Bryan Caplan  

The Economy the American Curriculum Prepares You For

Seeing Like a Central Planner... The Sumnerian Missionary...
A common argument in favor of American education is that it exposes students to a wide variety of career options.  How are kids supposed to decide their course in life if they don't know their choices?  Unfortunately, this argument has a big problem: The career options for which the typical American curriculum prepares you are almost completely disconnected from the modern American economy.  Indeed, they are almost completely disconnected from any economy - past, present, or future. 

Imagine what the American economy would have to look like for the American curriculum to make sense:

  • Kids spend at least 10% of their time on art and music.  This would make sense if 10% of the workforce were professional artists or musicians. 
  • Kids spend at least 10% of their time on P.E.  This would make sense if 10% of the workforce were professional athletes.
  • Kids spend at least 10% of their time on literature and poetry; this would make sense if 10% of kids became novelists, playwrights, or poets.
  • Kids spend at least 10% of their time on history and social studies; this would make sense if 10% of kids became historians and social scientists.
  • Kids spend at least 5% of their time on foreign languages.  On the surface, this seems reasonable; 5% of American jobs arguably require some knowledge of Spanish.  But well over 5% of Americans acquire Spanish outside of school.  And almost no American jobs use French, the second-most studied foreign language.
  • Kids spend at least 5% of their time on natural science; this would make sense if 5% of kids became biologists, chemists, physicists, astronomers, etc.
The best you can say about the American curriculum is that it also includes reading, writing, math, and computers - all of which are important in modern occupations.*  But that's not saying much.  Schools still spend at least half their time exposing people to knowledge that matters for jobs that virtually no one will ever have.  If we really wanted to teach our children about their career options, we wouldn't pretend that poetry and astronomy are major employers.  Instead, we'd start with the modern economy and design a curriculum that fits it.

* Even this is exaggerated: The kind of reading, writing, math, and computers you learn in school is only distantly related to the kind most people use on the job.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (32 to date)
Joshua Macy writes:

A common argument? Maybe, but this is the first time I can recall hearing it. That schools do, or ought to, prepare kids for their future careers, yes, but that it exposes them to career options outside of the very occasional talk by a parent or career day? News to me.

Vipul Naik writes:

The counter-argument may go that it isn't possible in advance to determine who will be good at what, so everybody should be exposed to everything, at least a bit, so that they can take a more informed decision.

Some kind of testing/filtering could be done based on ability and interest, but this is probably anathema to the educational establishment, whereby it is common to believe that "every child can make it" and "all children have equal potential" etc. Then, of course, there would be the inevitable problem of different socio-economic groups and races getting represented differently if such selection were done. Better to pretend to teach everything to everbody, even if most people aren't benefiting.

OneEyedMan writes:

This doesn't count home production. The other waking hours not spent working are spend in home production and leisure. It is likely that art, music appreciation, PE, and Spanish all make this non-work time more productive in the sense of allowing the recipients of this education to more enjoy activities like sports, television, listening to music, and simply being healthy.

The purpose of school is not only to maximize the production of a skilled workforce.

I'm not saying that these activities are being provided in appropriate quantities, simply that we cannot simply look at the mix of skills in the workforce to evaluate what should be taught in school.

It could be that by making school more fun it makes some students more productive in other subjects. Again, no reason to suspect that this is being done optimally but more reason to think that the direct workforce value understates its contribution to well-being and productivity.

Brett writes:

If schooling were just about preparing children for the workplace, you'd be right (and truth be told, students do need more preparation in that area - too much of the curriculum is a legacy holdover from the period when the education system was designed to train semi-literate factory workers and preparatory students for professional training).

However, the point of the history and social studies stuff is that you want your potential voter to have at least some civic education for when he goes and votes, and the public school system might very well be the last time he receives any outside of independent "study".

Lance writes:

Teaching technical writing to a first audit associate is much easier if that person has a solid grounding in basic writing principles taught in your usual composition courses.

