Bryan Caplan  

So Why Don't Students Like School?

Exacerbating Problems Always... Sumner on Neoliberalism...
I just finished Why Don't Students Like School?  I'll review it shortly, but let me leak my leading complaint: The book is mistitled.  Frankly, it doesn't even try to explain why students don't like school.

If you had to answer the book's title question, what would you say?  Try to frame your answers around the human capital versus the signalling models of education.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (31 to date)
OneEyedMan writes:

"I'll never use any of this in the real world" is clearly the complaint of a student who resents spending time on a signaling exercise.

"This is is so boring" could go either way, either representing some pointless signaling exercise of rote memorization or some boring but practical body of knowledge necessary for a job.

When I didn't like school, most of what it feel unpleasant was that school was clearly made for the benefit of educators and policy makers rather than students. Arbitrary discipline, pointless bureaucratic rules, hours unpleasant to the teenage body, classes meant to satisfy what teachers thought was important, even when I had a clear path for my own education, and of course an absurdly long summer break built around an agricultural society that no longer exists.

Boonton writes:

What's interesting about schools is that advocates for reform often like to talk about the customers of the school but the real question is who are the schools customers?

We say the parents, but the parents do not pay for the school, the taxpayers do.

We say students but as you point out lots of kids don't like school.

Maybe what's not being considered is a dirty little secret about one of the key customers of schools, the taxpayers. It's not just about making a social investment that yields positive income gains over the long run. It's about locking up the brats for 8 hours a day. This may sound cold but its very real. Kids cause a lot of trouble, especially groups of kids on their own. Our developed economy, unlike the days of the family farm buffetted by ample empty space, offers a lot of potential for destructiveness for idle kids to cause and get caught in. Locking 'em up in a controlled environment, then, serves the same purpose as modest prison people who are just going to be disruptive a well needed 'time out'.

School gives us a regular time each weekday where we can get our work and chores done where the 'critical mass' of unsupervised, uncontrolled kids in the environment is kept at a min. This is not only appreciated by childless adults but also even by parents most of whom appreciate a time out. Of course if you can do something else useful like educate the kids that's all for the better.

Needless to say, this is an excellent explanation for why kids are always going to hate school. If school is doing its job (or part of it), kids will always hate it for the same reason criminals hate the county jail.

In terms of human capital? Well schools are stressful in that it forces kids to exercise lots of social skill like negotiation, signaling, acquiring friends, managing enemies and so on. This is a major investment but since young kids have little experience in life they are ignorant of the return this investment will pay them in the distant future. Hence in terms of rational economic actors kids hate school because they are aware of its costs but ignorant of its benefits. It feels to them like they are being forced to make an unprofitable investment.

tim writes:

I've been working in the corporate world for the last 20 years (my last year in high school was an internship program) and I skipped college. But I have recently started working towards a BA.

The inefficiency and incompetency at the administration level astounds me. And frequently the instructors are either people who have never worked in the private sector or, if they had, weren't very good at whatever profession they are now supposedly qualified to teach on.

Phil writes:

Children cannot see far enough into the future to think of school as an investment in human capital. Nor do they see the possibility that employers might discriminate against them without a high school diploma. High school students can see that learning biology is an investment in becoming a doctor, or shop class is good experience in becoming a carpenter, but they don't like what they're not interested in. The future doctor loathes home ec and the future carpenter loathes English Lit. I wouldn't be surprised if the author didn't choose the title; I think someone chose it to sell more books.

Zdeno writes:

Part of it is that students implicitly recognize their efforts as wasteful signaling. Also:

- Low-IQ students become frustrated. Nobody likes doing things they aren't good at it.

- High-IQ students are angered by assignments and material that demand time investment rather than genuine understanding, i.e. tests of conscientiousness instead of intelligence.

- Men dislike school because K-12 and PS education methods have been shifting towards rewarding the more feminine virtues of conformity, obedience, attention to detail and diligence. Also, claiming to dislike school (and backing it up by skipping class, not studying) is a credible signal of low-conformity, low-future time orientation, low regard for norms, and other socially deviant traits that women find attractive.

In my experiences taking and teaching classes, I think the prediction that women of moderate intelligence are the happiest and most enthusiastic students is confirmed by observation.



