Bryan Caplan  

Business Brainwashing and Vocational Education

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I'm a huge fan of child labor, also known as "vocational education."  Almost everyone would be better off if students in the bottom half of their class began full-time apprenticeships after elementary school.  If you hate sitting still and you're old enough to work, you should probably leave school and learn a trade.  The current system prepares such kids to do zero jobs; at least my proposal would prepare them to do one job.  In slogan form: 1>0.

David Balan, one of my three favorite liberals, leveled an interesting objection to my proposal, shared with his permission.  David's concern: Expanding vocational education would intensify the already severe problem of business brainwashing.  In his view, the business world is infected by narrow materialism, unquestioning conformism, and outright deception.  Academic education is a vital counterbalance.  School teaches us to question the status quo, to think for ourselves, and appreciate the plurality of values.  David admits that some teens need to learn how to please the customer and respect their supervisors.  But this worker-bee mentality can easily go too far.  Expanding vocational education would make matters even worse than they already are.

My apologies to David if I'm failing his Ideological Turing Test; I'm happy to post any corrections or clarifications he provides.  At least as stated, though, David is proverbially straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel. 

1. Due to anti-market bias, most people view business propaganda with deep cynicism.  This doesn't mean that normal people have a Spock-like ability to tune out marketing.  But our default response to business propaganda is a sarcastic inner, "Yea, yea, yeaaa."

2. As a result of people's deep skepticism, businesses know that they have almost no hope of changing anyone's core values.  That's why most businesses appeal to basic human drives, also known as "the lowest common denominator": hedonism, lust, vanity, and greed.  It's easy to blame these traits on capitalism, but evolutionary psychology says otherwise.

3. In any case, the business world suffers from a severe public goods problem.  Business as a whole might benefit if businesses joined forces to inculcate pro-business attitudes.  But each individual business is better off jockeying for market share, even if it hurts the image of their industry or business in general: "Let our competition worry about the health of the capitalist system."

4. Academic education does indeed instill a distinct set values.  But I see near-zero evidence that schools encourage students to "think for themselves."  Even college professors who openly glorify independent thinking rarely welcome it in practice.  So what values do schools really instill?  From what I've seen, American schools - primary, secondary, and tertiary, public and private - push nationalism, blind worship of majority rule, and the Whig theory of history.  Every regulation the U.S. government ever adopted and every war the U.S. fought (except Vietnam and maybe Iraq II) was a Very Good Idea. 

5. Academic propaganda is markedly more persuasive than business propaganda because (a) people trust kindly teachers far more than they trust greedy businessmen, and (b) governments are better at overcoming the public goods problems of indoctrination.

6. Academic propaganda is intrinsically more dangerous than business propaganda.  Nationalism, blind worship of majority rule, and the Whig theory of history can and usually do lead to popular self-righteous support for the mistreatment of foreigners and other unpopular out-groups.  Yes, xenophobia, like hedonism, lust, vanity, and greed, is part of human nature.  But xenophobia is much easier to manipulate, and most adults are too lazy to severely mistreat out-groups on their own initiative.

7. Reality check: Almost no one is eager to kill for his employer or favorite corporation.  Millions are eager to kill for their flag and country.  Business propaganda is kind of stupid, but academic propaganda is downright scary.

The main shortcoming of business propaganda, in my view, is that it neglects workers in favor of consumers.  Businesses try a lot harder to shape our buying habits than our work habits.  Vocational education would help correct this imbalance.  If C, D, and F students started apprenticeships right after elementary school, they would spend their teenage years in a peer group where hard work and a can-do attitude are the path to high status.  This would work wonders for underachievers, especially macho teen males, who currently gravitate to idleness and crime.

COMMENTS (38 to date)
Bill writes:

I believe vocational training would benefit all children, not just those in the bottom half of their classes, but I do take your point.

Fewer and fewer of us seem to have any productive, useful skills these days, and certainly they're not being emphasized in institutional schools.

Max writes:

This is an excellent post and I agree with all of it.

Finch writes:

This was a really good post.

My only real quibble is with point number 4. Most schoolteachers and professors I've known have been strongly left-liberal, and anti-war. Maybe not very sophisticated pacifists, but knee-jerk anti-military. Maybe even more anti-military than anti-war, if that observation makes any sense. I'm reasonably confident things were different in WWII, but academia went this way 50 years ago.

Reardon writes:

I and perhaps David would argue that schooling is a major source of anti-market bias. Consider points 4 and 5 in this light; the thinking promoted is not independent and, in a vocational context the shoe (of point 5) would be on the other foot.