It's not just equipping students for their professional careers, but also giving them the necessary skills to write an effective cover letter, resume, e-mails that have the potential to signal to an employer what attributes you possess.

Richard A. writes:
  • Kids spend at least 10% of their time on history and social studies; this would make sense if 10% of kids became historians and social scientists.
One could argue that this will make them better voters.
GU writes:

At the collegiate level, the traditional liberal arts curriculum was in no way meant to prepare students for "the economy." Based on my understanding, the liberal arts curriculum was meant to do two things: (1) provide a foundation for a professional career (i.e. law, medicine, clergy, professor), or (2) provide the upper-class with "an education."

This is why, until recently, non-upper-class, non-future-professionals (in the narrow sense) did not attend university.

Caplan seems to be referencing grade school & high school curricula, but insofar as he was referencing higher education, I thought this was appropriate.

Fred Smith writes:

The situation now is such that almost everybody who goes to college does so with the belief that college will prepare them for the job market. I'm not sure what percentage of students go to college for a reason other than this, but it must be very small.

Meanwhile, the curriculum is not very well tailored to this at all, as Caplan outlines. Defenders of the curriculum will say that job market preparation is not the purpose of college.

Who gets to decide what the purpose of college is?

Steve Roth writes:

How about instead:

The *Life* The American Curriculum Prepares You For

I think your percentages would look very different.

You don't have to be a professional musician to experience the joy of sharing rich musical appreciation with your kids.

I think it is not a coincidence that America is the *only country* with a nearly ubiquitous liberal-arts curriculum, and also the country with unequivocally the best higher-education system. (At least judging by the global market response to that system.)

But still, I think you're right. I've been informally polling friends and family for years. My sister was one of the key programmers (in assembler!) of those Visa mainframes that move billions of transactions a day. My friend Dayne is responsible for back-end compatibility for enterprise corporate software. My friend Bill uses neural networks to provide a financial recommendations and predictions feed to financial firms. I've asked at least a dozen others with similarly technical jobs.

I've asked all of them: do you ever use the calculus you studied? *Without exception,* the answer has been No. How about algebra? Nope. (My sister: "We generally add, subtract, multiply, and divide.")

But my kids (whose current passions are photography and theater) spent, are still spending, hundreds of hours on those subjects. (My eldest had to do an online precalc class senior year in high school because she was dying to take the statistics elective, but colleges would have considered that a "gut" if she didn't do the precalc elsewhere, at the same time. (The good news: she spent a couple of dozen hours on precalc -- the grab-bag, whatever-we-couldn't-shoehorn-in-elsewhere of math courses -- instead of hundreds.)

Meanwhile, I'm shocked that any kid is allowed out of high school without having taken a dose of statistics, economics, and evolution -- all of which are necessary to live a reasoned and reasonable life in our society. (Though not necessary for many/most jobs.) You need them to read or listen to the news with any discernment.

It's time to be done with the trivium and the quadrivium of american mathematics instruction.

Oh and one other pet peeve: instead of all those hours practicing handwriting, shouldn't they teach us to draw, just a little bit? Basic life skill, no? (I have bad handwriting despite all that practice, but I think I could at least draw a bit if I'd had some training, especially early.)

Schools are not, should not be, just voc-techs. Though voc-tech training should be available for those as wants it. And to the extent that they are voc-techs, they shouldn't be teaching algebra, trig, and calculus to 95% of students.

Music, art, literature? Reverse that percentage.

Thomas Leahey writes:


I would like to know your opinion of the curriculum at St. John's College, Annapolis/Santa Fe.


JayT writes:

@Steve Roth:

How can you say in one sentance that you are "shocked that any kid is allowed out of high school without having taken a dose of statistics, economics, and evolution" and then end your point with "they shouldn't be teaching 95% of students"?!?