Damien writes:

Although I mainly do research, I also teach regularly at a reasonably well-known European university.

My understanding is that the vast majority of students (I'd say 80+ percent) have no interest whatsoever in their major and are there because they need a college degree (or their parents do not want them to get anything less than a BA and these students are not courageous enough to stand up to them). They are aware that they are not building much human capital but they want credentials. Very few students actually take the "hard" classes that require regular work and might allow them to build *some* human capital (e.g. computer programming, statistics). They rather tend to gravitate toward the easier classes in which they can get a passing grade reasonably easily. Unsurprisingly, many of these students end up finding employment in occupations for which holders of a BA would have been considered overqualified 40 years ago.

Others become school teachers because it offers job security and credentialism rules the day in the education sector (mostly due to government regulations). This in itself already partly explains why students don't like school. They don't want to be there AND NEITHER DO THE TEACHERS!

Boonton writes:

I'm not sure I buy males disliking K-12 because new methods emphasize 'feminine virtues'. Was the old school style Pink Floyd satirized ("You can't have your pudding until you eat your meats!") beloved by students or did they skip school and try to get out of it when they could? I think its much more simple, kids like to raise hell. They especially like to raise hell with lots of their friends. School is very frustrating since they are hanging out with so many of their friends but can't raise hell.

I also don't think the issue is wasteful signaling. On the contrary school kids have lots of signaling opportunities. They can signal to get approval (and goods) from their parents, their teachers, their peers. There's also plenty of opportunity for anti-social signaling...gaining status by being the bully of the group, the class clown and so on. I think if anything students suffer from an overload of signaling possibilities.

Imagine this from the kids POV. Before they start school they are masters of a very simple 'market' at home trading with their parents. School is a massive social market with numerous short and long term strategies open to them. While this offers some kids a lot of new possibilities for fun and rewards, for others its highly stressful.

Prakhar Goel writes:

Hard to tell, I actually liked the last two schools that I have been in.

Chris writes:

Most students hate school because they believe that it is intended to build human capital but all of their classes have near zero real world application.

Since the classes are worthless they feel like they are wasting their time learning things that they don't need.

If students understood more clearly that the goal of school is to get through school they would have an easier time putting up with the nonsense. But, if too many understood this the value of the signal would likely diminish.

Matt writes:

Our school system is incredibly anti-emergent. If students show any skill outside of read book take test they are shunned. If a child finds a creative answer to a problem they are told, "That's not the answer I was looking for."

"Read book, take test" is not practical in the real world and is far too homogoneous. Children are desperate to please their elders, but if they can't conform to the accepted model, they are helpless.

I think that is why employers love education so much and children hate it. To employers it says, "I can go along with the crowd and am skilled at doing the same thing everyone else is doing." To children it says, "Firefighter? Astronaut? No, no. You're more the middle management type."

Tracy W writes:

I don't think human capital or signalling theory are good explanations of why students like or don't like school. They maybe can explain why kids go to school, or why parents want them to go to school, but that's a different matter.

My own memories of school were that individual teachers and the other kids in the class had a big effect on whether I liked or didn't like that class. And I remember one of my friends at uni, who was studying physics, saying that he'd spent his last year at high school telling himself "I like physics, it's just that I have a bad teacher."

Doc Merlin writes:

People don't like school because its roughly the worst way to actually learn things. Humans like learning (look at the time you waste clicking links on wikipedia as an example), and school isn't at all conducive to learning.

Rebecca Burlingame writes:

Watching the move Shawshank Redemption, I was struck by the resemblence of the men lining up single file for a meal, to what young students are expected to do.

But what I think of often is a bit different. Having had the chance to return to school recently, I was struck by the class reaction to students who enjoy interaction with their teachers. For the teachers, it's a mixed blessing: while they appreciate the student who enjoys the experience, the rest of the class hates it. And who can blame them? After all, the best learning tends to take place in one on one environments, something I learned years ago as a piano teacher. Were it not for needs of efficiency related to money, people could experience for themselves what true education is all about, one on one with their teacher.

