The more I read about education, the more I realize that social scientists have two radically different approaches. 

The first is the economic approach: Judging education by pecuniary return.  According to the economic approach, education is a great success.  The tragedy is that so few people take advantage of the golden investment opportunity that education provides.  A prime example: Goldin and Katz’s The Race Between Education and Technology.   

The second is the academic approach: Judging education by learning.  According to the academic approach, education is disappointing at best, and a disgrace at worst.  The tragedy is that so few students take advantage of the golden intellectual opportunity that education provides.  A prime example: Arum and Roksa’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably already familiar with the economic approach to education, so I’m going to focus on the academic approach.  The academic approach is just as data-driven as the economic approach, but builds on different data: what you know (and learn), instead of how much money you make (and gain).  Academically Adrift, which focuses on learning during the first two years of college, reaches typical results for this literature:

[M]any students are only minimally improving their skills in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing during their journeys through higher education.  From their freshman entrance to the end of their sophomore year, students in our sample on average have improved these skills, as measured by the CLA [Collegiate Learning Assessment], by only 0.18 standard deviations…

With a large sample of more than 2,300 students, we observe no statistically significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills for at least 45 percent of the students in our study. 

This is hardly surprising considering the fact that college students spend little time studying and avoid challenging classes like the plague:

[O]n average, [students] report spending only 12 hours per week studying… Even more alarming, 37 percent of students reported spending less than five hours per week preparing for their courses.

In fact:

If we presume that students are sleeping eight hours a night, which is a generous assumption given their tardiness and at times disheveled appearance in early morning classes, that leaves 85 hours a week for other activities… What is this additional time spent on?  It seems to be spent mostly on socializing and recreation.

On the surface, the economic and academic perspectives on education are irreconcilable.  The economic perspective: “Since education sharply raises income, how can it fail to mold students into sharply more productive workers?”  The academic perspective: “Since education fails to noticeably raise skill, how can it possibly mold students into noticeably more productive workers?” 

In my book in progress, The Case Against Education, a running theme will be that both perspectives are right about the variables that excite them.  Education sharply raises income despite the fact that it fails to make students much more productive.  Impossible?  Hardly.  The signaling model of education can explain both facts without breaking a sweat.  Long story short: As long as low-productivity people are less likely to attend and complete school, and employers lack perfect information, remaining in school can causally boost your earnings even if you fail to learn anything useful – or anything at all.  That’s all it takes. 

At the same time, The Case Against Education will argue that both the economic and academic perspectives are wrong to glorify education.*  A modern society can survive and thrive even if most people don’t master academic skills.  How do we know?  Because the vast majority of the population has failed to master academic skills – and modern societies survive and thrive nonetheless. 

It is only a slight exaggeration to compare academia to opera.  Both are great for the small minority with the intellect and inclination to appreciate them.  The rest of the population has little use for either – and there’s no good reason to force it down their throats.  In fact, there are good reasons not to do so.  Imagine forcing everyone in Yankee stadium to attend the Metropolitan Opera instead.  For every Yankee fan who discovered the magic of opera, a hundred or more would be horribly bored and resentful.  In their boredom and resentment, they’d complain and fidget, marring the experience for the genuine opera fans. 

The same principle is at work in classrooms all over the world.  Educators pressure or compel students to study high culture they’re never going to use in real life, then wonder why it’s so hard to teach them anything.  Meanwhile, the students who actually want to learn are bored by the slow pace and endure their disgruntled peers’ emotional abuse.  What a waste.

* At times, Academically Adrift seems to embrace the signaling model:

While in the long term this country’s global competitiveness is likely weakened by a white-collar workforce that is not uniformly trained at a rigorous level, colleges where limited academic learning occurs in the short term can still fulfill their primary social functions: students are allocated to occupational positions based on their credentials, not their skills…

But the embrace is far from consistent:

Occupational destinations in modern economies are increasingly dependent on an individual’s academic achievements.  The attainment of long-term occupational success in the economy requires not only academic credentials, but likely also academic skills.