David R. Henderson  

Another Case Against Education

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In responding to Tyler Cowen's claim that high school students have a low opportunity cost and, therefore, it's not a big mistake to make them learn a foreign language, co-blogger Bryan Caplan writes:

This is probably my biggest disagreement with Tyler. If the government required him to study a blatantly useless subject for years, I think he'd consider the opportunity cost very high indeed - even if it just crowded out his leisure time. I say that imposing such requirements on kids is an outrageous form of bullying. If any government did this to adults, who would defend it?

I agree with Bryan. As a friend who also agrees with Bryan put it to me recently, let's say you had a job and someone asked you how you feel on the job, and you answered "bored and stressed." That friend would probably say, "Get another job." The problem is that until age 18, you're forced to be in that "job."

Bryan's point about bullying raises another issue, though. I've reached only about page 105 of his book and haven't found a section on bullying. I looked in the index and it's not mentioned.

But the issue of bullying in schools is huge. It's not just that some of the teachers and the occasional principal or vice-principal bullies. The most frequent bullying is done by one's fellow students.

When I talk to people about their time in school and give them time to vent, they tell awful and sometimes horrific stories. A friend of mine who's currently in a local government school has her stories that I hear almost every week, and the principal is doing nothing about it.

Here are my two stories. Trigger warning: the first story relates to the picture above.

In 11th or 12th grade, we were segregated by gender for Phys. Ed. class. Our Phys. Ed. instructor was a lazy man who often would sit in his office off the gym through the whole class and not pay attention to what was happening. Incidentally, every year in the 1990s and early 2000s when I would go back to visit my home town, I would drop in on my favorite high-school teacher, who was the vice-principal at the time. When I told him the story I'm about to tell you, he told me that the Phys. Ed. teacher often slept when hidden away in his office. Maybe he was sleeping the day this happened.

I was called "the brain" by many of my classmates, and not usually with a complimentary tone. Our gym had ropes hanging from the ceiling. We were milling around when suddenly three or four boys picked me up and held me horizontal. They then put my neck through a hangman's noose that they had tied in one of the ropes. When I looked into their eyes, they seemed to be weighing whether to hang me. I decided that my best strategy was not to protest or make any noise at all but to let them figure out that this was crazy. I don't know that they did figure out that it was crazy. The look on their faces as they took my head out of my noose was more the look of someone saying, "I guess we shouldn't hang him" the same way they might have said, "I guess I'll have vanilla ice-cream today." My friends, incidentally, although they were in that class, did not intervene. Maybe they had their reasons: they might have gone through the same thinking I went through. I don't know. And, for whatever reason, I didn't go to the vice-principal and tell him and I didn't tell my parents, one of whom taught in that school, or my siblings. I told no one. In fact, I didn't talk about it until I was 37 years old and in a men's therapy group.

I wasn't always the victim either. I inflicted my share of cruelty. My 8th grade teacher, Miss Boas, treated many of us badly, hitting us with a stick when she had a bad day and we gave wrong answers. But the one person she singled out for special abuse was Esther. Esther was a plain looking girl without a lot of self-confidence, but probably within the normal range. When Esther gave a wrong answer, Miss Boas would sometimes hit her especially hard with her stick and a few times came down the aisle, pulled Esther out of her seat and shook her violently. I sincerely regret that I didn't do something to block Miss Boas, to prevent her from treating Esther that way. But I did way worse, as did many of the kids in my class; we piled on Esther. We would say her name with dripping sarcastic cruelty, the way we had learned from Miss Boas. Who says schools don't teach values? Miss Boas taught us well. By the end of that year, Esther was almost a basket case.

I think that the opportunity cost of being in school is pretty damn high.

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CATEGORIES: Education , Regulation

COMMENTS (21 to date)
AJ writes:

I’m not convinced by his argument. Opportunity costs are subjective and as your alternatives become more attractive, your costs will grow.

Of course Tyler will have a huge opportunity cost if he is forced to study useless subjects because of the alternatives he’d be required to forego. But I’m not convinced that high schoolers have to forego alternatives as attractive as Tyler’s (they are just kids vs a prominent economist).

I’m not disagreeing with Bryan’s core thesis. But I don’t find this argument very strong.

Matthias Görgens writes:


See also http://www.paulgraham.com/nerds.html

(Not particularly insightful, but another plea from a sufferer.)

