Why do employers care about grades and diplomas?
January 15, 2015 1:23 PM   Subscribe

 
Right, because the only reason to get an education is to be a better worker.

Societies need good citizens more than they need good workers, but the Econ departments at most schools are not going to be much help with that.
posted by Aizkolari at 1:33 PM on January 15, 2015 [10 favorites]


Think about all the time students spend studying history, art, music, foreign languages, poetry, and mathematical proofs. What you learn in most classes is, in all honesty, useless in the vast majority of occupations.

A nice working definition of a certain cast of mind: the kind of person who, when pondering this problem, easily concludes that the fault must be with history, art, music, foreign languages, poetry, and mathematical proofs. I'm not sure whether we ought to call this value scheme "barbarian" or "economist," but on the evidence of this piece the true mistake might be to presume that there's a difference.
posted by RogerB at 1:41 PM on January 15, 2015 [64 favorites]


Caplan is attempting to debunk the argument that education is about acquiring skills that increase your employment potential, not argue against education for civic or self-betterment purposes.

Obvious anecdote is obvious, but must people I encountered in university were far more interested in the credential than knowledge acquisition (e.g. happy when classes are canceled, happy to have an easy teacher, etc.).
posted by christonabike at 1:49 PM on January 15, 2015 [16 favorites]


Ugh. Again, an article in which an expert presents a perspective that seems to contradict the common wisdom in an innovative way and explains why that common wisdom is wrong.

But here, as usual, the author has presented one side of a complex and long-running debate. He could be right, but in this post he doesn't acknowledge that his theory is fully recognized by other scholars and that they are arguing about the data and how to analyze it, not how to think about the issue.

Here's a brief conceptual overview of the debate over how much of the apparent benefits of education is due to signaling and a summary of the research: "Most studies estimate that the return to one year of schooling is, on average, between 8 and 13 percent." and "Studies have shown that 'experiences and skills acquired in school reverberate throughout life, not just through higher earnings. Schooling also affects the degree one enjoys work and the likelihood of being unemployed. It leads individuals to make better decisions about health, marriage and parenting. It also improves patience, making individuals more goal-oriented and less likely to engage in risky behavior. Schooling improves trust and social interaction, and may offer substantial consumption value to some students.'"

Here's a summary and links to an online debate on this subject between Caplan and another economist.

I don't know the issue, and Caplan could be right. But not only is there no way to tell from the linked article which side of the debate is right, it's hard to tell that he's in the minority among serious researchers, and it's even hard to tell that there's a debate in the first place.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:53 PM on January 15, 2015 [13 favorites]


Obvious anecdote is obvious, but must people I encountered in university were far more interested in the credential than knowledge acquisition (e.g. happy when classes are canceled, happy to have an easy teacher, etc.).

I'm also far more interested in being given money than working for it, yet here I am at work.

Education is great, and I certainly enjoyed mine - but it, like everything else in the world, can be a boring time sink of slogging through yet another (at least seemingly) pointless exercise. So, it is possible to simultaneously think that going to class is both worthwhile and that there are better things to do.

And yeah, Obvious anecdote is obvious - but my going back to school taught me so much more than just what the degree was in and I am a much better person as a result of having done it. YMMV of course, offer void where prohibited.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 1:55 PM on January 15, 2015 [8 favorites]


It is really remarkable to hear people talk about how useless education is because we never learn anything that is actually useful in our jobs.

To which all I can say is, what do you mean "we" kemosabe?
posted by artichoke_enthusiast at 2:05 PM on January 15, 2015 [5 favorites]


One of the things that bothers me most about this piece is the disdain the author seems to express for so many things--his profession, his colleagues, his students, even their future employers. I'm also always suspicious of people who claim those who teach (especially in universities) don't know anything about The Real World.

