The Career Consequences of Failing versus Forgetting
By Bryan Caplan
If you’re reading this blog, you probably didn’t fail a lot of classes in school. But I bet that you’ve totally forgotten a lot of those classes. I got A’s in junior high and high school Spanish, but barely speak a word of it.
Now ask yourself this:
How would your career have been different if you had failed all the classes you’ve totally forgotten?
According to the human capital model, failing (i.e., never knowing) course material should have exactly the same career consequences as forgetting (i.e., no longer knowing) course material. Either way, you lack the skills – and the labor market should treat you accordingly.
According to the signaling model, in contrast, the consequences of failing and forgetting can totally diverge. When you fail to learn useless material, you send a bad signal. When you demonstrate mastery of useless material, you send a good signal – whether or not retain what you learned. Employers naturally snub people who fail, yet smile upon those who merely forget.
Take me. If I’d failed Spanish, I couldn’t have gone to a good college, wouldn’t have gotten into Princeton’s Ph.D. program, and probably wouldn’t be a professor. But since I’ve merely forgotten my Spanish, I’m sitting in my professorial office, loving life.
How about you? How would your life have been different if you had failed all the classes you’ve totally forgotten?