David, It’s true that there is a lot of bullying in school. But much of it was emotional. I didn’t face much physical bullying. When I was about 12, a boy used to twist my hands behind my back. I went to the class teacher, and it didn’t happen after that. The boy apologized to me, but other kids felt I did something really wrong by taking this up to authorities. I really hated school. But bullying at school isn’t big deal when compared to bullying at work. To begin with, in school, there aren’t warring coalitions working toward a common goal. So it’s each and every kid against each and every kid. It’s possible not to bully anyone. It’s even possible to not let other kids bully you, at least to some degree. This is not true of workplace bullying, though mobbing is the right word to use. It’s adults who discipline kids at school, and they are not highly dependent on kids. Kids aren’t coalition partners of adults, and there isn’t much of an incentive for teachers to join hands with bullies. But at workplace, anybody who is a political liability for his group will soon be up for mobbing---and that means all decent fellows. The view that if you are nice, people will be nice to you flies in the face of human psychology. That isn’t how people are. There are always warring coalitions are work, and they are always up to something bad. If you can’t read social cues and send out the right cues fast enough, you will soon be in for really bad things. I've never seen anybody principled enough to stay out of this. Human beings are intensely political, and the state is just a manifestation of this tendency. This is a much bigger problem than the state, because we won’t be able to do away with the state if we aren’t honest about the political nature of human beings. Now why do intellectual miss such an obvious fact? Because it isn’t done consciously, and how successfully you are at politicking depends on how well you hide it from yourself. It’s very much like people not seeing slavery as wrong long ago.

JK Brown writes:

If you want to understand how schools work, you've only to read up on the research on how prison culture. Both have a large group of people forcibly brought together under the control of others. And both populations are prohibited from productive work of their own choosing with "approved" activities used as rewards for conformist behavior. School does actively promote cult-like devotion and aggressive rivalry against other schools.

Joe munson writes:

I've often said that children aged 14 to 17 and 364 days old are the most oppressed minorities right now, especially if they live in an area with a bad high school and have bad parents. Heck, they habeus corpus until the 1967 Re Gault court decision.

The combination of CPS being super terrible and teenagers not having the right to contract makes for a lot of terrible situations. Child abandonment statutes seem to be rarely enforced, and when CPS does use intervene they seem to use therapy wayyy too much.

Imagine if 80 percent of all domestic abuse was solved through therapy, and the man was never charged with assault even if he admitted to assault!

This comes to a head in my home state of Utah, with religious parents kicking out Mormons who leave the faith, or forcing them into WWASSP camps or what have you.

Most of these kids could at least get a Mcdonalds job, but in the current regulatory regime, they are pushed into black market ways of living, or forced into the dysfunctional CPS.

Even culturally, child cruelty doesn't seem to have the same emotional impact as other types of cruelty. Imagine if homer Simpson strangled marge instead of Bart every episode? Would he still be a loveable oaf?

Alan Goldhammer writes:

I have finished reading Professor Caplan's book and will be forwarding extensive comments to him. I am not going to discuss my views of the book on this blog any longer as my previous statements will continue to stand. However, I will weigh in on bullying. David is correct, the topic is not dealt with in the book which is unfortunate as Caplan does discuss the impacts of socialization within the educational complex. Bullying is a part of that and it's total extent is unknown.

My wife who has worked in various education settings worked for a consulting group for several years that was working on anti-bullying education modules for middle and high schools. At the time (ten years ago) a number of school systems recognized that they had a problem in this area and were looking at ways to address this. Bullying goes beyond physical intimidation as the rise of social media makes it easy to engage in cyber bullying. There have been publicized suicides resulting from both types of bullying.

Mark Baikal writes:

Remarkable for me was the transition from school to university. Bullying had certainly decreased at the end of school from the maximum at around grade 8, but upon the transition to university after grade 12, there was not only no more bullying, in fact many people went out of their way to avoid speaking about others in a way that could be interpreted as mocking or gossip, even when those talked about were not present and even when those talked about were persons with evident psychological problems, who would have been the best targets for bullying just a few years earlier. It is a "safe space", in a way. One effect will be that people become more civilized after puberty, but the other effect is of course that university selects for the more civilized students. Therefore, I sometimes wonder if bullying is currently as irrelevant as it is for my life also for those adults who do not work in an environment with above-average civilized people.

But I know it is not only selection but also at least some maturity, because I also did cruelty to others.

