Russ on Progress and Signaling
By Bryan Caplan
Bryan wants to argue that conformity ossifies our behavior, but the
world around us is full of non-conformity that eventually becomes no big
deal. The first few people who bought a Palm Pilot looked goofy poking
at a screen with a stylus. I remember. I was one of them. Now, it is
totally culturally acceptable to poke at a screen with a stylus. How did
that happen? PDAs are useful, so there were market forces to encourage
tolerating the poking behavior.
As far as I can tell, though, Russ and I don’t deeply disagree. Minor weirdness (poking a screen with a stylus) provokes minor stigma (a few weird glances), ever so slightly retarding progress. As weirdness increases, so does stigma, which further slows progress – or even halts it altogether.
Do Russ and I disagree on a less fundamental level? Unclear. In my judgment, our society severely stigmatizes failure to attend a four-year college. As a result, online education poses little threat to the status quo. If Russ disagrees, I’m curious to hear why.
Russ also interestingly mentions home schooling:
Empirically, how does Bryan explain the home-schooling movement? In 2007
there were 1.5 million home-schooled children, about 3% of the
school-age population. I call that a big number though Bryan might
disagree. But the point is that millions of kids and their parents
risked the stigma of appearing extremely different to their neighbors.
They did that because they thought it was worth it.
More power to them. To repeat, though, my claim isn’t that unconventional progress never happens, but that it’s unusually slow and unreliable. Even if you consider 3% home schooling an amazing triumph, note the continued absence of “home B.A.s,” not to mention “home Ph.D.s.” Expect that to change anytime soon? I’ll bet against it.
P.S. If you think that “home Ph.D.s” are pedagogically infeasible, I beg to differ. I know many autodidacts who equal or exceed the knowledge of conventional Ph.D.s. Without the credential, though, the labor market largely ignores their expertise.