A Story of Signaling
By Bryan Caplan
Interesting email from journalist Henri Astier, reprinted with his permission.
I am a French journalist living in London and – more relevant for the purpose of this email – an avid listener of Econtalk.
I enormously enjoyed all your appearance on that show and was recently reminded of the last one while re-reading a passage from the autobiography of the French philosopher Jean-François Revel.
This anecdote, I feel, vividly illustrates your ideas on education as signalling.
A few words of context first: in 1943 Revel, aged 19, was admitted to France’s elite Ecole normale supérieure. He also joined a resistance network as a part-time courier. The next spring the commander of his partisan group urged him to take his end-of-year exams (“I don’t want to be responsible for ruining your studies.”) But by June, the world was collapsing around Revel. The Nazis had arrested most of the network, and he had to flee to the relative safety of Lyon.
But he had one last oral exam to take at the Sorbonne before leaving. To expedite his exit, he left his suitcase a nearby restaurant (called Capoulade) so that he could head straight to the Gare de Lyon afterwards.
So on 6 June 1944, he sits down for his philosophy oral; his examiner, a then-prominent professor named Étienne Souriau, asks him: “Is matter capable of thinking?”
“I found it difficult not to giggle (…) As we were talking, Allied and German forces were slaughtering each other on Normandy beaches and our future depended on that battle; Grappin [his partisan commander] and other friends were being interrogated by the Gestapo; I could hear the distant sound of bombs falling, probably on Villeneuve-Saint-Georges, a railway hub the Royal Air Force was destroying every few days (ending all chances of a swift departure for Lyon). And in those times of tribulation and fear, I was being asked whether matter was capable of thinking! I succeeded in silencing my own amusement, summoned all the resources of my verbal and intellectual virtuosity, and improvised a frenetic monologue in which philosophers were slugging it out, from Hegel to Democritus, Helvetius, Spinoza, Engels, Empedocles and… Souriau. For historical objectivity demanded, in an exam, to always remember to mention the contribution to universal thought made by the maestro quizzing you (…) In the hours following my summing-up, I successively picked up a good mark, an honorable mention, and my suitcase atCapoulade.”
(Jean-François Revel, Le Voleur dans la maison vide,Plon, 1997, pp. 117-118)
The signalling nature of Revel’s education is put into stark relief here. The skills he was able to demonstrate were not just useless in the short term: the act of demonstrating them increased the risk of catastrophic capture. Yet in the long run the signalling effect proved effective. Being an alumnus of the ENS meant being recognised as part of France’s intellectual elite; ultimately his formidable rhetorical talents and encyclopaedic knowledge would earn him fame.
Incidentally Revel – who died 10 years ago – was France’s most pro-American thinker since Tocqueville. He is the author of Without Marx or Jesus (1970) and Anti-Americanism