Bryan Caplan  

Russ on Progress and Signaling

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Russ Roberts replies to my recent post on progress and signaling:
Bryan wants to argue that conformity ossifies our behavior, but the world around us is full of non-conformity that eventually becomes no big deal. The first few people who bought a Palm Pilot looked goofy poking at a screen with a stylus. I remember. I was one of them. Now, it is totally culturally acceptable to poke at a screen with a stylus. How did that happen? PDAs are useful, so there were market forces to encourage tolerating the poking behavior.
As far as I can tell, though, Russ and I don't deeply disagree.  Minor weirdness (poking a screen with a stylus) provokes minor stigma (a few weird glances), ever so slightly retarding progress.  As weirdness increases, so does stigma, which further slows progress - or even halts it altogether. 

Do Russ and I disagree on a less fundamental level?  Unclear.  In my judgment, our society severely stigmatizes failure to attend a four-year college.  As a result, online education poses little threat to the status quo.  If Russ disagrees, I'm curious to hear why.

Russ also interestingly mentions home schooling:
Empirically, how does Bryan explain the home-schooling movement? In 2007 there were 1.5 million home-schooled children, about 3% of the school-age population. I call that a big number though Bryan might disagree. But the point is that millions of kids and their parents risked the stigma of appearing extremely different to their neighbors. They did that because they thought it was worth it. 
More power to them.  To repeat, though, my claim isn't that unconventional progress never happens, but that it's unusually slow and unreliable.  Even if you consider 3% home schooling an amazing triumph, note the continued absence of "home B.A.s," not to mention "home Ph.D.s."  Expect that to change anytime soon?  I'll bet against it.

P.S. If you think that "home Ph.D.s" are pedagogically infeasible, I beg to differ.  I know many autodidacts who equal or exceed the knowledge of conventional Ph.D.s.  Without the credential, though, the labor market largely ignores their expertise.



COMMENTS (20 to date)
Richard writes:

The history of schooling is actually one of the best arguments for humans being conformists I can think of. How did we ever decide that putting our children in schools for seven hours a day, five days a week, nine months a year was the optimal amount of "education"? Why not 3 hours a day four times a week for 10 months, or having 15 grades instead of 12?

My impression and experience tell me that the current amount of schooling is too much. If you're bright enough, you can get everything you need with many fewer many hours. But if you're not intelligent enough to get the material, you never will. Imagine if there was a private sector job where the boss trained you full-time for twelve years and you could not master the job, but people thought that the boss simply needed to put more time/effort towards bringing you up to speed.

If 3% of kids are being home schooled, that's great. But it's sad that 97% of people stick with such an incredibly inefficient and irrational system. And perhaps most of that 3% minority are religious believers, who would be fine with public schools if they taught Christian dogma.

OneEyedMan writes:

It is reasonably common for clerical leadership to be informally educated, at least in Jewish and Christian congregations. They often co-exist (at least denomination-ally) with formally educated clergy .

Tracy W writes:

It's interesting that it's so common in the USA to assume that intelligence is what matters for success, and that that is relatively fixed (eg Richard's: "if you're not intelligent enough to get the material, you never will"), while Asian countries tend to assume that if you don't get the material you just need to work harder.
http://www.amazon.com/Intelligence-How-Get-It-Cultures/dp/0393337693

It's odd that Americans, the classic country of self-improvement and possibility, would adopt the idea that intelligence is fixed.

(Which is not to deny that some people are deeply limited cognitively, and even working hard all their lives will never learn what an ordinary person does easily. I fully agree that the brain is a physical object and as such can fail to do its job for various physical faults that willpower can't get past, just like any other human organ. I'm talking here of normal human intelligence.)

