Bryan Caplan  

Ask a Martian Sociologist: What Does American Education Say About the American Labor Market?

Henderson on Robert Guest... The Selgin-Sumner-Tobin Model ...
From the latest draft of The Case Against Education:
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.

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COMMENTS (29 to date)
Justin Ross writes:
Students have to spend years studying foreign languages, so there must be a lot of jobs for translators.

A translator is a job for someone who specializes in a foreign language. However, many employers would prefer their workers have an additional skill like familiarity with a foreign language.

A Martian would probably look at the level of language required of a HS graduate and simply conclude that some familiarity with foreign language might be valuable, but probably not conclude that it is extremely important that everyone become fluent in two languages. How far off would that really be? Wouldn't that be somewhat true of the other disciplines as well (especially algebra and geometry)?

W R Harper writes:

Why such a narrow view of what a college curriculum is for? In our lives (outside of work) we do in fact discuss history, play sports, participate in and watch amatuer theater, read literature and travel abroad! Perish the thought that college might help us prepare for life, and not just the world of work.

Glen Smith writes:

At least two logic fails. First, the assumption behind what a productive adult is. Second, that what the skill that makes a productive adult is necessarily what is directly taught.

Jacob AG writes:

W R Harper is right, but I can see Bryan segueing into the role of education as a status good (or some other sort of consumption), or as a signal. That is, I can see this passage setting itself up to make precisely Harper's point, deliberately.

My own puzzlement would be that this sounds like a criticism of *higher* education, not of education per se. So why not call this "The Case Against HIGHER Education"?

DKCZ writes:

This hypothetical Martian sociologist seems to be confusing education with training and therefore assuming that all courses are geared towards teaching students specific skills that will be used in specific occupations, rather than teaching general skills (discipline, data analysis, paper writing, etc.) that will be useful in a multitude of careers or teaching things that will enhance people's lives outside of the workplace (ranging from art appreciation to moral philosophy to astronomy). The best they could do to determine level of economic development from a curriculum would be to look at implicit technological development and market structure.

Peter St. Onge writes:

Given who funds and manages schools, wouldn't the Martian make inferences about government and not employer priorities?

Still, it seems odd why governments require French language.

Mike W writes:

What if the years spent "studying" could be done at no cost to the student...would it have no value in the job market? If it would produce a more productive worker then maybe it is just the cost of education that is the problem. Maybe the title should be, "The Cost-Benefit Case Against Higher Education As A Preparation For The Working World".

Just my personal opinion, but I don't think this Martian Sociologist excerpt will help make your case to a any audience.

RPLong writes:

You're comparing apples to oranges, Prof. Caplan... in a way that undermines your argument.

You say that mathematics offers us "numeracy," but foreign language training "prepares us to be translators."

But isn't it true that there are few if any jobs for people as "Professional Trigonometrists?"

Furthermore, I can point to more than one individual who landed a good job in business management because he/she spoke conversational French/Spanish/Hindi/whatever.

If you want to say that every course is supposed to prepare us for a corresponding job, then that must be as true for Mathematics as it is for foreign languages or art. If you want to say that coursework hones general skills that can be applied to more than one position in the workforce, that must be equally true for Anthropology as it is for Literature.

Roger Sweeny writes:

My own puzzlement would be that this sounds like a criticism of *higher* education, not of education per se. So why not call this "The Case Against HIGHER Education"?

Because much the same thing can be said about high school. In fact, most high school courses are abridged versions of the courses that teachers took in college (which makes it a lot easier to find high school teachers).

It cannot be said of elementary school.

(Not That) Bill O'Reilly writes:
You would probably work backwards from the premise that the curriculum prepares students to be productive adults.

I see no reason to believe a Martian would start from that or any other assumption.

But let's look at someone who might be equally foreign to the modern United States, but about whom we can actually make plausible inferences that aren't just guaranteeing the results we want in a thought experiment. Say, someone from ancient or medieval China. Would they start from that same assumption, given their own experiences with education?