Paul Graham's comparison of school to prison strikes me, not only for the reasons he gives, but also because in both cases, society puts the most savage individuals together, whether they are savages partly from a lack of maturity (pupils) or savages by selection of the courts (prisoners). Also, both school and prison suffer from a lack of freedom of association - do you think bullying (and prison violence) would be as bad if pupils were allowed to choose their own classmates, and prisoners their own cellmates or blockmates?

sritter writes:

That is truly a horrific story and schools should certainly do everything in their power to make sure that incidents like that never happen.

But your conclusion doesn't follow. You imply that this case (and other cases of bullying) increase the opportunity cost of going to school. But that's only true if bullying is more likely (or more intense) at school than at other places.

Do you think there's no bullying in playgrounds? At elite private schools? In the workplace (as Shanu Athiparambath pointed out)?

Your introduction implies that schools are special because attendance is compulsory, so the student had no option to leave the bullying environment. But you'll also notice that the person being bullied didn't tell anyone and took no action to leave the environment. This is typical of bullying victims in many environments (think of battered wives or the many women who continued to work for Weinstein and other monsters).

Almost every student *does* have school options, at least these days. "Compulsory" just means you need to go to school, not to *that* school. You can "get another job." But going to a different environment (school or job) means leaving behind both the good and the bad of the last environment and also believing that the new environment will be better. And many bullying victims blame themselves (and so don't see a change in environment as being helpful).

So, please feel free to speak out against bullying, in schools and in other places. But don't imply that the existence of bullying is an argument against schools unless you've actually got evidence to make that case.

Christophe Biocca writes:

I find the assumption of universal workplace bullying surprising? I'm sure it'd be under-represented in the kind of workplaces I've been at (smaller companies that have less room, numbers-wise, for in-group/out-group dynamics, more job openings than candidates allowing for high labor mobility), so my personal experience isn't relevant, but a quick google says it's only about 11% of workers overall that experience bullying at some point in their careers.

Comparing the timescales involved that puts bullying intensity (on an annualized basis) at a much lower level in the workplace.

David R Henderson writes:

@Matthias Gorgens,
Thanks. That piece was really long and so I stopped reading about one third of the way through. But I got the point.
@Shanu Athiparambath,
I agree that there is bullying at work. But if a fellow worker threatens to hang you or if an employer hits you with a stick, you have recourse that we didn't see ourselves as having when we were in a compulsory school setting.
You imply that this case (and other cases of bullying) increase the opportunity cost of going to school. But that's only true if bullying is more likely (or more intense) at school than at other places.
You're right. That is what I'm saying.
Do you think there's no bullying in playgrounds?
No. The nice thing is that people are generally free to leave playgrounds and so that limits the bullying.
At elite private schools?
No. There is bullying in private schools. But note that people in my time and still to some extent today (the exception being home schools) are required to attend government schools or private schools. So the element of compulsion is still there.
In the workplace (as Shanu Athiparambath pointed out)?
See my answer to Shanu above.
So, please feel free to speak out against bullying, in schools and in other places.
I will. And I don't need your permission.
But don't imply that the existence of bullying is an argument against schools unless you've actually got evidence to make that case.
I don't need you telling me what to do.


Bullying at work is very different from bullying at school. At work, bullying soon takes the form of mobbing. A fellow worker won't threaten to hang you, and an employer won't hit you with a stick. They're a lot more subtle than that. That doesn't make it better. But unlike in school, that allows bullies to get away with that---and even to claim that the real bully is the victim. In school, teachers protect the victims at least some of the time. In offices, bosses almost always join the bullies. Bad behavior is usually good politics, and bullies tend to be better at building larger coalitions. Now, the libertarian argument is "Love it or leave it." There is a problem with this argument. People can be aligned by similar cognitive biases. When people act in concert, aligned by similar biases, decent fellows who don't share those biases become victims. And because people everywhere share similar biases, victims can't escape bullying by moving elsewhere. So there are (almost) permanent victims and permanent free riders. I'm surprised when libertarians talk about employee theft. The single biggest way in which employees steal is by holding the "right" biases. An employee who steals a laptop goes to jail. But an employee whose political behavior costs the company incomparably more usually gets away with that. So long as she has a large group on her side.

Dave Hamilton writes:

I agree that we were all part of the bullying problem to some degree, although some more than others. I feel as an older person looking back at things that happened 50 years ago the cost of stepping in at the time would have been lower than the mental anguish its failure has cost over the years. As an interesting side note I have a friend who imagines he stepped in to stop it what I remember was him standing and saying nothing. I guess we all cope the best we can.