Learning statistics or economics without a knowledge of algebra would have to be one of the most worthless wastes of time I could imagine. I would argue that math, and especially algebra, is the single most important subject you could teach a child. Not because you will need it in day to day life, but because it teaches problem solving better then any other subject. I would rather my child never pick up an instrument or read a line of poetry then miss out on algebra.

Luke G. writes:

If you are a college professor of one such college, and a professor who want so to the best he can by his students, what kind of pedagogy would he use? Assuming the signaling model, how does a college professor most honestly and helpfully teach?

clay writes:

I'm all for non-traditional improvements for my children and for society, but these are lame arguments.

Gym, music, and history are all valued for indirect benefits. The direct job skill potential of these things is obviously very small.

Very few parents believe their kids will become pro athletes, but most, including myself, want schools to provide gym class so that their kids get physical exercise, and get the physical and social development benefits that go with that.

Every over-achiever parent wants their kid to practice music, not because they expect their child to be a professional musician, but because it's generally believed to help children developmentally, and leads to success in other areas.

History also has more complex indirect benefits. I'm sure there are ways to improve it, but until I see better evidence, I want my children to get history education as well.

Steve Roth writes:


You're right that basic algebra is necessary. But not more than a few weeks or months worth -- if you, like most Americans, are faced with evaluating news reports and papers based on statistics, as opposed to creating them.

GU writes:

Most parents realize, subconsciously at least, that a liberal arts curriculum is about signaling certain things, mostly intelligence and class (uselessness and high class go hand-in-hand). Through a mixture of self-delusion and hope, parents want their children to be educated in the same manner as the smart and/or rich kids, because maybe it will make their kids smart and/or rich!

My preferred story about the explosion in college attendance rates is this: In the old days people had enough humility to admit it when their children were not (highly) intelligent or high class (or both). "We're a working-class family, and Junior scored in the 65th percentile of the SAT. Of course he's not going to college!" An assembly line worker at the Ford plant in the 1940s wouldn't think twice about bragging to his co-workers that his son was admitted to the electrician's guild; these days he'd blush upon delivering that same news, and would rather tell his friends that Johnnie is a business major at South Eastern Michigan State University.

Rob writes:

American education is looking more and more like American banks:

"The annual analysis of tax records by the Chronicle of Higher Education found 30 top executives – out of the 448 institutions the Chronicle surveyed – received a total compensation of more than $1 million in 2008. More than 20 percent had a compensation package that exceeded $600,000.

And it’s a trend that seems to be heading upward: Just four years earlier, not a single college president in the Chronicle’s survey had received more than $1 million."

Who is worried about curriculum?

JP98 writes:

I suppose another way of approaching the same issue would be to ask, What would you teach your children if you were home-schooling them? How would your plans change if the children were very bright or very dull? If they showed a strong interest in baseball and none in the piano (or vice versa), would you let them pursue that interest and ignore the other, or would you require some exposure to both?

Rick Stewart writes:

My favorite example of fairly useless education is calculus. Even the first chapter of my calculus book doesn't claim anyone uses it except scientists, engineers, and economists. But high achieving high school students are all encouraged to take it. Someone should tell their parents!

hanmeng writes:

It seems to me we teach what we teach because that's how we've always done it. Long summer vacations are nice, too, but arguably a waste of time.

Going beyond the idea about job training, in my day, there was a dearth of education about practical information about handling adult responsibilities. Are kids taught about personal finance these days?

Amaturus writes:

I graduated high school in 2005 and I don't remember anyone really arguing that the curriculum was a sort of rudimentary vocational training. I suppose you see that argument in academic literature, but my teachers were under no such illusion. Looking back I find it funny how many of my peers complained that they would never use calculus in real life. The teacher would just joke around and tell us we'd be responsible for rewriting calculus textbooks if society collapsed. I also took Latin and while the knowledge of Latin is fairly useless, learning the complexities of Latin grammar really helped to teach me critical thinking skills. I think there's much more value to classical education than just learn Latin and Greek.