Megan Teague writes:

Dr. Caplan,

I apologize if you have addressed this elsewhere, but considering your opinion that the length of time spent in school on subjects not used during careers is incongruous relative to the skills demanded within the job market, what is your opinion on the usefulness of a "baccalaureate experience" during college?

While I cannot say that I particularly enjoyed my entire "baccalaureate experience" (the set of standards requiring students to take a broad range of courses), its function is relatively appropriate considering the scarcity of students who actually know what careers they want to pursue.

Requiring students to take a year of assorted classes may just help them find their comparative advantages even if that means individuals have to take courses that will not help them in their careers. It could even be argued that finding one's comparative advantage as a direct result of this experience prepares individuals for their respective careers because it sets them on the path to learn the necessary skills you are referring to (whether that means through job training or simply finding out more information about that type of career).

Ken B writes:

Is your point that the education children receive is not tailored narrowly to the economy their parents face?

rpl writes:


You have a very narrow view of the purpose of education. If we take your post literally, then to you "real life" starts and ends with your job. You've written this exact post or some variant on it at least half a dozen times that I can think of; yet, you never seem to respond to the (in my opinion very cogent) criticisms of this view that commenters post in reply. You can see several of them above, but I'll break the rebuttals down into three categories for your convenience:

  1. The "Boy Scout" view of education ("Be Prepared"): Education provides a broad set of intellectual tools because we don't know which tools will be useful to any particular person over their career.

    It's true that many careers don't use, to pick your example, higher math, but at what age do we expect students to turn their back on the broad swath of careers that do use it? Furthermore, skills crop up in surprising places. Who would have guessed that, as we learned on a recent episode of EconTalk, you need calculus to be a machinist?

    More subtly, the job market can change a lot over the course of one person's career. Having a broad skill base provides insurance against those changes in much the same way that having a diversified investment portfolio does. If your profession becomes obsolete when you're 33, and you have literally no other skills besides the ones you need to do your job, you're going to have a bad time. If, on the other hand, you have a broader skill base, you have a reasonable chance of being able to retool.

  2. The "Renaissance Man" view of education ("Man does not live by bread alone."): Education teaches students things that benefit them outside the workplace. We don't teach subjects like PE or Music because we expect that any significant fraction of them will become professional athletes or musicians; we teach them those things because they are enjoyable pursuits that will enrich them outside of the workplace for a lifetime.
  3. The "Polymath" view of education ("The only way to learn to think is to think about something."): You are fond of citing studies that purport to show that there is no significant transfer of skill between one subject and another, but I, for one, am rather skeptical of those studies. For one thing, I personally have made a career out of transferring skill from one subject to another, and I doubt that I'm the only one. For another, problem solving, critical thinking, and the like are plainly skills that people get better at with practice. Assuming we think that those are valuable skills, how else are we to teach them without having students practice them? And how else are they to practice them without practicing them on something? In fact, the broader the set of subjects you have them practice on, the more likely they will be to successfully distinguish between the lessons that are generally applicable and the ones that are specific to one particular topic.

In light of all that, it seems to me that the burden of proof is on those who would claim that the distribution of time spent on various subjects should mimic skills used in the job market. What is your argument for that rather strange proposition?

mark writes:

I guess I differ from the majority of commenters and find this quite appealing. We need to isolate four aspects of current higher education: (1) training for employment, (2) eudaimonic (the joy of learning in the abstract), (3) hedonic (living away from home with other single sexually active adults), and (3) top down imposed requirements that offer non4 of the foregoing benefits to the student.

Currently, to obtain a job, the student has to pay for four years or more of education, getting some of 1, 2 and 4 and being afforded 3 to compensate for the poor cost benefit ratio that would otherwise be apparent.

