Bryan Caplan  

Macaulay on Signaling

Worth Reading... Democracy: Worse Than I Though...
Probably the most eloquent passage on the signaling model of education I've ever encountered, from Thomas Macaulay's Government of India:
It is proposed that for every vacancy in the civil service four candidates shall be named, and the best candidate selected by examination. We conceive that, under this system, the persons sent out will be young men above par, young men superior either in talents or in diligence to the mass. It is said, I know, that examinations in Latin, in Greek, and in mathematics, are no tests of what men will prove to be in life. I am perfectly aware that they are not infallible tests: but that they are tests I confidently maintain. Look at every walk of life, at this House, at the other House, at the Bar, at the Bench, at the Church, and see whether it be not true that those who attain high distinction in the world were generally men who were distinguished in their academic career. Indeed, Sir, this objection would prove far too much even for those who use it. It would prove that there is no use at all in education. Why should we put boys out of their way? Why should we force a lad, who would much rather fly a kite or trundle a hoop, to learn his Latin Grammar? Why should we keep a young man to his Thucydides or his Laplace, when he would much rather be shooting? Education would be mere useless torture, if, at two or three and twenty, a man who had neglected his studies were exactly on a par with a man who had applied himself to them, exactly as likely to perform all the offices of public life with credit to himself and with advantage to society. [If this sounds like human capital theory, keep reading! -B.C.]  Whether the English system of education be good or bad is not now the question. Perhaps I may think that too much time is given to the ancient languages and to the abstract sciences. But what then? Whatever be the languages, whatever be the sciences, which it is, in any age or country, the fashion to teach, the persons who become the greatest proficients in those languages and those sciences will generally be the flower of the youth, the most acute, the most industrious, the most ambitious of honourable distinctions. If the Ptolemaic system were taught at Cambridge instead of the Newtonian, the senior wrangler would nevertheless be in general a superior man to the wooden spoon. If, instead of learning Greek, we learned the Cherokee, the man who understood the Cherokee best, who made the most correct and melodious Cherokee verses, who comprehended most accurately the effect of the Cherokee particles, would generally be a superior man to him who was destitute of these accomplishments. If astrology were taught at our Universities, the young man who cast nativities best would generally turn out a superior man. If alchymy were taught, the young man who showed most activity in the pursuit of the philosopher's stone would generally turn out a superior man. [emphasis mine]

Me again: The only problem with Macaulay is his complacency.  Sure, education-of-whatever-kind is a useful signal when you're trying to hire those "superior either in talents or in diligence to the mass."  But when you evaluate a system of education, you can and should condemn those that emphasize dead languages, Ptolemy, astrology, and alchymy.

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COMMENTS (6 to date)
Glen S. McGhee FHEAP writes:

Since your quibble is with a "system" of education, why are you neglecting institutional effects?

Macaulay is not being complacent, he is accurately describing the arbitrary nature of educational systems. Structural inertia reigns supreme.

The really sad thing about this is that nothing has changed in almost two-hundred years; instead of dead languages, we insist on algebra, trig, physics. For the vast majority, any acquired knowledge of these will never be used. Given the advances in computer technology, it is an open question for me if literacy itself falls into this category.

Glen Smith writes:


Algebra and physics were very useful to me. As a software engineer, literacy is probably the most important tool in my kit.

Glen S. McGhee FHEAP writes:

Mr. Smith's is an exceptional case, of course, perhaps amounting to .00001% of the labor force.

Considering the massive funds spent on schooling, is it worth spending all that for such a miniscule portion of the future labor force? I think not.

Besides, software is itself a highly variable product. Hackers, hedge fund and reinsurance programmers all create software -- but to the detriment of all.

Modern schooling is filled with activities akin to what learning dead languages meant 200 years ago.

The problem is allocating scare resources.

M writes:


What are your views on the new "good teacher" study out of Harvard, showing significant, long-term effects from a good teacher on later in life conditions? Seems to be something that is out of step with the education predominantly being just a signal story.

Christopher Finocchio writes:

Could the Harvard study just show that a kid is more likely to go to college if he's had a "good teacher?" The teacher could get kids more motivated to do that without actually teaching them anything and then they make more money because of what a degree signals?

M writes:

Fair enough speculation, Christopher, but "getting a kid motivated about college" is education in a sense too. Stepping back a bit, these effects seem stronger (and longer term) than the effects Bryan summarized in his twin-adoption study surveys in Selfish... Thus, the question remains, what can teachers really do that parents cannot? Or is there another story here.

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