Signaling in K-12
By Bryan Caplan
Whenever I write, “Education is mostly signaling,” many readers hear “Higher education is mostly signaling.”
I’m sincerely puzzled by this subliminal defanging of The Case Against Education. My K-12 memories include thousands of hours studying material I knew I’d never use after the final exam. The three years in Spanish were especially traumatic, but they’re only the tip of the signaling iceberg. How many years did you study poetry, art, music, history, and civics during elementary, middle, and high school? Even math often smells of signaling; honors math students usually have jobs that don’t use advanced math.
Question: Why are people so willing to let K-12 off the signaling hook? It could just be Social Desirability Bias: Criticizing high school makes you sound like you hate children or something. But I suspect it’s mainly lazy recollection. If you went to college, college memories leap to mind. You don’t have to struggle to remember jumping through academic hoops. Recalling K-12, in contrast, requires more mental effort because it’s a longer time span in the more distant past. As a result, people tend to substitute popular platitudes for first-hand experience.