Bryan Caplan  

Education and Option Value: A Conversation With Virgil Storr

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On Monday, my colleague Virgil Storr heard my IHS lecture on "The Case Against Education," and sent me some interesting comments.  Here's full exchange, with Virgil's kind permission.

Quick question: Do we have good ways of figuring out who will be a scientists, translators, artists, economics professors when they're 5, 10 or 15 years old? If not, then can't we make the argument that we should hedge against the world being short a Bryan Caplan by making a bunch of 10 year olds learn calculus? And, that since we weren't sure you'd be that and not a translator we had to make you take Spanish as well? And, it's only by making you do a bunch of different stuff that you figure out what you're good at, etc.?


Thanks for the feedback, Virgil.

It would be great to expose kids to a wide variety of occupations they're actually likely to have.  But schools mostly focus on subjects with virtually no corresponding employment.  As I say in my book:

The permanent residents of the Ivory Tower often congratulate themselves for broadening students' horizons.  For the most part, however, "broaden" means "expose students to yet another subject they'll never use in real life."

Put yourself in the shoes of a Martian sociologist.  Your mission: Given our curriculum, make an educated guess about what our economy looks like.  You would probably work backwards from the premise that the curriculum prepares students to be productive adults.  Since students study reading, writing, and mathematics, you would correctly infer that the modern economy requires literacy and numeracy.  So far, so good.

After this point, however, you would proceed to make one incorrect inference after another.  Students have to spend years studying foreign languages, so there must be a lot of jobs for translators.  Students have to spend years studying history, therefore many go on to be professional historians.  Students spend years "studying" physical education.  The natural inference is that there are plenty of jobs in professional sports.  A year in visual or performing arts?  There must be ample demand for actors, dancers, musicians, and painters.  Teachers emphasize classic literature and poetry.  A thriving market in literary criticism is the logical explanation.  Every student has to take algebra and geometry.  The Martian sociologist will conclude that the typical worker occasionally solves quadratic equations and checks triangles for congruence.  My point: Although we can picture an economy that fits our curriculum like a glove, this economy bears little resemblance to our own.


Thanks Bryan. And, I'll definitely download the intro once I get back.

So I agree with your argument. But, I was making a slightly different point though. It's not about opening up our students minds, or exposing them to different jobs, or even focusing on things that are generally useful.

It's that making sure society has a steady supply of folks in the professions where they will use the useless-for-almost-everyone-else stuff that we teach them that it's socially desirable to waste a lot of people's time in order to reduce the chance that someone who might have gone on to be a productive scholar, or engineer, or musician, etc. does learn what they need to learn in college to be successful in those (admittedly rare) careers.

My argument is that since as a society we don't know which college freshmen will end up becoming research biologists but that we do know that if any are going to be successful research biologists that they have to have taken Bio 101 in their first semester in college, we better make all students take Bio 101. Yes, for the students that don't become research biologists we've wasted there time. But, since the opportunity costs of freshmen are pretty low, it might be socially desirable to have 20 students waste their time so that we can ensure the 1 or 2 who will become research biologists learn what they need to in their first year of college. The same logic would justify making 20 students take calculus so that we make sure that the one who ends up becoming an engineer learns what they need to in the first year.

Of course, if we could reasonably predict say who will grow up to be sociology professors and accountants and doctors, etc., when they enter college then we could design curricula that help trains them for the career they will end up in. But, since neither we nor the students in our Micro I classes know who will end up becoming a professional economist we teach them all the difference between demand and quantity demanded so that the 1 who does end up becoming the professional economist learns what they needed to have learned at 18.

By this notion, students are in some sense being made to try out for certain high valued professions and professors are kinda talent scouts (who teach everyone the same steps to see who can dance).

Does that make sense? v

Ah, now I get your point.  But I don't think I have to modify my reply much to meet it.

Right now, society only "makes sure" we have a "steady supply of folks" in a tiny handful of academically prestigious professions.  But every profession gets filled in the end.  What's so special about the fields that academia favors relative to the others?  I think the effect, if any, is to funnel excessive talent into academically prestigious occupations at the expense of other fields of equal or greater importance.  Think about how many smart people never even consider becoming entrepreneurs because they were exposed to higher mathematics or classic literature at an early age!