David C writes:

History commonly taught in schools like Augustus of Rome, the Declaration of Independence, or the Battle of the Bulge has very little to do with modern government. The evidence on the value of music study in making people creative is a bit mixed. Studies of both music and history tend to avoid considering counterfactuals. What would they do instead? My guess is working at a retail store teaches high school students a lot more than reading treble clef.

Ciro Curbelo writes:

"Instead, we'd start with the modern economy and design a curriculum that fits it".

But if we assume it takes 12 years to graduate, the central planners will have to be very good at 12 year forecasting, which we know they are not.

Better to decentralize decision making to education service providers and parents who choose to send their kids to them.

Mark B. writes:
Kids spend at least 10% of their time on P.E. This would make sense if 10% of the workforce were professional athletes.

I agree with some of your point, but this part is just willfully stupid. Kids spend more than 10% of their time at lunch too. Would that only make sense if 10% of the workforce were professional eaters?

JakeFoxe writes:

The argument that a liberal arts/diverse education is valuable because it teaches a diverse variety of "job skills" is kind of silly. Honestly though, I've never heard that argument made. The argument that I've heard, and that I think is somewhat valid, is that a diverse, liberal arts based education teaches you how to learn.

Additionally, the purpose of public education isn't just to produce skilled workers. It is also to socialize the citizenry (hence the importance of history and literature in the curriculum) and provide the benefits of an "education" to public. As much as I hated my art class, my fiancé (an engineer) loves producing art at home. The same applies to music (look at how popular karaoke is...) PE is important both to improve learning outcomes (lots of evidence for health bodies, heal
thy minds) and to encourage healthier living (25% obesity anyone?).

I'm all for vocational programs, but the I think the real problem with American education is the crushing bureaucracy and human resources management system that pushes out good ambitious teachers.

Gaspard writes:

JP98's homeschooling point is important - homeschoolers are very keen on maintaining what they call a 'classical' education (very humanities-centric) on exactly GU's idea of an all purpose foundation. You can more cynically say that it's about conspicuous leisure (look at all the parents putting videos of their kids playing piano on YouTube).

Gary Cross' book 'Kid's Stuff' paints a broader picture of an increasing disconnection between the world of the child and the adult - instead of aspiring to be train drivers or playing at doctors they wanted to be Luke Skywalker (my generation) or these days Harry Potter. The big exception to this is computers in the 80s, where there were tons of kids learning as a hobby skills that would serve their careers.

Whether privately or publicly funded, education still bears in its symbolism and subject matter the traces of the European tradition training for the church and civil service (Latin, history, literature) then the culture of the aristocrats and the bourgeois salon (music, art), then the 19th century rise of the sciences (which even now retain their 2nd division prestige status). Harry Potter cleverly combines a lot of these tropes. When they sell to the parents, they don't show an imaginary picture of the adult child dressed as lawyer or a doctor, but a kid bent over a book or holding a violin, i.e., a kid you'd be proud to show to other parents.

Still, literature and composition are still a pretty good basis for studying law, journalism, publishing, marketing - it wouldn't make sense to teach law in high school, likewise maths for accounting, etc.

Mr Econotarian writes:

From the BLS:

"Retail salespersons and cashiers were the two largest occupations in May 2009, representing nearly 1 out of every 17 jobs. Just 15 occupations accounted for over one-quarter of U.S. employment. In addition to retail salespersons and cashiers, these occupations included general office clerks, janitors, heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers, and elementary school teachers."

So we just need to teach kids to sell, to ring up your purchase, to process paperwork, to clean the floor, to drive a truck (and keep a clean log book), and teach elementary school. Oh wait, we might not need that last one if we follow this plan!

MernaMoose writes:


While there are rampant problems with our educational system, your suggested "solution" pretty much misses the boat. I can only conclude that you would not bother teaching that the world is round in schools, because who needs to know that as part of their job? Maybe a few astronomers? Meh! Forget it.

If you don't mind if our civilization reverts to burning witches, then your implied solution to the problem of education is just great.

