Business Brainwashing and Vocational Education
By Bryan Caplan
I’m a huge fan of child labor, also known as “vocational education.” Almost everyone would be better off if students in the bottom half of their class began full-time apprenticeships after elementary school. If you hate sitting still and you’re old enough to work, you should probably leave school and learn a trade. The current system prepares such kids to do zero jobs; at least my proposal would prepare them to do one job. In slogan form: 1>0.
David Balan, one of my three favorite liberals, leveled an interesting objection to my proposal, shared with his permission. David’s concern: Expanding vocational education would intensify the already severe problem of business brainwashing. In his view, the business world is infected by narrow materialism, unquestioning conformism, and outright deception. Academic education is a vital counterbalance. School teaches us to question the status quo, to think for ourselves, and appreciate the plurality of values. David admits that some teens need to learn how to please the customer and respect their supervisors. But this worker-bee mentality can easily go too far. Expanding vocational education would make matters even worse than they already are.
My apologies to David if I’m failing his Ideological Turing Test; I’m happy to post any corrections or clarifications he provides. At least as stated, though, David is proverbially straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel.
1. Due to anti-market bias, most people view business propaganda with deep cynicism. This doesn’t mean that normal people have a Spock-like ability to tune out marketing. But our default response to business propaganda is a sarcastic inner, “Yea, yea, yeaaa.”
2. As a result of people’s deep skepticism, businesses know that they have almost no hope of changing anyone’s core values. That’s why most businesses appeal to basic human drives, also known as “the lowest common denominator”: hedonism, lust, vanity, and greed. It’s easy to blame these traits on capitalism, but evolutionary psychology says otherwise.
3. In any case, the business world suffers from a severe public goods problem. Business as a whole might benefit if businesses joined forces to inculcate pro-business attitudes. But each individual business is better off jockeying for market share, even if it hurts the image of their industry or business in general: “Let our competition worry about the health of the capitalist system.”
4. Academic education does indeed instill a distinct set values. But I see near-zero evidence that schools encourage students to “think for themselves.” Even college professors who openly glorify independent thinking rarely welcome it in practice. So what values do schools really instill? From what I’ve seen, American schools – primary, secondary, and tertiary, public and private – push nationalism, blind worship of majority rule, and the Whig theory of history. Every regulation the U.S. government ever adopted and every war the U.S. fought (except Vietnam and maybe Iraq II) was a Very Good Idea.
5. Academic propaganda is markedly more persuasive than business propaganda because (a) people trust kindly teachers far more than they trust greedy businessmen, and (b) governments are better at overcoming the public goods problems of indoctrination.
6. Academic propaganda is intrinsically more dangerous than business propaganda. Nationalism, blind worship of majority rule, and the Whig theory of history can and usually do lead to popular self-righteous support for the mistreatment of foreigners and other unpopular out-groups. Yes, xenophobia, like hedonism, lust, vanity, and greed, is part of human nature. But xenophobia is much easier to manipulate, and most adults are too lazy to severely mistreat out-groups on their own initiative.
7. Reality check: Almost no one is eager to kill for his employer or favorite corporation. Millions are eager to kill for their flag and country. Business propaganda is kind of stupid, but academic propaganda is downright scary.
The main shortcoming of business propaganda, in my view, is that it neglects workers in favor of consumers. Businesses try a lot harder to shape our buying habits than our work habits. Vocational education would help correct this imbalance. If C, D, and F students started apprenticeships right after elementary school, they would spend their teenage years in a peer group where hard work and a can-do attitude are the path to high status. This would work wonders for underachievers, especially macho teen males, who currently gravitate to idleness and crime.