First, definitely fine to blog. Second, I like that reply. Ok, so I'll concede that if prof X ended up becoming an entrepreneur instead of a professor, the state of knowledge in his field may be marginally worse than it turned out with him in it but society may have been dramatically better served.

Thanks for your reply, v

COMMENTS (21 to date)
Tracy W writes:

Bryan, you seem to have a limited view of what makes for a productive adult - life isn't all about earning money. The arts are pleasurable in their own right, eg good poetry is an aesthetic pleasure, one of the more pleasurable memories in my life is sitting on the deck of a boat going between islands in Tonga, watching the sun rise and reciting Sea Fever to myself. People act, dance and paint for pleasure. Being fit makes day-to-day living much more pleasurable (I notice this whenever I compare my in-laws, who struggle to walk up stairs, with my parents, who struggled on bikes up the steep hills on the Tour de France route, my parents can just do so much more in terms of normal life).

Algebra and geometry have two advantages: firstly they are preparation for students who might chose to do a subject reliant on maths (I know quite a few people who had to change their area of study because they didn't have sufficient maths background), secondly, they're a more interesting way of repeatedly practising basic arithemtic than just doing problems repeatedly. And there's research that indicates that years of practice is a very good thing for long-term memory. (Basically, if people took algebra and then stopped, people forgot algebra quite rapidly. If people kept on taking advanced maths classes, eg calculus, and beyond-calculus, the rate of forgetting of algebra tailed off, and people who had taken their last maths class 50 years earlier, if it was beyond-calculus, still remembered as much algebra as people who'd taken it 5 years earlier).

I don't think that everything studied in school is worthwhile, but it does seem rather weird to look at it just from the point of view of preparing for jobs.

Jeff writes:

I have to agree with Tracy W. Studying a subject does not have to solely prepare somebody for a job.

Studying a foreign language may be useful just because there are lots of people who speak languages other than your own, regardless of job prospects. You may want to go on vacation. Your neighborhood may be changing to one with a lot of non-English speakers. You want to communicate with others. Knowing their language helps.

Similarly having a basic understanding of history does not mean you are training people to be historians. But it does mean that you at least hope they will be aware of what has happened in the past lest they repeat mistakes. You can argue about what level of detail to go into, but teaching students about the Revolutionary, Civil, and World Wars can help people understand the geopolitical world we live in. Knowing how we got to where we are is not just useful for academics, especially in pseudo democracies.

Hopefully your Martian sociologist would know this.

Matt H writes:

I think Virgil conceded too soon. Isn't the mix of jobs available in part determined by the mix of skills and human capital available. A country where no one takes calculus might not be one you want to visit.

e writes:

Prof X, Charles Xavier, was both a professor and an entrepreneur.

KnowPD writes:

I agree with Tracy W and Jeff. This is evidence of a consumption model of education. Bryan dismisses this based on the fact that students are happy when profs cancel class. I think he mistakes marginal benefit of one more class consumed for a full time student which is negative. How many knowledge workers are bored with their jobs and desire career progression to learn new skills?

AC writes:

Of course education is consumption. Sure, poetry can be great, but the current schooling system would be a very odd way to indulge that preference.

Glen Smith writes:

Beyond the fact that making money is a small part of the reason to get educated, going to school is were I got work ethic and work discipline both of which are about doing things you don't like (who needs work ethic and discipline to do work they enjoy?). It was also a bit like eating things you never tried as you may find out you like it. Further, while you could argue that my parents or some similar form of education could have taught me the foundational knowledge and skills I needed to get a good job, school did provide that. And what about the confidence that most skills I could acquire even in low quality situations, how to make sure I get the best training possible given my environment and the ability to recognize skills I don't need. Finally, the true signal, someone else accredited my work (you didn't have to pay the full amount to find out if I am competent or not to do what you need me to do).

John Roccia writes:

@Tracy W and Jeff: There is a lot of personal value in studying things for reasons other than job performance. To paraphrase XKCD, all you NEED to know is how to eat and work a single job; all the fun parts are optional.