Jeff writes:

Okay, so you ship all C, D, and F students to vocational schools, internships, whatever. What if you're wrong? Do you not know anybody who had a late start into their enjoyment of academics? I'd be very concerned about Type II errors.

What is the cut? Does a bad year at age 12 when a kid's mom dies mean now they have to work in the trenches for their life? (Yes, they would have the opportunity to get out on their own; but you've made it a lot harder for them.)

mike davis writes:

If business leaders were seriously interested in encouraging others to share their core values (i.e., “brainwashing”), they wouldn’t be in business, they’d be professors or preachers.

Business leaders are, however, seriously interested in encouraging qualified people to apply for jobs. If you run a car dealership, a glut of trained mechanics is a good thing.

This, then, is the real worry about vocational education. If there is any significant government support, there is going to be rent-seeking. Check out who serves on the “advisory boards” for the various vocational programs at your local JuCo and you’ll see that businesses benefiting from the programs are well represented. Interestingly, these guys are often lauded as providing an important public service (helping kids learn important job skills, blah, blah) when they’re really just using tax money to subsidize training that they would otherwise have to pay for either directly or in the form of higher wages.

I’d much prefer to see the emphasis on educational choice rather than a particular form of education.

Glen Smith writes:

Found the thing about an academic education about independent thought a bit funny. One of the big reasons underlying academic education is to create a huge class of high-value followers incapable of independent thought and leasership (be they wage slaves for big business, hired assassins for their government, docile consumers with resources to burn or whatever type of "brainwashed" masses you want).

Hazel Meade writes:

Seeing as how vocational training was cut from schools due ot the expense, I'm not sure if this is feasible. Would potential employers be solicited to fund these programs?

Maybe the way you could set it up would be kind of like the high schools in my area in Canada. When you got out of middle school, you could pick which high school in your general are you could go to. One was the College-prep school with the advanced placement math and science classes. The other was the "arts" school with the vocational training and the acting and dance classes. Either one would give you the essential high school curriculum to apply to college if you so chose, but you wouldn't get the advanced placement classes. You had arts and vocational electives instead.

Emily writes:

There's a Jesuit school in Chicago, Cristo Rey, which supplements their curriculum with a work study program in which each student works five days a month. They report that about 25 schools now use this model. I think this is a terrific idea, and not just for kids in the bottom half of their class. I'm also enthusiastic about vocationally-oriented high schools. But what's the advantage of making this full-time, as opposed to a supplement to the high school curriculum?

mitch writes:

The cake is a lie

Marc F Cheney writes:
In his view, the business world is infected by narrow materialism, unquestioning conformism, and outright deception. Academic education is a vital counterbalance.

What is this "business world"? Does it have anything to do with the "phenomenal realm"? How many worlds are we talking about here?

Mike writes:

Just this: excellent post.

Brian writes:

The problem with vocational training is not the worker bee mentality, but the lack of flexibility in a changing job market and the difficulty of efficiently distributing labor based on young people's preferences. The opportunity costs of vocational training are potentially huge. Sure, 1 > 0, but is 1 > (many possible jobs)? Probably not.

Philo writes:

How does the Whig theory of history support the mistreatment of foreigners?

Nick writes:

I agree that it is good for all students to get vocational education to a degree. Some to a greater degree and others to a lesser degree. My high school had auto repair classes and wood working and metal working classes, as well as classes in COBOL programming and typing. I took the typing class, along with my AP math and AP science, and I find the typing skills have benefited me and my employer, an engineering firm. But I did learn a fair amount at the Ivy league college I attended, too, which makes me happier and more productive.

These postings about solutions to complex problems need to be richer in detail, rather than allusions to economic theory. Who will teach these students, how will they teach them, what students will attend, for how long, how will they be evaluated? Who pays for this vocational education? The state or private donors? I thought libertarians were against public schools. And please, don't just cast the philosophy of education as us vs. them, liberals vs. libertarians.

Dan writes:

In some ways I believe Computer Science has become the alternative to shop class. The classes are male dominated and allow the boys to tinker, albeit virtually, in an environment that allows multiple approaches and techniques to solving problems at one's own pace. In other words, Computer Science allows boys to be boys.

I believe the demise of shop class is partly due to institutional bias from the education system and mainly due to cost. The cost of equipment and staffing lead to the creation of vocation training centers. This lead to the closing of shops at the high schools and this made it cost and time prohibitive to transport the general student body back and forth. This is unfortunate since it clearly would be beneficial to society for more people to have knowledge of how machinery works and how things are made.

S writes:
In slogan form: 1>0.

That was too good!

Glen S. McGhee writes:

Here is a short article on how they do BOTH in Finland. Maybe we can learn something from Scandinavia?

