The Magic of Education
By Bryan Caplan
I’ve been in school for the last 35 years – 21 years as a student, the rest as a professor. As a result, the Real World is almost completely foreign to me. I don’t know how to do much of anything. While I had a few menial jobs in my teens, my first-hand knowledge of the world of work beyond the ivory tower is roughly zero.
I’m not alone. Most professors’ experience is almost as narrow as mine. If you want to succeed in academia, the Real World is a distraction. I have a dream job for life because I excelled in my coursework year after year, won admission to prestigious schools, and published a couple dozen articles for other professors to read. That’s what it takes – and that’s all it takes.
Considering how studiously I’ve ignored the Real World, you might think that the Real World would return the favor by ignoring me. But it doesn’t! I’ve influenced the Real World careers of thousands of students. How? With grades. At the end of every semester, I test my students to see how well they understand my courses, and grade them from A to F. Other professors do the same. And remarkably, employers care about our ivory tower judgments. Students with lots of A’s finish and get pleasant, high-paid jobs. Students with a lots of F’s don’t finish and get unpleasant, low-paid jobs. If that.
Why do employers care about grades and diplomas? The “obvious” story, to most people, is that professors teach their students skills they’ll eventually use on the job. Low grades, no diploma, few skills.
This story isn’t entirely wrong; literacy and numeracy are a big deal. But the “obvious” story is far from complete. Think about all the time students spend studying history, art, music, foreign languages, poetry, and mathematical proofs. What you learn in most classes is, in all honesty, useless in the vast majority of occupations. This is hardly surprising when you remember how little professors like me know about the Real World. How can I possibly improve my students’ ability to do a vast array of jobs that I don’t know how to do myself? It would be nothing short of magic. I’d have to be Merlin, Gandalf, or Dumbledore to complete the ritual:
Step 2: The students learn the material.
Step 3: Magic.
Step 4: My students become slightly better bankers, salesmen, managers, etc.
Yes, I can train graduate students to become professors. No magic there; I’m teaching them the one job I know. But what about my
thousands of students who won’t become economics professors? I can’t
teach what I don’t know, and I don’t know how to do the jobs they’re
going to have. Few professors do.
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.
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.
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.