However, if they're optional, fun, and of subjective value, is a coercive, expensive, and inefficient education system, bloated with rent-seekers and self-interest, really the best way to impart those "fun" things?

The world is filled with fun knowledge that you don't have to pay for. :)

FredR writes:

This is not quite on-topic but I wonder if in your research for this book you read Randall Collins' "The Credential Society". I would be interested in your thoughts on it.

Jeff writes:

@John Roccia: Perhaps it is the best way to impart those fun things. I really don't know. However, if you want to be as limiting as you suggest, then there should be no formal education at all. I don't concede that.

I also don't concede that these are "fun" things that are purely private. People's actions affect me and society actually seems to work better when there is at least some common denominator. Language, history, etc. can help form that common bond that makes, well, civilization.

But, unless I'm missing something, that's not the argument Bryan is making here. He's completely in the education-->work world. The Martians surely aren't trained from youth to be Earth-studying sociologists.

John Roccia writes:

@Jeff: Any time spent learning has a huge, but not obvious cost (beyond the obvious ones like money): any time spent learning something is time NOT spent learning something else.

We force high school sophmore to learn trigonometry - so in that time, he/she ISN'T learning about Cinema Studies, South African Lizard Species, or Plastics Manufacturing.

I think that's the crux of the argument. We not only force kids to learn stuff at substantial real cost, but also decide WHAT they should learn, in a manner that is entirely consistent with what a small handful of politicians believe sounds "academic," rather than either a.) things that might be more useful or b.) things kids actually want to learn about.

gwern writes:

> Do we have good ways of figuring out who will be a scientists, translators, artists, economics professors when they're 5, 10 or 15 years old?

Asimov way back when said that you might be able to predict who becomes a scientist (and in particular, a good scientist) by looking for kids who enjoy hard SF:

More recently, interest as a (gifted) kid does tend to predict where you will end up, but not hugely impressively:

Foobarista writes:

I think the Martian analogy is flawed. You implicitly assume that "the Martian" is a stone-cold rationalist and an economist. One would think that offworld civilizations would have their own cultures and histories, and some mechanism for transmitting these to the next generation.

Tracy W writes:

John Roccia:

All you NEED to do in life is live until you die. Everything else is optional. Including eating.

However, if they're optional, fun, and of subjective value, is a coercive, expensive, and inefficient education system, bloated with rent-seekers and self-interest, really the best way to impart those "fun" things?

Firstly, what isn't of subjective value? A peanut, that I find delicious, is life-threatening to some other people. What do you think a school could teach that isn't of subjective value?

Secondly, what makes you think that our current education system is the best way to impart compulsory, boring things (or whatever you think is of "objective value")? If your point merely was that the current schooling system isn't that efficient at teaching either the optional, fun things or the compulsory boring things, then I agree with you, but that's a rather boring point.

The world is filled with fun knowledge that you don't have to pay for. :)

And yet people still often pay out their own money to visit art museums, attend poetry readings, put on plays (amateur theatre), engage in strenuous exercise, etc. Do you think everyone who does that is wasting their money?

On your second comment: Yes, kids are made to learn things. But, what makes you think that cinema studies, South African Lizard Species or Plastics Manufacturing is more important than trigonometry? After all trigonometry is mathematics, which means that students are practising basic arithmetic, and also preparing to go on in maths, which is used in studying South African Lizard species and plastics manufacturing. Maths is a foundational subject in a way that I can't see how cinema studies or lizard species or plastics manufacturing is.

Secondly, confining education only to things that kids actually want to learn about seems to me to be awfully hard on the kids.

John Roccia writes:

@Tracy: I wasn't making the point that any one subject is better than another - I'm certainly not qualified to be the judge of that (and neither is anyone else). I think it's marvellous when people pay their own money to go to museums and such - because it's voluntary.

I think we've deviated from Bryan's original point, though. "Learning" might be open-ended, subjective, etc. but "School" isn't - School is a commodity. It costs money, and the primary reason people PAY that money is not to "learn things" but to prepare for the workforce - especially once we start talking about college.