A better system would disaggregate these ab initio. Wide and strong paths for (1) (job training) exclusively would exist. (2) (learning for learning sake) would be offered a la carte through the internet etc and could be pursued throughout one's life. (3) is not necessary to be organized or funded by the state but can be handled by private ordering entirely and (4) is pure waste that exists not for the consumer or the purchaser, but for the administration and faculty, because it funds their research interests and pays their salaries and benefits and should be eliminated to the extent it is not subsimed into (1) and (2).

rpl writes:


First, note that you're talking about college specifically, while Bryan evidently is talking about education starting as early as primary. By the time students get to college, subjects like PE and music have long since stopped being required.

That said, I'm skeptical that there is that much of (4) going on, particularly in light of the wide variety of choices available for students to satisfy most educational requirements. They can't find anything useful? Really?

And if the argument against the broader purposes of education (beyond just job training) is that it's an expensive luxury, then we also have to acknowledge that this is a relatively recent phenomenon. When I graduated college (which was not that long ago, I paid a little over $500 per semester in tuition. (Housing and meals were more, of course, but I would have had to pay for those whether or not I was in school.) Moreover, in those days it was possible to get a no-frills job training program at a community college, if even the modest cost of regular college was too high.

The curriculum didn't change during that time, so, the problem of the cost of education would seem to be separate from the question of what we are teaching. Therefore, matters of cost don't really argue for the proposition that "What Does American Education Say About the American Labor Market?" is a sensible question to ask.

Aeon J. Skoble writes:

"Given our curriculum, make an educated guess about what our economy looks like"

Bryan, you are incorrectly defining "education" as "preparation for the job market." Sure, on that definition, a lot of what we do is silly, but that's not a good definition. Also, this "expose students to yet another subject they'll never use in real life" is silly - for one thing, you don't know what they'll use in real life, and for another, it's circular: if they're not exposed to it, they'll _definitely_ not use it. Case in point: economics! Most HS curricula do not include econ, but surely it would be helpful if more Americans understoon basic econ. So teaching it as part of a college education seems like a good thing. Also, what do you mean "use"? You're illicitly equating "use in real life" with "use as a direct component of your job." Having learned French may not make me a better philosophy professor, but it certainly helped when I was visiting France.
I see rpl above has made several other points I would have made, but he or she has made them better, so I'll add "what rpl said."

ThomasL writes:

In Bryan's defence, looking at education as job training would make sense if he actually believed the rhetoric of the politicians who fund our current system.

They can talk of nothing but "jobs" when they speak on education. If you took them at their word, the current system would be rather puzzling.

The politicians who created the system claimed to want to craft a "better" citizenry, which is even more creepy, but no longer the primary focus of the rhetoric.

Why someone would believe a politician's rhetoric is a subject for another day.

Tom E. Snyder writes:

@Megan has a good point. After graduating from HS in 1965 I went to college for 2 1/2 years before dropping out. In the 90s I went back and finished my BA. One of the general courses I took on my return was Macroeconomics and I loved it. Although I did not get a degree in Econ I used my remaining elective courses to take more. Then I got a masters degree to teach economics in community colleges. After retiring from my previous job I now teach Economics at one of the Alamo Colleges in San Antonio. Without the requirement to take an economics course I wouldn't be here.

Roger Sweeny writes:

Tom, your post is kind of ironic. Bryan has written elsewhere that one of the few jobs that college directly prepares you for is college professor.

I think he hasn't said enough about how college trains you to be a high school or middle school teacher. I was reading recently (I haven't checked the accuracy) that 10% of college degree holders are teachers.

Of course, there's a certain circularity in saying "college is good because it trains people to be pre-college teachers, who train people to go to college, where they can learn to be pre-college teachers, who then train others to go to college, where some become pre-college teachers, ..."

Roger Sweeny writes:

I teach high school science and one day when I was feeling cynical, I wrote:

Isn’t it a wonderful coincidence all the science young people should learn breaks down into three equal parts? And isn’t it wonderful that those three parts correspond to three college departments? And isn’t it wonderful that since we science teachers took courses in those departments, we can teach abridged, simplified versions of the courses we took?

Wade writes:

Would Martians understand labor markets? We probably have more in common with starfish than we do with Martians, and starfish don't have labor markets.
On the other hand, if Martians did understand our labor markets, they would probably want to quarantine us.