The other element in all this is how the bar gets set continually higher for all who have a passion for anything. For instance, because of organizations such as the AMA and what they do to those who would heal, students know that chances are what they study may not pan out, because of the heavy competition involved. Only when organizations such as AMA lose some degree of their powers, will students be free to go into the world and work with communities through what they learn.

Dan Weber writes:

Tell an adult "learn this history/biology/physics/something-else-you-aren't-interested-in and then take a test. And if you do bad you lose your job."

Just watch the resentment cascade off of them in waves.


The prison-model isn't that bad. It's probably not a coincidence that it's at the top of Robin Hanson's list.

The vast vast majority of school rules are not there to improve education -- they are there to ease administration.

HH writes:

My pet theory is a story of status battle. Teachers and administrators constantly tell students "what we teach is important - you'll be using this for the rest of your lives." That makes teachers feel important. Students, of course, know better than that: there's little purpose to learning long division in a world of calculators, for example. Thus, students refuse to grant teachers this status claim because that knocks teachers down a peg and makes students feel important.

I've long argued that schools should just admit that most of what they teach is the academic equivalent of athletic preseason conditioning. Just like a football player will never benchpress or run a mile in a game, the practice prepares his body for the activities that do happen in a game. Similarly, most students will never have to integrate a natural log function or analyze a play in real life, but those activities exercise their brain to prepare it for the demands of real life [human capital formation!]. If teachers just admitted that, maybe students wouldn't feel like learning also means giving in to teachers' demand for self-importance.

Boonton writes:

I think it's a stretch to speak of kids making complicated rational calculations on their 'return on investment' of learning various skills in the classroom.

But if we are going to talk about investment let's talk about discount rates. Kids have a huge discount rate. They will take an ice cream today over an ice cream tomorrow, two ice creams tomorrow, or even free ice creams for a year. Our brains cause us to lower our discount rate as we mature. School then is disliked since it is trying to force a lower discount rate on a person whose presently in a high rate mindset.

George X writes:

Boonton wrote: I think it's a stretch to speak of kids making complicated rational calculations on their 'return on investment' of learning various skills in the classroom.

I don't make "complicated rational calculations" about how much I should pay for ketchup; I don't even comparison shop. But enough people do comparison shop that I can just pay the sale price and be pretty sure it's close to optimal. Little bits of calculation spread out over a lot of actors can simulate complex thought; I could swear there's some sophisticated economics term for this....

Anyway, in answer to Bryan's question, Mu. I liked school, precisely because it was orderly: it was an escape from a chaotic home (not a bad home, overall, just not a great place to think). It was a really good school, though, probably in the same league as T.J. in Fairfax or Stuyvesant in New York City, so maybe there was less to hate. And while as a nerd I didn't exactly have the highest status, I don't think I was ever bullied.

I did resent getting up at six in the morning, along with much of the work, and my motivation was lower for things I couldn't see using as an adult, but since I thought I was going to be a physics professor, math and physics seemed very, very practical to me.

The kids who didn't like school I dismissed as rich, spoiled idiots. Which is not to say they didn't have valid reasons to dislike school; I just have no idea what they were.

On another note, Paul Graham has some relevant comments: scroll down to the word "suspicious".

agnostic writes:

I doubt that the average student hates or dislikes school. There are parts that the student hates, but on net?

Most students have a sense of eagerness mixed with a rush of anxiety about what adventures are going to unfold today. Where else do adolescents get to pile en masse into a single enclosed building for a good stretch of time, with all the carnival atmosphere that brings, now that malls are dead and hardly any dance clubs let in teenagers?

Do you remember summer vacation? It was fun, but you definitely feel more adrift and alienated because you're not surrounded by all those people. By mid-August, you're already dreaming about what the new school year is going to be like. What are the cute freshman girls going to look like, will you share a class with your childhood crush, etc.?

Even the authority figures provide for some staged rebellion, like South Korean riots. Outside of school, rebellious boys don't have much of a chance to take on the authorities without getting severely punished. In school, you quarrel a bit with the teacher, the teacher puts their foot down, and there you go. It doesn't escalate, and it gives the kid an outlet for rebelliousness.

Most recent high school grads get very nostalgic about school right after graduating, when the memories are still fresh and therefore rosy spectacles are unlikely. Same with kids who graduate elementary school -- "Man, you remember how fun it was to have recess twice a day?!"