I think the main value of education lies in developing intellectual curiosity, critical thinking skills, and the ability to communicate and support one's ideas. I would sincerely hope these attributes also make people attractive to potential employers.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:09 PM on January 15, 2015 [14 favorites]


That's a really strange essay and conclusion he draws in it. I often think that college does two things really well: makes young people get away from their parents and the town they grew up, reinvent themselves, and let them become adults on their own. The other thing I think it does is challenge your thinking and teach you how to work through problems. You do learn quite a lot about yourself learning about obscure subjects like classic art, and calculus, and social sciences that you might not use everyday in the future.

I also recall that the speed at which I was expected to take up new subjects and new material was about 50x faster than anything I had in an easy normal suburban high school (I wasn't in AP classes, just standard math/english/etc). I literally came out of my first year of college thinking my high school was basically glorified babysitting. That kind of "brain flexibility" I got from college in a trial-by-fire type of way mirrored what workplaces were like later on when I was dropped into new problems and expected to learn to solve them within hours.

The conclusions he draws sure seem nihilistic as well. He hates that he has lived a life in the ivory tower and judges his work as mostly useless? It's all so strange.
posted by mathowie at 2:14 PM on January 15, 2015 [19 favorites]


Ugh. Again, an article in which an expert presents a perspective that seems to contradict the common wisdom in an innovative way and explains why that common wisdom is wrong.

for a lot of people who blog about popular economics, this is how they they get up in the morning every day.

waves hi to pre-transition self's rss feed
posted by thug unicorn at 2:14 PM on January 15, 2015


Physics BS here. AP Physics teacher now. So, yeah, I actually do use that stuff. I even used it in my previous career as a journalist (science writing) and writer.

If I may give a non-cynical answer to the question the author is asking: even if you DON'T end up working in your chosen field, a degree shows that you can commit to something and see it through (this is especially relevant in explaining to some of my students why they need to finish HS). I says you can delay gratification and work on along-term goal. A less cynical version of the 'it teaches you to comply/conform' meme would be that it shows that you can work with others, act as a member of a community, and get along with people who may be very different from you. And, yes, there's also that whole thing where learning a variety of subjects makes you a better citizen and even a more well-rounded person... if believing in that doesn't make me hopelessly quaint.
posted by kikaider01 at 2:15 PM on January 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


I think the main value of education lies in developing intellectual curiosity, critical thinking skills, and the ability to communicate and support one's ideas.

That may be, but people aren't taking out massive, follow-you-to-the-grave amounts of debt in order to develop their intellectual curiosity. There are a lot cheaper ways to do that than modern higher education.

The whole higher-ed system is propped up by loans. (With possible exception for the parts that are a professional athletic league making use of unpaid players.) Were it not for the implicit argument that higher education is a good investment, worth borrowing money for that you'll be able to handily pay off later, it wouldn't be the juggernaut that it is.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:16 PM on January 15, 2015 [14 favorites]


Were it not for the implicit argument that higher education is a good investment, worth borrowing money for that you'll be able to handily pay off later, it wouldn't be the juggernaut that it is.

That's an interesting perspective and I agree with the costs of education getting out of hand as well as grew up thinking it was all an "investment" in my future. I wish the author (as an economist no less) stressed that angle instead of being "ho hum, college is a big waste and a sham and we should get rid of it".
posted by mathowie at 2:21 PM on January 15, 2015


The whole higher-ed system is propped up by loans.

This is a problem not with the enterprise of higher education but with the state's abdication of its responsibility to fund it adequately as a public good. The disinvestment from (and destruction of) public institutions is not a fact of nature, it's a consequence of politics.

Know where I learned that? College.
posted by RogerB at 2:23 PM on January 15, 2015 [55 favorites]


He's not talking about education, he's talking about grades!

And I agree, there is a correlation between getting good grades and being a fucking conformist!

And employers want conformists, which is why they care about grades. So fuck employers who care too much about grades, and all the conformists who work for them!

But education is still awesome!

What's the problem with these statements?
posted by grog at 2:26 PM on January 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


"As a professor, it is in my interest for the public to continue to believe in the magic of education: To imagine that the ivory tower transforms student lead into worker gold.

