and it's not necessarily good. E.g. I would be worried about crime.
Also, universities exist, their creation had different motives, and their goal of human capital is even more explicit. Even though their methods are largely similar.
By the way, "human capital" largely refers to person's potential to create economic value. It's not 100% clear to me that you use it that way. You may instead be thinking "creativity and a love of knowledge", which isn't quite the same.
I agree that conformity and keeping children off the street are valuable in-and-of themselves, but I think it is worth distinguishing an increase from loss-prevention. It is also worth distinguishing things which are working on accident from those which are working on purpose; schools don't try to achieve conformity in the same way they try to achieve reading standards. To me conformity looks mostly like a side-effect of striving for order and safety in the name of the childcare function. So even if we accept the original intention as good, I think we could do it better by being explicit about it.
I am comfortable with considering human capital in the literal economic sense. It seems to me the 'creativity and love of knowledge' interpretation is converging with the economic productivity interpretation as a consequence of the proportional decline in unskilled labor and proportional increase in knowledge work. If we asked the question 'what kind of institution would maximize human capital' anew, it seems like a natural problem to solve would be hammering out things like what does productivity even look like.
Clearly we can't expect everyone to go into media, or research, or software, but I put it to you that the weaker case of semi-skilled and skilled labor (like advanced manufacturing) still supports the creativity and love of knowledge interpretation because of the timescales involved. My current intuitions look like this:
The population of people who can expect stable careers with one skillset are low
This is because the demand for a given skillset is not stable
I expect this instability to get worse, in the form of shorter average periods of demand, before it gets better
As a consequence, I expect people will need to learn multiple skillsets over their productive lives
It seems to me that in an environment where we expect people to need to learn multiple skillsets, a population of people who get hedonic or moral satisfaction out of learning new things is likely to be more productive overall. In such a case, designing an institution to maximize learning and love of knowledge would be the human capital maximizing strategy.
It seems to me the 'creativity and love of knowledge' interpretation is converging with the economic productivity interpretation
Creativity and love of knowledge are good things, but they are insufficient. There are also things like the patience to do boring things that need to be done. I think that's one thing school teaches well.
My most negative image of someone who has love of knowledge and not much patience is someone who spends all day reading philosophy or other highly theoretical subjects, but quickly gives up on most practical endeavors, because it's too boring. The economic productivity of this person is 0.
By the way, I'm not sure what assumptions you're working from. Do you believe that school actively harms love of knowledge, or that it merely doesn't teach it? I myself believe that the effect is positive (but tiny) for all but a small fraction of students, and the there isn't a known better way to teach it. Therefore I ask myself what other factors contribute to human capital and whether school improves any of those (and I believe that it does).
To me conformity looks mostly like a side-effect of striving for order and safety
You initially cited a source saying that schools were created to homogenize immigrants. Sure, the goal isn't quite as explicit as reading standards, but I'm sure you could find some statements about schools creating shared identity, shared values, etc.
You initially cited a source saying that schools were created to homogenize immigrants. Sure, the goal isn't quite as explicit as reading standards, but I'm sure you could find some statements about schools creating shared identity, shared values, etc
The political movement that started a thing and the daily administration of a thing have no intrinsic relationship. I think we need to look at the subject with fine-enough granularity to be able to distinguish them. Mission statements, pledges, etc. are effectively meaningless and are where these shared values statements live; they are not common knowledge except insofar as being a signal of membership, and even that is weak. I could not tell you a single mission statement from any school or employer of mine. By contrast, literacy and numeracy are things people do, that enable them to be productive directly. Even from the purely practical standpoint of 'what do schools do that work' we notice immediately that conformity and curriculum are approached very differently.
Interestingly, I note that every high school develops a group of students who are explicit in their opposition to conformity as a principle. There was not much engagement with any principle associated with the curriculum where I went to school. This has no particular implications for whether either is good, it just reinforces that they are different.
I believe school actively harms love of knowledge. I don't know anyone who liked school that is also a curious person; the people I know who liked school liked to be successful, and knowing what was expected of them. There is one lesson plan, taught at one pace, and deviation in any direction is discouraged unless there's a particularly capable teacher. In my language arts classes I was told to stop reading; in social studies to ask fewer questions and participate less; they successfully managed to hide any reason math was interesting or useful.
