Arnold Kling  

The Education Hierarchy and Signaling

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Lorenzo links to a post by Xavier Marquez. Marquez talks about a personality cult as a signaling device in a dictatorship. One of Marquez' commenters writes,


suppose that instead of a single dictator, there is an elite class, which has general control over most cultural organs and elite institutions but whose political ascendancy is somewhat tenuous. Like the dictator, it will want signals of loyalty

In a previous post, I talked about two systems. Since then, I decided that Oliver Williamson's terms "markets and hierarchies" are appropriate for the systems. However, I am less focused on the differences in transaction mechanisms between markets and hierarchies. Instead, I wish to speculate on the sociological differences between the two.

In a hierarchy, signaling respect for the hierarchy is very important. That is another similarity between academia and government, which I have discussed before. That is, part of the process of getting ahead in academia is showing respect for the academic hierarchy.

I think this offers a potential insight into the signaling role of education. It does not just signal intelligence or conscientiousness, which could be signaled more cheaply in other ways. It signals respect for hierarchy. Thus, large organizations will tend to value educational credentials, while small organizations may not need to do so.

If educational credentials signal respect for hierarchy, then this makes the role of such credentials less puzzling. There is no cheap alternative to educational credentials if you want to signal respect for hierarchy. Looking for an alternative signal is fundamentally self-defeating. Any attempt to evade the educational credential system inherently signals a lack of respect for hierarchy!


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COMMENTS (5 to date)
Various writes:

Yes, the kissups of the world seem to gravitate towards gov't, education, HC and large bureaucratic organizations.

That reminds me of a very entertaining experience I had in graduate business school. The prof. was Steve Kaplan of Univiversity of Chicago and he was teaching a case studies course in Finance. Similar to many instructors, he had the habit of apparently "signaling" the correct answer to the class during discussion. I never experienced a case study course before and this was the situation I had anticipated and dreaded. The class would be the triumph of the posterior kissers, or so I thought. As it turned out, professor purposefully, or I assume purposefully, issued false signals. As a result, the independent thinkers of the class usually came out on top. It is hard to convey the joy I experienced in that environment.

Russell Nelson writes:

Various: it may have been hard, but I think you did an adequate job conveying.

marwan writes:

Seems like this is echoing the argument made by Bowles and Gintis in "Schooling in Capitalist Amercia" way back in 1976. Schools train minds to take orders and sit still, which are the real traits that employers value.

Seth writes:

So far, I'm surprised that Salman Khan hasn't received criticism from the education hierarchy.

Walter Sobchak writes:

I should think that a term in the military would signal respect for hierarchy even better that completing college. Further based on that logic, shouldn't graduates of the military academies be the hottest recruits of all?

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