David R Henderson writes:

@Dave Hamilton,
I agree that we were all part of the bullying problem to some degree, although some more than others.
I'm not sure whom you're agreeing with. I certainly never said that we were all part of the bullying problem. Many of us were; I doubt that all of us were.
I feel as an older person looking back at things that happened 50 years ago the cost of stepping in at the time would have been lower than the mental anguish its failure has cost over the years.
Probably right. Of course, as young people, there's a lot we don't know and we have generally quite high discount rates.

Larry writes:

Reading stories like these, I wonder if I don't live on a different planet.

I was a short, sickly "brainiac" in various suburban public schools. And yet I was never bullied, nor was anyone else (that I know of).

During my working years (ending) I never saw anyone sexually harassed, including my diminutive, albeit highly successful wife. We both worked in the tech industry for driven startups, several of which came to dominate their sectors.

I could argue that I was harassed, in that one of my (female) bosses once drunkenly demanded to know whether I was gay, but that would be lame.

Even assuming I am demonstrating my cluelessness by writing this, I still highly recommend it!

I end by acknowledging that vile behavior exists, and that those who have been subjected to it deserve to be acknowledged and supported. This comment is just memorializing my experience.

David R Henderson writes:

Thank you. I really am glad that that was your experience. One of my goals is to help make it many more people's experience.

Seth writes:

'they seemed to be weighing whether to hang me'

Or, they were watching for a response and when you didn't give one, they stopped.

Bullying isn't unique to schools, just like greed isn't unique to capitalism.

Also, I wonder ow would your arguments of numeracy apply to bullying?

David R Henderson writes:

Or, they were watching for a response and when you didn't give one, they stopped.
Also, I wonder [h]ow would your arguments of numeracy apply to bullying?
What specifically do you wonder?

Robert Schadler writes:

Three points: 1. "bullying"; 2. foreign language; useless education; 3. school vs prison
1. Requiring formal education overall might be deemed "bullying" in many cases. As could be requiring the learning of a first language, much less a second one.
2. A foreign language as a useless endeavor. Unlike most countries, Americans can do very well knowing only one language, so it might be deemed "useless" as a practical matter. But a more important purpose of education is to improve one's ability to think. Grammar and a second language (and a third ...) have been judged very important in this regard. Likewise algebra and other subjects that might be "useless" for a lawyer or businessman in their daily work. A common language, an ability to think, write and otherwise communicate ... are not useless.
3. Ed Banfield (The Unheavenly City, 1972 ca) directly compared education and prison time for those without "future orientation." In prison, one can talk, smoke, shoot hoops, etc. Not in a classroom, where sitting still or a hard chair was required. Present oriented people think just day-to-day; the future is a blur if it exists in their minds at all. He did not have a solution for enhancing "future orientation" but considered them the aristocrats ... who thought about society beyond their own lifetimes. Useless for present oriented is anything that doesn't provide immediate pleasure.

Seth writes:

@David R Henderson -

How often does it happen? How often does it get out of hand? How well do we take that into account when 'we' respond to it?

That's similar to the discussion on plane crashes in this post.

David R Henderson writes:

Ah, now I get it.
To your questions:
How often does it happen?
A lot. One friend in a local high school gets bullied numerous times a month.
How often does it get out of hand?
If you don't count nasty name calling and count only the threats of violence and actual violence, about once a month to this one friend.
How well do we take that into account when 'we' respond to it?
Not well. So far the principal has seemed to have had a "let boys be boys" attitude.

Seth writes:

@David R Henderson,

That's sad, and should be reported to the police if there is physical violence the Principal doesn't address. But one example doesn't persuade me, on a numeracy basis, that the opportunity cost of school is high due to bullying.

About 50 million kids go to school each day. There are billions of interactions between kids each month. Tens, maybe hundreds, of billions each year.

Some percentage of these interactions is bullying. Some of those interactions are dispatched by basic tactics like ignoring or standing up to the bully. Some escalate beyond that.

I don't know what those numbers are. Based on my experience (as a kid and with kids) it seems the percentages are very low.

Another reason I'm not convinced that bullying increases the opportunity cost of school much is that bullying isn't unique to schools. It happens everywhere.

Thanks for your responses.


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