Justin Ross writes:

I would be interested to see Bryan reconcile the two following ideas, the first being from the above blog post and the second being from his book:

From what I've seen, American schools - primary, secondary, and tertiary, public and private - push nationalism, blind worship of majority rule, and the Whig theory of history.

and from his book (p.44):

I refer to the public's leanings as pessimistic bias, a tendency to overestimate the severity of economic problems and underestimate the (recent) past, present, and future performance of the economy.

Since Whig history (favored by the public in the form of its institutions) emphasizes an inevitable march towards progress, why would there be pessimism bias in economic history? I can see some explanations as being 1) Whig history is taught because (like economic pessimism) it is not intrinsically adopted; 2) The population is generally optimistic on the future in all areas except the economy.

Hazel Meade writes:

Yeah, I don't think we need vocational training in one specific area, so much as we need to bring back shop classes, maybe add an electonics shop class. We don't need to stream them into a specific vocation, just give them some basic carpentry, metal working, eletrician type skills. Add cooking, sewing, crafts and gardening for the girls. Maybe even beauty school. All the girls will take it and love it.

awp writes:

After visiting my sister's Junior High class I had a similar idea. In one of the classes one kid brought two more into completely disrupting her class. She sends them to the principal and they get sent right back. I think we should lower the age of mandatory attendance, while still generally offering publicly funded education until eighteen. Kick the trouble makers who ruin it for everyone else out. Let them work as a fry cook at McDs (or in a vocation)for a year and see whether they want to come back and behave.

So anyway my main problem is not that these kids are going to be failures at being educated, but that they are ruining the other students chances at succeeding.

shecky writes:

I find it quite tragic that schooling offers so little vocational training. It's not immediately clear that those failing students would be any better in vocational school, however. Dim, poorly motivated and impulsive students routed to apprenticeships just become someone else's problem, ending up dim, poorly motivated and impulsive apprentices.

The flip side of that coin is the well performing students routed away from apprenticeships because of their grades even if it's something they feel they'd like to do. Who, of course, would be getting no favor from the previously mentioned bad apples spoiling the barrel.

Ultimately, the lack of flexibility is a problem here. Lots of schooling tends to gravitate toward a one-size-fit-all college prep-style curriculum because it sounds lofty and ambitious. It's an easily digested sell to parents and taxpayers. And as we know, it's a poor fit for so many.

Floccina writes:

I agree with Bill above it is a shame that many college grads have only the 3 R as skills. Who says schools cannot signal good qualities if while teaching practical knowledge.

MingoV writes:

New York state, back in the 1960s and 1970s, had a county-based vocational education program for high school students. Students who wished to participate went to local school for half a day and were bused to the county vocational ed facility for the other half. There were numerous vocational programs: mechanics, construction, plumbing, agriculture, horticulture, etc. About 40% of the students in my high school participated. The local schools offered other vocational ed courses: typing, secretarial skills, bookkeeping, commercial art, etc.

The vocational ed program was popular and successful, and provided a career path for many of the 75% of students who did not go to college. But, when professional educators began their 'everyone should go to college' campaign, the vocational ed program was eliminated. Why would anyone trust educators when they support such boneheaded ideas?

shecky writes:
Why would anyone trust educators when they support such boneheaded ideas?

People stopped trusting educators when vocational classes were where kids got routed by default due to the color of their skin or as in a case I know of, the hispanic last name. Some of that trust was regained when it was decided that the college path should not be closed to certain students by default. It's an "aim high" strategy that's probably not the worse thing that can be done. And doesn't piss off parents the way the old one did.

Thing is, vocational classes in high schools back in the 70s weren't all that hot to begin with. They were the dumping ground for all the poor students who were in school because school was compulsory. This is the very thing that I think Caplan doesn't address all that well. There are some students who get poor grades and disrupt classes because they're bored or not well suited to the subject. But usually, they're just poorly motivated, impulsive and/or dumb. Compulsory apprenticeships don't necessarily fix that problem.

SaveyourSelf writes:

If we remove the minimum wage law and reduce the minimum age law then real businesses could hire and train kids--maybe even pay them when they perform well--rather than just a differently titled government employee at a differently titled government school.

JKB writes:

The problem is the focus on vocational training as actual vocations which as others have pointed out is limiting and risky in the changing marketplace.

That being said, the training of both the mind and hand for all students would be of value. This isn't some new idea, MIT was set up as just such a school in the late 19th century movement. We train the mind, the input powers but not the output powers the hand, well except in writing and perhaps speaking. But it is only by the hand making things, bringing the assimilated knowledge into physical reality that it become useful to others. This is probably more important today as increasing fewer students, especially in the Liberal Arts, have any experience with the real world of work or nature. In the past the arriving freshman was very familiar with the functioning of nature and work through daily life on the farm, ranch or just living with horse travel. The great boon in university education for the returning WWII GIs saw students intimately familiar with the world red in tooth and claw.