So there's some kind of selection bias here, whereby the majority (who enjoy school) don't use a megaphone to say so, while the minority (who hate school) rant about it.

Foobarista writes:

School != Education.

Sitting in a class having someone drone boringly isn't where I learned. I managed to limp through high school and discovered "learning" when I went to junior college and had better books, better instructors, and less "boring lecture" classroom formats. After I transferred to university, I basically didn't bother with lectures except when something important was happening, such as midterm/final exam prep or something.

One thing I figured over time was I didn't like the "simulation" aspect to education. I wanted to do Something Real, not a bunch of paper drills that would be graded and tossed. I think this is why my favorite classes were classes with labs or longer-term projects where there was something interesting done with the work product, versus "do it, turn in, get grade, toss in garbage".

Isegoria writes:

If schools aim to imprison students for the good of their true customers, the taxpayers, may I note that one attracts more flies with honey. New York spends $17,000 per student. An annual pass at Walt Disney World costs around $600.

Boonton writes:

But enough people do comparison shop that I can just pay the sale price and be pretty sure it's close to optimal.

True but from the point of view of a 3rd grader, how does one measure the return on spending a half hour doing artwork versus a half hour doing math work? You comparison shop because you learned how to do it by first learning from your parents, then by wasting the first paychecks you earned until you learned the 'value of a dollar'. I'm willing to accept that 3rd graders are making complex market based decisions in 3rd grade, but I don't accept those decisions are about returns in the 'grownup world'.

What I think we should keep in mind is that in childhood markets exist but they are markets insulated from the world of grownup markets. We bargained for status on the playground, approval from authority figures while hedging against being seen as teacher's pets by our peers, we deployed game theory to optimize our returns within the 'system' we were in....All of this was very real market behavior IMO but had nothing to do with the adult world. At least in my memory the adult world of markets was at least one step removed. Yes I knew things cost money and I knew sometimes we didn't have enough money but I didn't have a feel for much we got in a week, month, year and how that translated into opportunity costs when choosing what to buy, into liquidity risk as we bring an account very low and so on. I'm doubtful that many of my fanciful decisions about what my adult life was going to be were very sophisticated.

I think there's a good analogy for globization here. Before we go to school we are inside a tiny family market where we bargain with our parents (and siblings if we have any) for approval, the things we want etc. Like a small, closed economy it's easy to become a Warren Buffet of this type of market. Then we hit school and realize we are little fish inside a huge complicated market. Like with globalization, some take advantage of this and reach for things they never thought were possible. Others, though, are horrified to see their present achievements instantly reduced to dust. One reaction is to try to master the new market (enjoy school), the other is to seek protectionism (hate school).

I did resent getting up at six in the morning, along with much of the work, and my motivation was lower for things I couldn't see using as an adult, ...

I'm curious about this. Was it so much that you couldn't see using it as an adult or as much you didn't like the thing and figured you'd shape your adult life to avoid it? Did you gravitate towards math and physics because you liked them and hence though you'd choose an adult life that used them (i.e. physics professor) or did you really think about a career path in your youth and choose the subjects to like based on that?

If schools aim to imprison students for the good of their true customers, the taxpayers, may I note that one attracts more flies with honey. New York spends $17,000 per student. An annual pass at Walt Disney World costs around $600.

Walt Disney expects you to supervise and monitor your kids in their parks yourself rather than letting them run rampant like hooligans.....which is how they keep the cost at $600 a year. Also the annual pass is a bit like a gym membership. Yea some people use it every day but the profit comes from the suckers who buy it and only use it one or two days.

Faze writes:

Both are right! Conscientiousness (social capital) got me my jobs and propelled me up the lower rungs of the ladder. Once I was established, the signaling value of my Ivy League degree kicked in, giving me credibility ("he's one of us") at the highest executive level. Without exhibiting conscientiousness at the start, I would have been weeded out at the lower level, Ivy degree or no.

Tom West writes:

I'm a little confused. As far as I can tell, most people don't really enjoy their job. They enjoy the perks (like getting paid), but few are the people who would continue to work in the absence of the need to be paid.

Well, why wouldn't the majority of students dislike school for the same reason? It's work, and for those not particularly academically inclined, it's not rewarding work.

