On Monday, my colleague Virgil Storr heard my IHS lecture on “The Case Against Education,” and sent me some interesting comments.  Here’s full exchange, with Virgil’s kind permission.

Quick question: Do we have good ways of figuring out who will be a scientists, translators, artists, economics professors when they’re 5, 10 or 15 years old? If not, then can’t we make the argument that we should hedge against the world being short a Bryan Caplan by making a bunch of 10 year olds learn calculus? And, that since we weren’t sure you’d be that and not a translator we had to make you take Spanish as well? And, it’s only by making you do a bunch of different stuff that you figure out what you’re good at, etc.?


Thanks for the feedback, Virgil.

It would be great to expose kids to a wide variety of occupations
they’re actually likely to have.  But schools mostly focus on subjects
with virtually no corresponding employment.  As I say in my book:


The permanent residents of the Ivory Tower often congratulate themselves
for broadening students’ horizons.  For the most part, however,
“broaden” means “expose students to yet another subject they’ll never
use in real life.”

Put yourself in the shoes of a Martian sociologist.  Your mission: Given
our curriculum, make an educated guess about what our economy looks
like.  You would probably work backwards from the premise that the
curriculum prepares students to be productive adults.  Since students
study reading, writing, and mathematics, you would correctly infer that
the modern economy requires literacy and numeracy.  So far, so good.

After this point, however, you would proceed to make one incorrect
inference after another.  Students have to spend years studying foreign
languages, so there must be a lot of jobs for translators.  Students
have to spend years studying history, therefore many go on to be
professional historians.  Students spend years “studying” physical
education.  The natural inference is that there are plenty of jobs in
professional sports.  A year in visual or performing arts?  There must
be ample demand for actors, dancers, musicians, and painters.  Teachers
emphasize classic literature and poetry.  A thriving market in literary
criticism is the logical explanation.  Every student has to take algebra
and geometry.  The Martian sociologist will conclude that the typical
worker occasionally solves quadratic equations and checks triangles for
congruence.  My point: Although we can picture an economy that fits our
curriculum like a glove, this economy bears little resemblance to our own.


Thanks Bryan. And, I’ll definitely download the intro once I get back.

So I agree with your argument. But, I was making a slightly different point though. It’s not about opening up our students minds, or exposing them to different jobs, or even focusing on things that are generally useful.

It’s that making sure society has a steady supply of folks in the professions where they will use the useless-for-almost-everyone-else stuff that we teach them that it’s socially desirable to waste a lot of people’s time in order to reduce the chance that someone who might have gone on to be a productive scholar, or engineer, or musician, etc. does learn what they need to learn in college to be successful in those (admittedly rare) careers.

My argument is that since as a society we don’t know which college freshmen will end up becoming research biologists but that we do know that if any are going to be successful research biologists that they have to have taken Bio 101 in their first semester in college, we better make all students take Bio 101. Yes, for the students that don’t become research biologists we’ve wasted there time. But, since the opportunity costs of freshmen are pretty low, it might be socially desirable to have 20 students waste their time so that we can ensure the 1 or 2 who will become research biologists learn what they need to in their first year of college. The same logic would justify making 20 students take calculus so that we make sure that the one who ends up becoming an engineer learns what they need to in the first year.

Of course, if we could reasonably predict say who will grow up to be sociology professors and accountants and doctors, etc., when they enter college then we could design curricula that help trains them for the career they will end up in. But, since neither we nor the students in our Micro I classes know who will end up becoming a professional economist we teach them all the difference between demand and quantity demanded so that the 1 who does end up becoming the professional economist learns what they needed to have learned at 18.

By this notion, students are in some sense being made to try out for certain high valued professions and professors are kinda talent scouts (who teach everyone the same steps to see who can dance).

Does that make sense?


Ah, now I get your point.  But I don’t think I have to modify my reply
much to meet it.

Right now, society only “makes sure” we have a “steady supply of folks”
in a tiny handful of academically prestigious professions.  But every
profession gets filled in the end.  What’s so special about the fields
that academia favors relative to the others?  I think the effect, if
any, is to funnel excessive talent into academically prestigious
occupations at the expense of other fields of equal or greater
importance.  Think about how many smart people never even consider
becoming entrepreneurs because they were exposed to higher mathematics
or classic literature at an early age!


First, definitely fine to blog.

Second, I like that reply. Ok, so I’ll concede that if prof X ended up becoming an entrepreneur instead of a professor, the state of knowledge in his field may be marginally worse than it turned out with him in it but society may have been dramatically better served.

Thanks for your reply,