Troy Camplin writes:

I agree with Russ. If we assume that the same people who are around now will be the same people doing the hiring in the future, you are right. However, the future will be full of people who have taken online courses. In 2010, over 30% of college students had taken at least one online course. Those who had a positive experience likely took more. The more online courses one takes, the more disposed one is toward them. Over time, the attitude toward online courses changes -- and as attitudes toward online courses change, it's not that big of a shift toward an improved attitude toward full-blown online education.

I agree that this is a process. It takes time for traditions to evolve in such a way that the system is stable. But traditions do change. And in complex network processes, one reaches tipping points, where one goes from rejection to acceptance pretty quickly. Given that most recent evidence suggests that point takes place at about 10%, the fact that 30% have taken at least one online class suggests that this shift may some sooner rather than later.

zgatt writes:

I think you need to ask how weirdness is clustered. Invasion of a new norm wouldn't be a generic phase change in a seeded homogeneous network, more like adoption in clusters that have internal cultural legitimacy to incubate the novelty, with eventual break-out.
Lefty-ness was brought up elsewhere, that's an example of random seeding; it doesn't go anywhere.
I doubt whether the home-schooling subgroups will become culturally mainstream, one might argue this is definition. (home schooling is of course two very different populations, and my experience is that the segment that does it for advanced ed does not hold homeschooling as a precept, in fact often taking a hybrid approach).
OTOH, palm devices were adopted by subgroup(s) that achieve enviable success and have cultural influence. (plus everyone already had Franklin planners that were virtually the same thing)

As to higher ed, here's a story. We'll be hearing more mainstream stories about "Bill Gates" types, i.e. very successful people without formal higher-ed credentials, who will have taken online courses. They will be presented in high regard, and the notion that the online courses were a transformative element will be understood. This cachet will transfer to other candidates who demonstrate capability without formal credentials. It will be like sport-coat-with-sneakers; a formal education will start to seem like the mark of a plodder.
There's already a strong trend to organize a technical-engineering resume by description of tech demonstration/milestones, with education site perceived as the opportunity network rather than the credentials. Spending a semester at MIT with your name associated with a sizzling project means a lot; graduating, not as much.

Joe Cushing writes:

It's only taken about 9 decades for home schooling to take off. That's not ossification is it?

Joe Cushing writes:

Oh and included in that are several decades of media and public outrage at how terrible the public schools are. Decades of failure before people will accept doing something different. In this case though, government had a large role to play in perpetuating the insanity.

Richard writes:
It's interesting that it's so common in the USA to assume that intelligence is what matters for success, and that that is relatively fixed (eg Richard's: "if you're not intelligent enough to get the material, you never will"), while Asian countries tend to assume that if you don't get the material you just need to work harder. http://www.amazon.com/Intelligence-How-Get-It-Cultures/dp/0393337693

It's odd that Americans, the classic country of self-improvement and possibility, would adopt the idea that intelligence is fixed.

I don't know where you're from, but I wouldn't use this blog for the proposition that Americans believe intelligence is fixed. In fact, the idea is pretty much forbidden when discussing education issues. Look up "No Child Left Behind," which assumed every single imaginable gap must have an environmental origin and mandates government to fix them.

My claim is not that things can't be learned. It's that the things that one needs to start college in this country are not that complex. If you haven't gotten that after twelve years as a full-time student, I would be amazed if you were ever going to get it. My inclination is to believe that we put so much time and investment into education that we're way past the point of diminishing returns for pretty much all students.

Hannes Kvaran writes:

You suggest we won't see "home PhDs". Perhaps not, but we may see more diploma mills. This is not to disparage home schooling, only to suggest that there are other avenues to academic credentials which may confuse the signaling value of academic credentials

BZ writes:

Hannes is onto something: The missing "Home PHDs" is all about credentialing. Imagine: "Yes, I'd like a job Programming. My friend L.T. taught me all he knew for many years, and gives me his verbal and written recommendation". Probably not much movement on the job front. But then you add "My friend is Linus Torvalds."

Thomas Sewell writes:

LinkedIn is taking a stab at crowd-sourced credentialing by asking people to explicitly endorse their connections skills.