However, your complaint was really about the fact that universities don't just teach facts, but instead encourage students to learn how to learn new subjects.
Given the pace of technological and social change, this seems like a good idea. Personally, I prefer to work with people who aren't afraid of the different and the unknown (and they got that way simply by being exposed to it). If MIT only taught facts, then your computer, like Charles Babbage's, would still be gear-driven.

Keith K. writes:


I will attempt to provide a brief criticism of each point presented.

1) Boy Scout Education. The problem I see with the notion of "be prepared" education is that this is not how education works even now. The presumption seems to be that students actually retain any of the knowledge they learned in the courses they were forced to take. In your example, a machinist may very well need calculus but why does it follow that the way to teach it for him (just in case) is to force him to go through the entire enterprise when he has no interest in it early in life (thus wasting his time at that point) instead of creating targeted modules in that field to rapidly bring him up to the point of usability when he needs it? Why should I assume extra years of schooling will be more useful than substitution those years with years of REAL WORK in various different fields? Reformulating the labors laws to make it very easy to apprentice young people would be vastly more useful in this regard than randomly throwing information at them and hoping some useable amount sticks.

2) The Renaissance view. My response is learning things that will enrich them outside of work "according to who"? Who in the hell was ever enriched by PE who was not already involved with a sport? In my experience I can't think of a one. I CAN however recall a sizeable number of kids who hated engaging in the enterprise because they 1) had no natural aptitude for it and had no interest in developing it and 2) who viewed it as a waste of their time and would rather have been doing something they personally believed to be more useful. Another criticism is that even granting the original argument, why is it the case that kids should be forced to engage in the subject EVEN WHEN THEY HATE IT? At that point the only thing you are doing is punishing the kid for not fitting in to your mold of what his interests SHOULD be (according to whoever is in charge).

3) The "Polymath" view of education.....this is supposed to be a cogent argument? This is no argument at all. Saying "well I don't think its true" does not invalidate the mountains of evidence which says "yes it is true". If you believe this then there should not be a problem in showing that the methodology they used to come to their conclusions is wrong.

I will conclude by suggesting the burden of proof should be placed upon the party who believes that punishing kids with activities that objectively waste their time is a genuinely good method of improving them as human beings (either in a productive or personally aesthetic sense).

Falupo writes:

If the Martian expects humans to have perfect knowledge of what skills they're going to need in the labor market years or decades into the future then any conclusions he draws from observing our pedagogy is going to be flawed.

rpl writes:

Keith K,

I have some brief rebuttals:

1) Of course people retain some of what they learn. The studies that show that they don't all take a narrow view of "retention," namely, how well you perform on a test of the material. If you take a broader measure of retention, such as how much effort it takes to become proficient, then it seems pretty clear that it's easier to refresh people on subjects they've studied in the past than to teach them new subjects from a standing start. Do you honestly not find this to be the case in your own experience? When you read about a subject you studied years ago but have "forgotten," do you really not find bits of it coming back to you as you read?

As to the rest of your response, show me an effective "targeted module in [some] field to rapidly bring him up to the point of usability when he needs it," and I might change my mind. As it stands, if you're looking through job listings and you see a job that requires, say, basic calculus, and you've never had any math beyond arithmetic, then you're out of luck. No "module" is going to get you up to speed in any useful time frame.

I'm skeptical of apprenticeship programs as a replacement for (as opposed to a complement to) a broad-based education program. The set of truly universal skills is pretty small, so I suppose schooling would end, and these apprenticeships would start pretty young, right? Just how early are we supposed to expect children to make a decision about what they want to do with the rest of their lives? Are, say, 12-year olds equipped to make that decision? On what basis? Without some exposure to all these fields they really don't have any idea what the careers they are being apprenticed to are actually about. What happens if they get deep into an apprenticeship, and they find they don't like it? Worse, what happens if they get all the way through the apprenticeship, and they find there are no jobs at the end? Without some sort of auxiliary skills, they are going to have a bad time indeed.