Steve Roth,

I've asked all of them: do you ever use the calculus you studied? *Without exception,* the answer has been No. How about algebra? Nope. (My sister: "We generally add, subtract, multiply, and divide.")

Go back and ask them how many times they've used concepts from calculus, algebra, etc, since they got out of college. I can assure you that *without exception*, there is not a practicing engineer out there that won't have admit they use it all the time. Ditto for software people who do *anything* at all with math.

Do you know how complex mathematical functions are ultimately dealt with in computer code? Primarily through the use of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. This does not render the higher level mathematical functions meaningless. Nor does it change the fact that the most complex mathematical functions known to man, are ultimately implemented through the use of 1's and 0's in a digital computer.

We live in an increasingly complicated world of technology. I'm out on the tail of the curve because I'm an R&D engineer, but -- I contend that the bigger percentage of our population have a poor grasp of reality (and so support incredibly stupid ideas) because they don't understand technology.

They are unable to understand technology, first and foremost, because they don't know enough math to get their arms around the physics.

You may never solve a coupled set of linear algebraic equations in your life, after getting out of the classroom. But you will be able to understand conceptually what it means, if I tell you that some particular technology represents a highly coupled type of problem.

Unless you didn't bother learning algebra of course, in which case you won't have a clue.

Upon which we might as well start burning witches for all practical purposes, because we decided to give up on learning how to think. Burning witches is not too bad of an analog to use for clueless people who are trying to deal with -- and make decisions about -- technology-laden problems.

But who ever said that thinking ever made anybody money? Why, only a trivial, tiny percentage of the population will ever start a company and earn a fortune, and these are about the only people we need to have trained such that they can think. So from a purely Caplan-esque perspective, why train people to think?

All they need to know is how to run an Excel spreadsheet. Although they won't have any idea what Excel is good for because they won't have learned any math.

And if we don't bother teaching people any history, they won't be able to perceive the government as much of anything beyond, say, the gods of Rain, War, and Homecoming Parties. If you dance just right, the gods will shower blessings on you (or send welfare checks).

Not that history is taught well in public schools, for by and large it surely isn't. But need I take this further, or have we already cut our educational system back to the point that this is all just too complicated to grok?

Tom West writes:

I have to admit that while I find Bryan quite entertaining, between posting like this one and his opinions on democracy, I cannot help but get a strong feeling of "Brave New World".

The unqualified learn only what they need to know, and do not interfere in the efficient running of society...

Tracy W writes:

The point of studying maths beyond basic arithmetic is, for most of the population, to improve your ability to do basic arithmetic. It takes years of practice to really cement in skills.

We could do it by just drilling the same concepts for years, or we could do it by teaching new skills that need practising those basic concepts.

The second is more interesting, and it also helps with those students who will go on to use more maths later on.

Furthermore, education should be about opening doors for the future. Very often people at age 18 change their minds about what they want to do, a student just out of high school should, ideally, be as capable of changing from studying more English to Physics as the other way around.

fundamentalist writes:

It's good to read someone taking on the worship of education that this nation suffers from. Most people think that enough education will cure all ills. But it hasn't and it won't. As Bryan writes, we spend way too much money on education, just as we spend way too much on health care.

Hyena writes:

In school you spend almost 100% of your time listening to people make boring presentations, performing arbitrary tasks and obtaining approval for them.

That is the experience of almost the entire American workforce, so I don't really see how the curriculum could be any more suited.

Eli Rabett writes:

It is always great fun when the clueless pontificate. Thank you for the amusement.

Let us consider some of the numbers using the US Statistical Atlas Table 607.

That 10% on arts and music, well it turns out that in 2008 (latest figures), of 145 million employed, about 13 million were in arts, entertainment and recreation. oooo only 9%

That 5% on natural science, without the scientists and engineers, we got about 15 million in health care, which, surprise Brian, that's natural science.

and so it goes.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top