Arnold Kling  

College and Class Identity

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A Puzzle for Human Capital Ext... Rejoicing Over Class Cutting...

Noah Smith writes,


College is an intense incubator where smart people meet other smart people. The large number of leisure activities and the close quarters in which people live facilitate the formation of friendships and romantic relationships, while the exclusiveness of college makes sure that the people you're meeting are pre-screened to be the type of people with whom you are most likely to click. In the U.S., the "college experience" includes parties, trips, clubs, athletic events, religious fellowships, communal drug use, study groups, endless late-night conversations...

The friendships and (especially) romantic relationships people form in college are a great motivator. That is an incredible boost to human capital.

I would have changed the punch line slightly. I would replace the word "motivator" with "class identity solidifier." On my reading, the purpose of college is to ensure that the student self-identifies as a member of the educated elite. One must have the "right" tastes, ideology, etc.

Pointer from Tyler Cowen.


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COMMENTS (14 to date)
Steve Miller writes:

So... what role do the 120 credit hours of classes play? The liberal studies/general education requirements? The Quality Enhancement Plans? The writing of papers, working of problem sets, taking exams, and receiving grades???

John Fembup writes:

I think Arnold's perception is valid. In my case, it was years before I realized how subtly I had been conditioned to filter the world around me. I'm sure such "conditioning" still takes place, but I hope I've learned not to be so smug about what I think I know.

Or what does "the unexamined life is not worth living" suggest, anyway?

Arthur writes:

Have you ever read Althusser's "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses"?

He's a marxist but his views on education are quite similar to the ones you hold on this post.

Yancey Ward writes:

We should be able to replace most of college with extended Summer Camp.

Steve Miller,

Increasingly, reasons to employ lecturers and staff?

Tom West writes:

On my reading, the purpose of college is to ensure that the student self-identifies as a member of the educated elite.

I understand you are trying to make a point, but this is a bit rich.

Working hard with people on any extended project creates bonds (and sometimes, for better or worse, romantic bonds) that can last a lifetime. Often it is the non-leisure, goal-directed activities that really forge these bonds.

College may have a greater impact because the participants are young, but I don't see the 'purpose' of college being to to facilitate relationships any more than with any other highly-involved project. It's a natural by-product of interacting with your peers.

Dan writes:

College may well be an incubator for smart people, but as long as educational values comes last to more important things (partying, sex, drinking, etc.), college will be nothing more than a big giant playground for high school graduates with nowhere to go and nothing to do.

RPLong writes:

Frank Zappa said it decades ago: If you want to get laid, go to college; if you want an education, go to the library.

Roger Sweeny writes:

And then, having " self-identifie[d] as a member of the educated elite", one can feel good about having the privileges proper to an elite. One gets preferential treatment for jobs, is expected to be paid more, to have more pleasant work, etc.

One also feels cheated when that doesn't happen. If, say, you can't get a good-paying job that excites you. Hence, some of the emotional energy behind the Occupy people.

IVV writes:

Heh, I didn't get laid in college. I was desired by some women, and I still didn't get any.

What I did get, however, was an understanding of what the world was like when surrounded by smart people. I grew up in a farm town, where intelligence was not only few and far between, but generally reviled. Just being able to have a stimulating conversation with someone, anyone outside my family was a blessing.

I also learned a heck of a lot about self-discipline, hard work, and multivariate calculus. Did it help me on the job? Some. I discovered my innate appreciation for mechanical efficiency through the process.

I learned diddly-squat about networking. My first job was still a disaster--looking back, it was clearly my boss's failure, but I didn't have the basis to understand that, then. I would love to still feel like a member of that scientific class, but I don't always (or often) feel it.

But, then again, I went to Caltech. YMMV.

MG writes:

That portion of college which is simply a "class identity solidifier" could then be deemed a negative externality (see Murray). This is another chip off the notion that a college education yields only positive externalities. Not only are most of its positives already internalized, but at least one of its negatives affects society at large.

John Fembup writes:

IVV, you say "I grew up in a farm town, where intelligence was not only few and far between, but generally reviled."

I grew up in a farm town, too, so I know what you mean. I felt the same way. Eventually I graduated from a highly regarded urban university, just as you did.

But . . . may I ask - can you plant and harvest a crop? Take care of a dozen cows and a bull? Manage your finances when your annual income arrives during a 4 week period in the fall? I too used to think the people around me when I was a kid were dull because they had no use for calculus or Socrates. But now I realize their learning is just different. I respect the fact that what they know keeps them alive and, in a way, me too. So today I'm much less sure about their lack of intelligence.

IVV writes:

John Fembup:

I can and have (not so much the finance part). And I totally agree that there's a lot of intelligence needed to manage a farm well. However, that knowledge is still held by relatively few people, and a whole lot of my peers back then honestly wanted not to have to think about stuff. The few who owned and managed the farms? Great people, fiercely bright. The majority who preferred to skirt by? Well... many of them are in and out of prison, now.

John Fembup writes:

"majority who preferred to skirt by"

True most places, I suppose. And of course you are correct that the desire to get and use knowledge is a crucial factor that's not exactly abundant - entirely aside from intelligence.

IVV writes:

Most places, sure. But it's a very different environment when you're surrounded by people who are interested in your knowledge, and when you're surrounded by people who hate you because you're smart.

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