An interesting data point for the "Home PHD" would be George Wythe College. The founder essentially gave himself a PHD, the College is still working on getting accredited (raising the money), yet their students get accepted to graduate programs from UCLA to Harvard (See http://www.gw.edu/prospective/graduate-schools.php).

Of course, it probably helps that the actual education process at GWU is _much_ more stringent than most undergraduate programs. Basically, people go there to actually learn, not caring as much about getting a credential.

Mike Rulle writes:

While not intended, Brian's argument is a status quo argument. By arguing the importance of signaling, the most extrinsic argument imaginable, it slows down the case for diminishing the power the education guild monopoly has today.

Every School at every level uses standardized tests to determine placement (SATs, APs, GREs, LSATs, GMATs, MCATs,). Every profession has tests of certification (medicine, accounting, law, dissertations, oral exams).

How one comes to do well in these exams, including online learning, should be less relevent than that they do well in the first place. The costs of education can drop dramatically by integrating online methods. One could argue (as I do) that we have way too many teachers and professors.

Teaching is analogous to the military; its needed but is a dead weight cost. The output of what is learned is what is important. My ideal world would be very high paid and very few teachers----using modern technology to assist. (Its been said many times before, but is no less true, but look what one guy has accomplished--Khan--for free!)

Arguing based on signaling is a desperate position to take---sort of like the "last refuge of the scoundrel" concept.

Jobs and Gates are not the exception (except for the level of their success), they are the rule.

Seth writes:

I wonder why credentialing for autodidacts hasn't emerged.

Dan Carroll writes:
If you think that "home Ph.D.s" are pedagogically infeasible, I beg to differ. I know many autodidacts who equal or exceed the knowledge of conventional Ph.D.s. Without the credential, though, the labor market largely ignores their expertise.

Isn't the NPV for a PhD negative?

(include grant money in the cost)

Mark Brophy writes:

Clarence Darrow, a former teacher who became a famous lawyer, figured out the education racket in 1932 and nothing has changed since:


Schools probably became general and popular because parents did not want their children about the house all day. The school was a place to send them to get them out of the way. If, perchance, they could learn something it was so much to the good. Colleges followed the schools for the same reason. These took charge of the boy at a time when he could be of little or no use at home, and was only a burden and a care.

All established institutions are very slow to change. The defects of schools and colleges have been discussed for many years, and the lines of a rational and worth-while education have been developed to take their place, but still the old-time education with most of the ancient methods persists and flourishes yet.

It is worse than useless to try to make scholars of the great majority of boys and girls. In fact, scholarship as it is understood is not so necessary to life as people have been taught to believe. Man does not live by books alone. Indeed, they fill a very small part of the life of even those who know how to read.

Schools were not established to teach and encourage the pupil to think; beyond furnishing a place for keeping the children out of the way, their effort was to cement the minds of pupils according to certain moulds. The teachers were employed to teach the truth, and the most important truth concerned the salvation of their souls. From the first grade to the end of the college course they were taught not to think, and the instructor who dared to utter anything in conflict with ordinary beliefs and customs was promptly dismissed, if not destroyed. Even now there are very few schools that encourage the young or the old to think out questions for themselves. And yet, life is a continuous problem for the living, and first of all we should be equipped to think, if possible. Then, too, education should be adjusted to the needs of the pupil and his prospective future. Wise teachers and intelligent parents can tell at an early age the trend and probable capacity of the mind of the child. All learning should be adapted to making life easier to be lived.

