Bryan Caplan  

Opera and Education

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When I argue that the social benefits of education are grossly overrated, one thought bothers me: Poorly-educated people bore me.  If education levels fell to efficient levels, the long-run effect would be a world with fewer people for me to talk to.  And truth be told, I would be horrified if my own sons refused to go to college.

On reflection, though, this doesn't show that my critique of education is wrong.  It just reinforces the obvious fact that, as a nerd and a professor, I greatly benefit from the educational inefficiencies I decry.

Education is a lot like opera.  I love both.*  Government support of education and opera personally benefits me.  But why should the world revolve around me?

* In one important respect, I love opera more: The elite of the opera, unlike the elite of the humanities and social sciences, actually deserve their status.


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TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/4037
The author at The Liberal Order in a related article titled Educated People v. Intelligent People writes:
    I have to chide Bryan Caplan for this post. There are educated people and there are intelligent people, and they are often not the same. The person who built my home in Michigan has only a high school diploma, but... [Tracked on September 22, 2010 11:15 AM]
COMMENTS (13 to date)
John Fast writes:

Do you mean Opera Winfrey?

Or do you mean music, like the Grand Ole Opry?

razib writes:

thanks. i laughed. though to be fair people who went to college and didn't focus much on their major but kept reading library books are generally more interesting to talk to than grinds who focused on their major.

Peter St. Onge writes:

Poorly educated people probably benefit from more poorly educated people to talk to. They probably think brainos are boring, but fellow dolts enjoy the things they themselves enjoy.

So it's kind of anti-poor (in a Rawlsian sense) to push education, knowing that you're making life less interesting for the poorly educated who are now surrounded by multilingual opera snobs.

Hyena writes:

I've found graduates from the humanities to be much more interesting than people from the sciences. A lot of the people who went through science education were highly-focused grinders; unless you have something to say about their area, they have nothing to contribute. Often, they have nothing to contribute anyhow, preferring to talk trees not forests.

A lot of people graduating from the humanities, however, have those degrees because of a huge amount of intellectual dilettantism.

RPLong writes:

Prof. Caplan, I thought the key to your whole point of view on education was that one need not go through official schooling in order to be educated; I.e., that education was just a signalling mechanism that was indpendent of true knowledge/ability.

Did I miss something?

Zdeno writes:

How is the observation that educated people are more interesting (i.e., more intelligent) incompatible with the signaling theory of education? You like talking to smart people, and 95% of smart people go to college.

The relevant question is, which of educated vs. uneducated do you prefer in conversation partners, holding intelligence constant? I would much rather have lunch with a brilliant person who passed on college to jump into the start-up world than a brilliant person who grinded four years to graduate 98th percentile in their bachelor of commerce.

And what about Razib's example of a bright student who coasted through classes and spent their time reading library books and blogs? I would place that person in between the above two, and I think you'd agree. If we fix intelligence, their is a monotonic decrease in interestingness, the more someone invests in official education.

RPLong writes:

Zdeno, I think we're saying the same thing in slightly different language. :)

Rebecca Burlingame writes:

At heart I think we worry a little what the motivation would be, if people were not actually compelled to go to school. Most days I like to think the motivation for self-education and seeking success are high. But rather than worrying about too many boring people, I worry about the numbers of people who think there are only a few people to look up to, to seek out or to benefit from, which is what often happens in the scarcity of success. And I go on imagining that in a world where we educate because we want to, more of us can eventually depend on more of us, instead of less.

Jim Ancona writes:

Is it poorly-educated people or stupid people that bore you? The older I get, the more I appreciate the need to distinguish between those groups, even though there is a large overlap between them.

Philo writes:

"I argue that the social benefits of education are grossly overrated." Well, let's distinguish (as you do) between *education in useless subjects, useful only for signaling* and *education in interesting and valuable material*--sufficiently interesting and valuable to justify the cost of acquiring it, apart from its signaling function, if any. It's the lack of the latter kind of education in other people that renders them boring, though the really serious situation would be its lack *in you*, making you *boring to yourself*!

Troy Camplin writes:

Not only is there a difference between the ignorant and the stupid, but there is also a difference between the unintelligent and the stupid. One can be incredibly stupid with a very high IQ and high level of education.

Guy in the Veal Calf Office writes:

But why should the world revolve around me?

But it does. Why, I don't even fully exist unless i am posting a comment here. I have a shady impression of existence when I visit and trigger a page view. Otherwise, nothing.

Was verfolgst du mich writes:

As someone who is "highly" educated and loves opera, I couldn't agree more with you that I thank governments everyday for their subsidy of both of my pursuits. This doesn't explain why my family which doesn't like Opera should support my hobbies.

And yes, opera elites deserve their status. They have to have vague knowledge of multiple languages. One of the women I was dating loved musicals, but couldn't appreciate opera because of the foreign languages. (Keyword is "was".)

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