To use an analogy - there are lots of reasons to want/like/obtain a car. It could look really cool, it could have an awesome sound system, and it could have that great "new leather" smell. But the PRIMARY reason is that it transports you places. So if I bought a car, and it looked cool, smelled nice, and played awesome tunes, but didn't go, I would complain about that. Would you then say "Not everyone buys a car just to get from point A to point B, you know. There are other reasons!"

Going to college has lots of great side benefits, but the primary reason people actually PAY for it is that they expect a return on their investment in the form of increased earnings potential in the workplace. If the many partys of the education you're paying for don't offer that, shouldn't you complain?

Tracy W writes:

@John: I'm certainly claiming that some subjects (namely maths, reading and writing) are better than others, and I certainly think that I'm qualified to judge that. I might be wrong, but I've never come across any convincing argument against those subjects as fundamental, and you've not even tried to provide one here.

I am glad that you admit that there is value in paying for learning, even though the world may be filled with fun knowledge that you don't have to pay for.

To take your car analogy, maths, reading and writing are to education as "getting from point A to point B" are to a car. It's cinema studies, etc that are nice frills like the sound system and the new smell.

As for the age group, personally I thought Caplan and Virgil Storr were talking about school, not college. After all, Virgil Storr talks about 5, 10 and 15 year olds, how many 5 and 10 year olds were at your college?

I am still rather lost as to what you think schools might teach that is objective (you appear to imply that by your comment about learning being subjective, etc, followed by the assertion that "School isn't".) Do you really think that earning money is an objective value?

As usual, many people jump at the chance to prescribe for other people's children. The question "What should (all) 14-year-olds study?" makes as much sense as "What size and style of shoes should (all) 14-year-olds wear?". School is the original instance of industrial policy.

Inevitably, for each sub-adult, somebody or some body will decide how that sub-adult will spend the time between birth and age 18. There is no good reason to suppose that State (government, generally) bureaucrats will make better choices with children in aggregate than individual parents will make for their own individual children.

The US "public" (i.e., government-operated) school system originated in theocratic indoctrination and anti-Catholic bigotry. The NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel's schools (the "public" schools) have become an employment program for dues-paying members of the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel, a source of padded construction and consulting contracts for politically-connected insiders, and a venue for State-worshipful indoctrination.

Nothing better illustrates the make-work function of the current US school system than the measurement of education in units of time. "A year of Algebra" or "three credit-hours of Econ 101" makes as much sense as "a pound of friendship" or "a square meter of curiosity".

Tracy W writes:

Malcolm Kirkpatrick- which 14 year olds do you think won't benefit from learning reading and writing (or having learnt it), or shouldn't have the option value of maths, or being exposed to a wide variety of subjects?

We don't here dispute the value of education, in abstract. We dispute the contribution that aggregation of educational decision-making into political hands makes to society. I believe that society as a whole benefits when the State gives to individual parents the power to determine for their own children the choice of curriculum and the pace and method of instruction.

Tracy W writes:

@Malcolm Kirkpatrick: So you think that the children of neglectful parents won't benefit from learning reading and writing, or maths, or being exposed to a wide range of subjects?

This strikes me as implausible; why should the benefits someone gets from knowing reading and writing, and maths, turn on the nature of that someone's parents?

(Note, there is a separate debate you appear to be trying to have about what powers the state should have in education, I am simply debating your implication from earlier that there are no general rules to be laid down for what kids to be studying, I draw this implication from your statement that: The question "What should (all) 14-year-olds study?" makes as much sense as "What size and style of shoes should (all) 14-year-olds wear?".)

Some parents neglect or abuse their kids. So do some teachers. So the question is: over time, which system, parent control or bureaucratic control, works? I recommend James Tooley's __The Beautiful Tree__.
Clive Harber
"Schooling as Violence"
__Educatioinal Review__

Furthermore, according to a report for UNESCO, cited in Esteve (2000), the increasing level of pupil-teacher and pupil-pupil violence in classrooms is directly connected with compulsory schooling. The report argues that institutional violence against pupils who are obliged to attend daily at an educational centre until 16 or 18 years of age increases the frustration of these students to a level where they externalise it.
I got these charts from a statistician in the office of the Attorney General, State of Hawaii. In Hawaii juvenile arrests fall when school is not in session. Juvenile hospitalizations for human-induced trauma fall when school is not in session.

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