I assert people are curious by default; they have to be to learn to walk or speak or socialize. Sufficient love of knowledge is inborn in my view - it takes quite a bit to batter it out of them.
I don't know anyone who liked school that is also a curious person
That's not a very strong argument.
In my language arts classes I was told to stop reading; in social studies to ask fewer questions and participate less;
Presumably that had no effect, and you grew up to be quite curious anyway.
I assert people are curious by default; they have to be to learn to walk or speak or socialize.
That's a very optimistic view. Sure, small children are naturally curious in some ways, but I suggest that most also naturally grow out of it (or you could say that parents are the ones who "batter it out of them"). I see no reason to believe that, e.g. children before compulsory education used to be more curious or had more love for knowledge, when they grew up (of course, it's hard to love knowledge when you can't read).
Well, this post clearly comes from the heart. This isn't really a good thing. Don't forget that your personal experience may not be representative of the average person.
Now, I haven't read the book, so I have many questions. For one, how do you estimate what a person's economic productivity would have been if they hadn't finished school? I don't see an obvious valid way to do it (I see many invalid ones though).
Most of the useful stuff – writing, reading, basic math – we would have learned anyway.
You probably meant "our parent's would have taught us anyway". Which is only true if they have the time, and if they actually know how to read, write and do basic math.
For one, how do you estimate what a person's economic productivity would have been if they hadn't finished school? I don't see an obvious valid way to do it (I see many invalid ones though).
My suspicion is that if you want to engage with the literature on a subject, you need to actually read the relevant books and papers--it's very common that someone hears about an illustrative argument, says "oh, but they didn't rule out hypothesis X," but of course the scientists thought of that and did actually test hypothesis X. Or you're objecting to the use of observational studies to estimate counterfactuals, at which point you need to be thinking about rare natural experiments and basically throwing out most of the modern econometrics literature.
You probably meant "our parent's would have taught us anyway". Which is only true if they have the time, and if they actually know how to read, write and do basic math.
Or Sesame Street, or so on--unschooling (that is, telling the government you're homeschooling your kids and then not) tends to result in people performing about a grade worse on tests than their age suggests, which is a pretty tiny difference considering the amount of effort that goes into schooling.
My suspicion is that if you want to engage with the literature on a subject, you need to actually read the relevant books and papers
Well, that's a complicated question. Do I want to engage with the literature (the book)? That depends, can I take the literature seriously or is it just libertarian wet dreams? I don't know, OP didn't convince me entirely, so I'm asking for more details.
unschooling (that is, telling the government you're homeschooling your kids and then not)
Interesting. But wikipedia says "Unschooling's interest-based nature does not mean that it is a "hands off" approach to education. Parents tend to involve themselves, especially with younger children", which is a bit different.
<...> tends to result in people performing about a grade worse on tests than their age suggests
Do you have a source for this? I would worry that the kinds of parents who choose unschooling are not a representative sample. Although if unschooling was really neglectful homeschooling, that would be interesting.
Do I want to engage with the literature (the book)? That depends, can I take the literature seriously or is it just libertarian wet dreams?
"The literature" in this context isn't just Caplan's book (which you can take seriously), but also the papers he's citing and other books; a nontrivial part of his book is looking at the studies that schooling proponents do and evaluating their results.
That is, it's one thing to, say, look at people who are pro-Green and notice all the unsupported assumptions in their reasoning, and another thing to also look at people who are pro-Blue and compare the reasoning styles. Oftentimes whole fields of knowledge are just clumsily grasping in the dark, but only critically evaluating people in that field with a particular position will lead to a misshapen view of the actual state of knowledge. Beware of the man of one study, and all that.
Do you have a source for this? I would worry that the kinds of parents who choose unschooling are not a representative sample. Although if unschooling was really neglectful homeschooling, that would be interesting.
I couldn't find it in five minutes of searching; most things linked back to Peter Gray's study, which didn't look at the thing I was remembering. I do recall this being matched as well as they could, but of course the parents aren't a representative sample.
I'm not interested in the studies of schooling proponents and I'm not citing their work. The situation is not symmetric. Schools already exist and so we know what the world with schools looks like. The question is, "what would a world without schools look like". It's possible that pro-school arguments are weak, and it's possible that anti-school arguments are stronger. But even if the expected outcome of demolishing schools was positive, I would not support it unless the confidence in this outcome was also very high. Because the worst case scenario seems very bad.