2) Look, when I was a kid I was as bookish and nerdy as they come (both of those terms are badges I wear proudly), and even I liked playing outside. In my experience, the number of kids who couldn't find something to enjoy about "PE" (which is really just recess for most of your school career) was vanishingly small. Even for kids who were physically unable to participate, the teachers were pretty good about finding a way for them to enjoy the fresh air and sunshine. If nothing else, it provides a break from sitting in a classroom all day. Of course, if you approach a subject with a bad attitude, then you're probably not going to find it too enjoyable. That applies equally to PE, math, or any other subject.

Besides, how are students supposed to find out what they like if they don't get exposed to a lot of things? Some of the most interesting classes I took in my educational career were things I wouldn't necessarily have chosen for myself.

3) Are there "mountains" of evidence? Is it improper to question whether the pebbles that make up these mountains really measure what they claim to measure? I'm just a humble physicist and largely untutored in the sophisticated ways of social science, but in my training I was taught that if a mountain of evidence "proves" something you can plainly observe to be false, then it's appropriate to ask whether the evidence is based on faulty experiments. Do they not do that in social science?

You're right, of course, that I should go through the literature and raise specific arguments against their methodology. It's on my list of things to do, but alas that list is rather long right now, so it might be some time before I get to it. Of course, if you wanted to save me a little time and effort, you could offer an argument as to why I should be convinced by these studies. Right now, all I'm hearing is an appeal to authority. You'll understand, I trust, why I'm not convinced by that.

To address your coda, let me just suggest that by characterizing education as "punishment" you're being rather less "objective" than you imagine. As to the "burden of proof," you and I both know that there is no chance that the resources required to "prove" anything about this matter will never be devoted to it. In lieu of that, I've offered some arguments based on my own experiences and observations. All I ask of you and Bryan is to cast aside for a moment your prejudices about what you did and didn't like about your schooling and ask yourselves, in all honesty, have you really not had similar experiences and made similar observations?

rpl writes:

Man, no matter how many times you read over a post in preview, it seems like you always find the howlers within seconds after you press submit. That last paragraph should read,

. . . you and I both know that there is no chance that the resources required . . . will ever be devoted. . .


Roger Sweeny writes:

Just how early are we supposed to expect children to make a decision about what they want to do with the rest of their lives? Are, say, 12-year olds equipped to make that decision?

Nowadays, many 12 year olds do make that decision. They just don't do it consciously and deliberately.

The find themselves in a classroom, being told to learn things they are not interested in, and which they often have trouble understanding because they don't have a sufficient background in knowledge or sufficient skill in reading or arithmetic.

They don't try real hard, they don't do well, and for the rest of their school career, they just aren't getting much out of it.

It seems humane to force those kids to stay in school because maybe eventually they'll start to get interested and start getting better at school, and then they can go to college and get a good-paying interesting job, and ....

But it's not humane. Because for the vast majority, nothing like that is going to happen. They should have better, more realistic alternatives.

Steve Jefferies writes:

When essayists so willingly dismiss the value of curricula areas based purely on their personal experience, it detracts from providing a persuasive argument or motivating others to engage in any rational discussion. The suggestion that physical education is designed to prepare professional athletes is so far from the truth that it causes me to wonder the full extent to which your blog was based solely on your imagination or perhaps negative school experiences. Maybe it was intended to be offensive to generate a response, if so, successful I guess: Physical Education Teacher.

[broken url fixed. Please test your links in Preview mode before posting. --Econlib Ed.]

Bill Drissel writes:

We don't teach people (insert any subject you'd like to disparage) because students WILL need that subject, we teach them (xxx) so they CAN need that subject.

I've known very few people who knew at age 18 what they would do for a living or enjoy at age 30, 50, 70 ...

Bill Drissel
Grand Prairie, TX

Roger Sweeny writes:

How many people at age 30, 50, 70 ... have to learn the material IN A COLLEGE COURSE? How many will want to?

A few. Including a number of readers of this blog (I'd include myself in that number). But we are unusual.

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