JohnC writes:

I'm curious: is "conformity" distributed evenly across (social, economic, ability, etc.) status standing, or is it more of a bell-shape? I'd suspect the latter. Lady Gaga, for example, can dress oddly without any repercussion. As young players, Dominik Hasek and Patrick Roy maintained their unique goaltending styles despite some criticism (especially when they weren't playing great) and lots of raised eyebrows. And, while they might not home school in large numbers, I'd guess a greater percentage of the extraordinary wealthy use non-traditional educational methods (i.e., private tutors) compared to ordinary folk. (In fact, one of the hallmarks of being absurdly wealthy is getting to buy/have things that no-one else can.) On the flip side, when you're poor, conformity probably takes a back seat to need. If you can't afford to send your 9 kids to school, the choice to home school might come out of need; and your kids might forego college to make money on an oil rig. Likewise, Latin infielders learned to field on the run because terrible fields mean you can't wait for the ball (without whetting a bad hop).

Tracy W writes:

Richard:

I don't know where you're from, but I wouldn't use this blog for the proposition that Americans believe intelligence is fixed.

Neither would I. I used your comment, and I linked to a book that discussed this attitude difference more generally.

"No Child Left Behind," which assumed every single imaginable gap must have an environmental origin

I know the NCLB act. It doesn't assume any such thing. It assumes that 99% of kids can learn basic skills (such as reading and writing), with about 10% of kids requiring an alternative means of assessment, and the other 1% requiring assessment by a different standard.

And, why would whether a gap has a genetic origin or an environmental origin matter? Plenty of things with environmental causes are unfixable, and a number of things with genetic causes are fixable (eg short-sightedness, cleft palates).

If you haven't gotten that after twelve years as a full-time student, I would be amazed if you were ever going to get it.

And I wouldn't be amazed. Learning things like reading and mathematics is cumulative, and subject to the Matthew-principle: "For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him."(Matthew 25:29).
If a child has problems learning how to read in the early grades, and neither their school nor their parents pick up on it and fix it promptly, the child is likely to fall even further behind as the years go by, as the kids who can read learn more and more information about the world with each book they read, and thus become more able to extract more information from new books
Furthermore, not being able to read is very demotivating for any further school work.

Richard writes:

Tracy, I've read the Nisbett book, and his estimates of to what degree IQ is heritable are the standard estimates of those he's arguing against. The only thing he quibbles on is the source of racial differences.

Furthermore, Nisbett says nothing about the degree to which students with limited IQs can become "proficient" in reading or math, whatever our government has determined that that phrase means.

American white and Asian students are some of the highest performing populations in the world, and not even anywhere close to 90% of them meet the standards of "proficiency" our government sets. The fact that we have universal and compulsory education everywhere, and no society has been able to meet the standards NCLB sets, should give us reason to doubt anyone can.

If you have evidence to the contrary, I would be happy to look at it.

Hopaulius writes:

"I know many autodidacts who equal or exceed the knowledge of conventional Ph.D.s. Without the credential, though, the labor market largely ignores their expertise." A friend of mine works at a small-town community library. He may well be one of the foremost scholars of Nietzsche in the world. He learned German specifically in order better to understand Nietzsche. He finds him endlessly fascinating, and understands his place in the universe of ideas. My friend also knows that the only economic value of knowing N. would be in academia. He made a conscious decision years ago not to take that route, because he felt it would compromise his quest for understanding. So he happily labors in a library, and reads Nietzsche at night. His daughter is pursuing possibly the most worthless course of study I can imagine: a Ph.D. in Hittite.

Hopaulius writes:

"I know many autodidacts who equal or exceed the knowledge of conventional Ph.D.s. Without the credential, though, the labor market largely ignores their expertise." A friend of mine works at a small-town community library. He may well be one of the foremost scholars of Nietzsche in the world. He learned German specifically in order better to understand Nietzsche. He finds him endlessly fascinating, and understands his place in the universe of ideas. My friend also knows that the only economic value of knowing N. would be in academia. He made a conscious decision years ago not to take that route, because he felt it would compromise his quest for understanding. So he happily labors in a library, and reads Nietzsche at night. His daughter is pursuing possibly the most worthless course of study I can imagine: a Ph.D. in Hittite.

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