I would suggest rather than some training in HVAC, electrician, etc. that the students be given classes in basic tool skills, spatial thinking, measurement, etc. Probably the cheapest way to do that would be woodworking with hand tools. Perhaps pen and ink drafting for the spatial visualizing.

A decent teacher could integrate a lot of the "academic" class lessons into the woodworking. By working with hand tools, the student would have to become familiar with cellular structure, grain, growth features, etc. of the wood reinforcing their biology. And the constant use of a measuring tape demands one become familiar with fractions and operations on fractions. With a bit of thought, geometry and algebra can be brought into it. I lost the link but I read a very nice essay by an English Ph.D. describing an old 1930s Ford head cover discovered at an abandoned town. Showing the photo to her grandfather, he regaled her with tales of his old truck. From this she arrived at a better understanding of the travel across the Western desert on the way to California in the Grapes of Wrath.

A good teacher could incorporate all that "knowledge" in context where it is more likely to be remembered and probably before the students realize they are learning those things they'll never use from their other classes.

J. Anderson writes:

Shouldn't parents have a say in all of this?

PrometheeFeu writes:

I was a C student for much of my academic career. Today, I write software for one of the top tech firms in the country. I am surely an outlier, but maybe there is something better than elementary-school grades to determine ability.

John S writes:

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MingoV writes:

@shecky: The vocational ed programs I wrote about were not dumping grounds for poor kids.* They were completely voluntary. Lots of kids in my school believed (correctly) that college was not for them. Without vocational training, they would have difficulty getting jobs, and the available jobs would be minimum wage grunt-work (such as nailing together a frame for a wall after all the boards were measured and cut). Some of my classmates planned to stay on their family farms, and formal training in agriculture was an asset.

*In my county most families were poor or lower middle class. It's hard to discriminate against almost everyone.

Eustace Davie writes:

What I find shocking is the general assumption that some "authority" should make decisions about the nature of schooling and impose them on the unfortunate victims. It is taken for granted that parents and their children are to have no control over the education of their children, who in turn are to have no control over what, how, where and when they will learn whatever they will spend their time learning. Remove government from the equation and consider a learning environment absent compulsory schooling laws and a solution to most current educational problems materialises. In such an environment choice for the child become not only possible but obligatory. In the trial and error processes of a functioning market for the education of young people, myriad learning alternatives will be on offer and the debate about vocational training versus the current involuntary servitude will disappear. The options are not binary.

Kevin H. writes:

If I may ask, if David Balan is one of your three favorite liberals, who are your other two?

dullgeek writes:

Viewed from Arnold Kling's 3 axis model, wouldn't the left view apprenticeships as an informal caste system where poor students were "denied" access to education and "forced" into the second class labor market?

Himanshu Sanguri writes:

This article reminds me of my one of the good reads in the past "The Rich Dad and The Poor Dad". I believe competition should be propagated over protectionism in all horizontals and verticals.

becky writes:

I believe Edward Banfield recommended something similar in his book "Unheavenly Cities". Eliminating min wage and having kids out of high school by tenth grade to reward the need by the lower and working poor for immediate gratification.

Seamus McCauley writes:

School teaches us to question the status quo, to think for ourselves, and appreciate the plurality of values

If you consider the incentives of the teachers, it cannot do anything of the sort. Each teacher has a rotating set of say 30 students to teach every hour. Her most visible criteria for job success are maintaining classroom order and getting her students to succeed at standardised tests. If she also teaches them to question the status quo it is as a perverse personal crusade or hobby, quite antithetical to the requirements of her job.

Jacob A. Geller writes:

"1. Due to anti-market bias, most people view business propaganda with deep cynicism."

Only when you engage them in System 2 thinking about it. System 1 likes business propaganda -- that's why advertising is a thing.

I don't see the "public goods" problem as being such a big problem (or a problem at all..?). How many legitimate businesses have gone broke lately because of a general mistrust of business propaganda?

How hard do you suppose it is to convince a 16 year old to buy an X-box, a t-shirt at WalMart, or $70 worth of gasoline at an Exxon Mobil gas station?

Now how hard do you suppose it is to convince a 16 year-old boy to support a war with Iran, or that her "core values" are wrong?

Apologetics for business propaganda (and vocational school) need not rely on the idea that it's difficult relative to academic propaganda -- they both require talent and sometimes don't work, but often they work fine -- only on the possibility that it is just as good as (or superior to) academic propaganda, for reasons # 4 through 7.

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