I'm also unsure about why it being useful in the long term would make it any more likable. Most of the things I have to do for the long-term good (like exercising, repainting the fence, or pulling weeds) I don't particularly enjoy. I enjoy the results, but not the process.

I am fortunate that I do enjoy my work and thoroughly enjoyed both my education and the recreation that went with it. But I am not so arrogant to assume that this should be the norm.

I suspect the vast majority of people enjoy the parts of their life that are -not- work. I'm not certain why students should be any different.

Tom VanAntwerp writes:

I can just barely remember the end of elementary school and the beginning of middle school and how I felt about the whole process then. (For context, I recently earned my aptly-titled BS in business.)

When I was a kid, I certainly hated school. I would tell my mom how, at the soonest opportunity, I planned to drop out. I couldn't figure out what, if anything, was useful about the traditional subjects I was being taught. I knew little of the real world, but I had the feeling that knowledge of history, science or algebra was not required to balance a checkbook.

I also remember loathing the complete lack of a reward system. I complained how the pieces of paper my mom earned could be exchanged for goods and services (i.e., money), but the pieces of paper I earned (report cards) were totally useless.

I can't speak for kids in general, but I do know that, as a youth, I was very aware of the disconnect between my investment (time and work) and reward (useless skills and valueless "currency" for pay).

Naturally, I'm happy that I did not follow my youthful intentions and leave school. Though to be honest, even after university, I'm not sure if schools have taught me too much.

maejones writes:

School angered me because it stole the most valuable thing I have--time.

Andrew writes:

The reason students don't like school is twofold:
1. School is prison
2. It is given to (forced on)them - remember that something given a low value, as opposed to something earned

agnostic writes:

"2. It is given to (forced on)them - remember that something given a low value, as opposed to something earned"

So that's why kids prefer to hold down a job and earn money, buy their own food, etc., rather than mooch off their parents.

Clay Boggess writes:

I don't think students start off 'hating school'. Over time students aren't taught enough about the reasons behind the concepts and why it is important that they need to learn these concepts. They get bored simply going through the motions.

Philo writes:

I think Bryan is right to suggest that the inherent unpleasantness of university education (for most students) is due to the subject-matter. This mostly lacks plausible relevance to their likely future careers, but even when it has such relevance it is not naturally engaging. Though "all men by nature desire to know," the things they are naturally most interested in knowing--which serve as immediate prompts for the "four F's"--are not the focus of any ordinary university course. Mastering the material is mostly demonstrating one's ability and willingness to do "office work" (and to defer gratification); making it pleasant would undermine this *signaling* purpose.

Carl The EconGuy writes:

Kids hate schools when the schools are bad. My daughters went to Montessori schools until they were 12 years old, and I would have kept them in that system through high school if it had been available. They thrived in an environment that stressed individual achievement, not competition, and they learned early on that learning is hard work but fun. They quickly became bored when they transitioned into standard schools -- even the high achievement, selective private schools we put them in. They were even more bored in the high achievement private universities they attended, UChicago and Harvard, and they both hated their undergraduate educations. Only the professional training they got in graduate schools (one medicine, the other law) seems to have been really gratifying for them.
Also, in the Montessori environment, all kids thrived, and loved school, independent of their individual abilities. They were all allowed to thrive and challenge themselves, without tests, grades, and competitions, and all of them did better than they would have done in traditional schools. The classes we saw had a mix of kids of outstanding abilities, down to Down syndrome kids, in the same group, all working at their individual levels, and all thriving. Amazing to see.
So, on the HC v signaling issue, I'd say that ed systems that stress flexible HC accumulation, designed for each individual's competencies, is a much better model than than those that stress standardized achievements and tournaments. The paradox seems to be that games that stress individual results based on innate potential probably do better than tournaments in raising average achievements, and certainly the achievements of those at the bottom tail of innate abilities. Possibly tournaments improve top performances, but I think that's an unproven issue that could only be tested in a controlled environment. But there is little doubt in my mind that our standard modern schools are relics of a medieval educational system, and should be tossed on the scrap heap of history.

Noah Yetter writes:

Read some John Holt. School is practically DESIGNED to make students hate it. It is not about education. It is a jail for children.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top