When I ask if I can take Caplan's book seriously, I'm asking if he's aware of such considerations or if his argument ends with "there is no proof that schools work so we should demolish them".
Of course, demolishing all schools isn't the only option. And I guess I could update my beliefs about whether something like unschooling should be encouraged more.
Yes, Caplan is aware of all of the considerations you've raised. It's a good read too.
He also doesn't push "demolishing all schools" but cutting government subsidies. He's also confident that that's not going to happen. Even in the event that substantial cuts in subsidies *were* realized, he doesn't imagine *no* schools, just significantly fewer. He also 'supports' subsidized grade school (as a form of daycare). His conclusions are most directed at graduate school, college, and, to a lesser extent, high school.
And maybe it's not clear, but Caplan's book is about the benefits of education, in its current forms, being weak *relative to their costs* (e.g. other opportunities).
If you say that, I'll have to raise my confidence in Caplan a little bit. But I'd raise it a lot more if you hinted at what those considerations actually look like. How high is his confidence in his conclusions, and where is that confidence coming from?
I strongly agree w/ Zvi's post, but also think there is some good pushback in the comments so far. Particularly from Said about his experience at the same school Zvi went to. I know a few people who recently graduated from that school, and what I hear from them suggests it is better in several important ways than even the very good high school I went to.
I'm interested in a discussion about what to do. What are better designs for institutions of primary education? How do we instill an essential curiosity early on?
I think this discussion can go in two directions. The first is just an ideal model of education. Without political constraints, how do you teach someone about the world and get them to care? The second is what can be done, starting at the current system. There are so many rules and regulations in place, from state to federal level (specifically in the US). What are some possible approaches to nudge us in one of the right directions?
The US does have schools like the Sudbury Valley School in the current political constraints. There's a lot of room for alternative schools inside the US provided the school can fund itself and doesn't rely on government grants.
If you have a billionaire who wants a great school for his kids and there's a clear proposal about how to build such a school the school could be build without much political problems.
Yes, some people have wonderfully enjoyable experiences at school and some of them even learn things. Caplan doesn't dispute that.
There's nothing wrong with, e.g. lectures, for teaching people. The main problem with education, as a 'system', is that *most* of its function is signalling, e.g. providing credentials, by which people can be sorted and ranked by employers.
How do we instill an essential curiosity early on?
This seems kinda perverse. Are you trying to brainstorms ways to instill curiosity in people that don't have any real control over what they get to learn? How would that work? There are forms of 'schooling' that aren't structured in really any similar ways to the common versions of the U.S. education system, e.g. unschooling, but they're fundamentally opposed to the idea of *instilling* curiosity. Why instill something in someone when you can just *protect* what already exists?
I think this discussion can go in two directions. The first is just an ideal model of education. Without political constraints, how do you teach someone about the world and get them to care?
Caplan, and myself, and I suspect Zvi too, would claim that the idea of teaching anyone that doesn't want to learn is (almost always) just bad. The worst part of our current system is that it's compulsory. People already care, tho maybe not about the same things you'd choose for them. Why shouldn't they learn about whatever it is they already care about?
You should read Caplan's book. He's *very* thorough and considers every point mentioned here in the comments.
The third thing is that it was the most valuable class I ever took, because it saved me from graduate school.
I honestly wish I'd had that class. I think my physical chemistry classes were fundamentally similar, except that I failed them by continuing to grad school.
It seems obvious to me that society needs engineers and surgeons and scientists, and that those people actually do need a lot of education in the time-consuming, systematic-building-of-skills sense. It also seems obvious that society needs only 5% (wild guess) of the population to have that sort of education. Our society seems to have decided that it would be unconscionable to tell a child, however meatheaded, that they will never join that 5%. Instead we prefer to force all children to continue on that path until the age of 18, then encourage them to borrow to go further. Then most of them discover that they were never going to join the 5% and old people wonder why they're so angry.
Hmmm... in this model, humanities majors might realize the truth earlier, because even 18-year olds can't avoid the realization that an English degree isn't a ticket to wealth. They might get angry when they're still in college. Seems plausible.