Bryan Caplan  

The Education of Educators

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Page One of My Next Book... Bryan on Education...

I've often blogged about the dangers of selection bias (see here and here). So in writing a book about education, I have to wonder: To what extent is my personal experience atypical?

My main answer: My personal experience exaggerates the practicality of education. After all, a big part of my job is teaching students the very material that other professors once taught me. Thus, it's unusually easy for educators like me to connect classes we once took with tasks we now perform.

The test that really counts, however, is the extent to which the average student uses what he learned. Whenever I get a chance, I ask. It turns out that - leaving aside students who become professors themselves - classroom and workplace are practically disconnected. In fact, even people with degrees that I intuitively think of as "vocational" - like engineering and law - admit that the job they do has almost no connection to the classes they took.

Why then do employers pay my students more because I gave them A's in labor economics and industrial organization? The answer my book will flesh out in gory detail: signaling. Employers pay big bucks to people who excel in impractical subjects because such people tend to be smart, conscientious, and obedient to authority - in short, to be good workers. It's not what you learned - it's what your learning shows about you.


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The author at Modeled Behavior in a related article titled My Answer to Bryan's writes:
    Query on his on selection bias. I think those who spend their lives in academia will tend to underestimate the return to education. As Card points out the return to education is higher for those who have limited access. Moreover, academics te... [Tracked on March 18, 2007 8:53 PM]
COMMENTS (12 to date)
gabby writes:

i have a question, what about the idea that liberal education teaches you how to think? isn't this what we tell students in econ all the time? that the most important thing to learn is the economists way of thinking? same thing for engineers, doctors, etc., and that this way of thinking is best taught/learned in a controlled environment (i.e. where the stakes aren't high at first, then continually raised)?

Eric Crampton writes:

You've seen Richard Vedder's blog on the economics of higher education, no? See, for example:
http://collegeaffordability.blogspot.com/2006/11/cutting-college-costs-by-25-percent.html
http://collegeaffordability.blogspot.com/2006/11/three-as-appropriations-assessment-and.html

Steve writes:

I've become highly skeptical of signalling. My labor econ prof said that the sheepskin effect confirmed it, but it strikes me that people who do not finish their degrees do so because there was one or two key courses that they were having problems with.

One of the reasons employers like college graduates is that everyone at a halfway decent school has to take at least one math and two or three science courses. Many people are simply too innumerate to do this kind of work. For some students reading comprehension and writing is their downfall. Average scores for the language skills of college students have declined significantly in recent years. Researchers figure it's due to more foreign born students in the US school system.

Regarding practicality of knowledge. My first job out of college required me to use just about every subject I studied in school. If I'd stayed at that job longer I certainly would have used it all.

One engineer I met did say that his master's got him the job, though he didn't use it. I was surprised. The next engineer I spoke to said that was not the case for him at all--he used just about every course from grad school. Many fields such as law are so specialized that you may only use two or three courses from school. But then you wouldn't really know what you are going to use until you got hired. At some stage later in your career if you made partner, you might need to have a familiarity with what other specialists at your firm are doing, or you may have to shift into another subfield.

blink writes:

I agree that signaling is important, but I do not see how signaling alone justifies the diversity of classes and departments that most universities offer. I accept that education is signaling more than intelligence – which explains why a GED sends a mixed signal compared to a regular high school diploma – but why don’t we see more standardization – everyone pouring over the same esoteric texts in their original Latin, perhaps. If the test were for physical strength, surely one or two exercises (squat thrusts and bench press, say) would suffice. Why not so with education? Now, it seems, we offer a menu that allows students averse to the “meaty” exercises to prove their mettle with leg extensions, push ups, sit ups, bicep curls, even toe touches and jump-rope! Does this make the signal more informative? How?

MattS writes:

I figured your next book would be a popularization of your own brand of political economy. Something like Hartford's Underground Economist, except focusing on politics and other forms of irrational behavior.

Dan Klein writes:

There is never a good reason to call schooling "education", as opposed to calling it "schooling."

Andrew writes:

Steve may have a point. Much of what you are learn in school, you do not know well enough for it to be genuinely useful. A degree is one way of showing that you know the stuff you learned as a child well enough to actually use it, not just well enough to pass exams.

jp writes:
In fact, even people with degrees that I intuitively think of as "vocational" - like engineering and law - admit that the job they do has almost no connection to the classes they took.

Bryan, I don't know what lawyers you've been talking to, but I think you need a better sample. I'm in private practice and probably use regularly 50-70% of what I learned in law school. I don't think any practicing lawyer can safely avoid using at least the first-year curriculum, which makes up a third of legal education.

Buzzcut writes:

>>In fact, even people with degrees that I intuitively think of as "vocational" - like engineering and law - admit that the job they do has almost no connection to the classes they took.

Engineering is an interesting case. There are two kinds of engineering degrees. The BS in Engineering is very theoretical and mathematical. The BS in Engineering Technology is very practical and hands on.

The BSET degree is nowhere near as accepted as the BSE. In fact, from a licensing point of view, some states won't even license BSET grads, others require them to have much, much more experience.

Why is that? What does theoretical physics and math impart upon a graduate that, say, hands on work with motors and other stuff doesn't?

I have to agree with the other commentators that, at least for the engineering degree, college teaches you how to think. You do all these engineering problems, with wheels sliding down incline planes, or whatever, and learn to systematically think through the problem, applying first priciples to derive answers.

The nature of engineering employment is such that professors have no idea what real engineers do, and even if they did, things change so fast that they couldn't possibly figure out where engineering is going. But giving their students a good base of fundamentals and the ability to think through problems is what they're after.

Regina writes:

I’m torn on the signaling idea. Not every job is the same; you may or may not use the knowledge gained in school. However, in my case, even if I knew I wouldn’t need the knowledge I am gaining in classes, I wouldn’t regret school, because the experience is worth it alone. Besides what’s the harm in learning. In most cases, the degree is a must to get most jobs which is the main reason for school. I don’t know if all the grades are the most important to exam because I know from personal experience that set backs are apart of life. But getting a degree does show accomplishment and I can understand why that is important to employers. For all future and present college students, the best advice I can give is go class and do the best you can, even if you think the class is B.S.

Heather writes:

As an engineer, I disagree with the statement that "the job they do has almost no connection to the classes they took." Without the background of materials in college, I would not be able to understand my job or perform it.

I did continue on for my master's degree, which I use, but would not be necessary for my job. The strength of schooling, as previous postings have mentioned, is that it teaches you how to think about a problem and provides the experience of hundreds of years of human experimentation to build on.

Rocky writes:

My personal opinion about this topic is probally the same as most. I think the test will show the teacher how much you know and comprehend but like myself i can explain something perfectly but i cant get the right answer on the test. So their should be other projects or something like that to show how much effort the student is putting in to the class.

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