Bryan Caplan  

An Answer For Arnold

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James Hamilton at a Fed Confer... Morning Reading...

Arnold asks:

OK, so Bryan's latest book is on stupid voters. One solution is to educate them. But his next to-be-written book, on education, says that education is merely a signal of ability. The data on GRE scores arguably validates that.

In any case, how can you believe on the one hand that education is merely a signal and on the other hand believe that education can produce more rational voters? Won't people's rationality as voters (or, more accurately, their willingness to vote in ways that Bryan or I would consider rational) depend on ability alone?

My reply:

1. Steve Miller and I have a paper where we examine the extent to which the tendency of education to "make people think like economists" is actually a disguised effect of IQ. We find that at least one-third of the apparent effect of education should actually be attributed to IQ. So while there is something to Arnold's concerns, there is still plenty of room for education to matter.

2. You might object that it will be extremely costly to significantly raise the average education levels of people with average or lower IQ. I'm sympathetic, but this ignores a cheaper, more realistic alternative: Revising the curriculum to emphasize subjects, like economics, with large political externalities.

3. Just because education is largely signaling, it does not follow that students are not learning anything! The point, rather, is that students are not learning job skills. I don't deny that students learn history in school; I just deny that knowledge of history makes people (historians aside) into measurably better workers.

Furthermore, strange as it seems, the signaling model should make us more optimistic about the prospects for curriculum reform! After all, if schools are teaching job skills, asking them to teach more economics to improve the quality of public policy is pretty quixotic: "Please, couldn't you focus more on society and less on what actually benefits your students?" But if schools are just making students jump through hoops to prove themselves, what's the harm in switching to hoops with positive externalities? Asking students to signal their ability by learning subjects with positive externalities could well be a free lunch.


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COMMENTS (4 to date)
Bruce G Charlton writes:

My current take is that formal education is (overall and on average) effective at raising job skills, but it is much less efficient at this than it could be - because formal education is also required to fulfill many other roles (from child-minding to social indoctrination).

So current schools are like a factory that has to rpoduce a hundred different products each with a different market. This multiplicity limits the efficiency with which they can produce any specific product.

But formal education could (probably will) evolve towards a more specific role in generic cognitive enhancement which would increase average jobs skills - and this would entail formal education dropping some of its other social functions which would then be licked up by other social institutions.

For example, abstract, systematic formal education cannot be a seven hour per day business for the majority of the population (most kids cannot concentrate on for this length of time, nor can they be motivated to do so), and the requirement to look after students for seven hours a day probably dilutes the specifically cognitive institutional function of schools.

So if schools became focused on just a few hours per day of really systematic education this would probably increase their effiiency at this task - but there would need to be new child-minding institutions to look after kids for the rest of the time.

If there was more competition between schools, with parents paying, then market forces/ natural selection would probably lead to more specifically-focused schools that got better academic results by dropping some of their other functions.

The future school might be more like a factory that produces - if not a single product - a small range of products of a specific type. Maybe more like a 'cramming' school (which prepares studnts to pass a specific examination), in the sense that a specialized school would be very focused on relatively narrow educational goals. Cramming schools don't do much signalling, they are judged purely by their results.

In such ways education might get more efficient at enhancing generic job skills - and lose some of their signalling functions.

Floccina writes:

“In any case, how can you believe on the one hand that education is merely a signal and on the other hand believe that education can produce more rational voters? Won't people's rationality as voters (or, more accurately, their willingness to vote in ways that Bryan or I would consider rational) depend on ability alone?”

Schooling is on equal to education. Some education does occur in school but IMHO much more occurs outside of school. As an aside many people seem to learn much more history from the history channel than from school. One goal of history teachers in schools seems to be to make history a good test for ability and diligence in doing so they manage to make it boring.

“Just because education is largely signaling, it does not follow that students are not learning anything! The point, rather, is that students are not learning job skills.”

Can I add here more important than job skills should be life skills. Random walk investing theory, the basic principles of physics and chemistry without the heavy math would IMO be very useful to the average blue collar worker. A little study of probability might save some from the state lotteries. Car repair might be good for college grads etc. We might teach people a little economics to improve their lives and so that people know how to vote. A little law so people know how to avoid jail might help also! If the goal where changed to be to teach people as much useful information that is likely to help them in life as possible and leave the universities and employers to figure who is the most qualified I think that we would far better off. Not everyone can go to college.

BTW Brian I am eagerly awaiting your book. This is a pet peeve of mine. I have 2 sons one who does very well in school and one who has an IQ of 95 and who struggles. It almost seems that school in designed to make sure that the slower one learns little and fails so that society knows he is a poor performer. Why not instead use everything we have (movies, shows, demonstrations, stories, etc.) to teach both the capable and the slow what they need to know to live good productive lives. If as a result in history class they just watch films and are tested on the important principles, which are so simple everyone gets an A would that be such a tragedy?

Karl Smith writes:

Of course I still argue that jumping through hoops makes improves their skills.

Not the least of reasons is the fact that some athletes do jump through
actual hoops to improve their skills even in sports that have no hoops associated with them.

Floccina writes:

BTW John Stossel is IMO a great educator. More of what he does would be great.

Again school is not equal to education. Education includes much more than schooling perhaps econtalk can go to radio and then to TV. Walter E. Williams way better than the idoit Limbaug! You guys need to get on TV more, TV can be where some real education occurs.

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