"My conscience, however, urges me to blow the whistle on the system anyway. Education is not magic. Professors can't make students better at whatever job awaits them with learned lectures on arcane topics. I'm glad I have a dream job for life. I worked hard for it. But society would be better off if taxpayers saved their money, students spent fewer years in school, and sheltered academics like me finally entered the Real World and found a real job."

Said by one who will never in a million lifetimes voluntarily seek a Real World job and whose chances of losing his Magic World job are as close to zero as the value of the material that he teaches and in the same breath alleges to be worthless.
posted by blucevalo at 2:28 PM on January 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Students with lots of A's finish and get pleasant, high-paid jobs. Students with a lots of F's don't finish and get unpleasant, low-paid jobs.

The first sentence isn't true. I had a 4.0 undergrad, good enough to be accepted directly into a top PhD program. But, after leaving with my masters, I have an unpleasant low-paid job.

No one cares what your grades are if you don't come from the right family with the right connections. Or if you didn't do the right unpaid internships, because you were too busy studying to get those grades.

And I agree, there is a correlation between getting good grades and being a fucking conformist!

Not in university. Conformity gets you Bs at best. Even with grade unflation, As require some originality; you can't just regurgitate the lecture material, you must put together facts and ideas in a new way.
posted by jb at 2:35 PM on January 15, 2015 [5 favorites]


BUT WAIT should the poors even bother to learn how to think or aspire to delve into the fundamental mysterious of the world? Why would they want to do other than be jolly plumbers and cooks and things? Have we no vocational programmes in the community schools? Liberal education? Stuff and nonsense I say! Back to the mines with you sooty!
posted by Potomac Avenue at 2:43 PM on January 15, 2015 [7 favorites]


I just want to point out that he says students only work 12 hours a week, but then links to this, which says that students spend 12 hours per week studying... on top of five hours per week preparing for classes. OK, so added together, that's 17 hours. But wouldn't a full-time student also be in class 12 hours a week? That brings us up to 29 hours per week. Then there are the students with work-study, the students with part-time jobs, internships, and anything else they do. And just because you're taking 12 units doesn't mean you're in class for 12 hours - sometimes a 3-unit class will meet 5 hours a week, for example.

Maybe I'm splitting hairs. I thought it seemed worth mentioning that the average student is actually much busier than the lazy slob he presents.
posted by teponaztli at 2:52 PM on January 15, 2015 [8 favorites]


Also see Slate Star Codex gives a graduation speech.

Sample, chosen almost at random:
What of the costs of education? What have you lost out on?

Well, first about twenty thousand hours of your youth. That’s okay. You weren’t using that golden time of perfect health and halcyon memories when you had more true capacity for creativity and imagination and happiness than you ever will again anyway. If you hadn’t had your teachers to tell you that you needed to be making a collage showing your feelings about The Scarlet Letter, you probably would have wasted your childhood seeing a world in a grain of sand or Heaven in a wild flower or something dumb like that.
posted by officer_fred at 2:54 PM on January 15, 2015 [5 favorites]


Thomas Huxley, in 1868, understood the value of education much better than this guy: "what I mean by Education is learning the rules of this mighty game"
posted by mcstayinskool at 2:54 PM on January 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


I didn't learn much at university that has proven to be directly useful at work. I did, however, learn a lot that has proven to be directly useful in life.
posted by The Card Cheat at 2:55 PM on January 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


Exactly! It's not about conformity. You wouldn't get hired in corporate America if you went into an interview and described yourself as a "conformist".

It's about knowing how to give people what they want. If you understand enough to give your professors what they wanted, you can do the same for your bosses.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 2:56 PM on January 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


I don't think I want to take a class with this guy.

My education did, in fact, teach me how to think. How to solve problems. Even how to do practical stuff, but hey I'm an engineer. My literature minor certainly taught me how to interpret texts and to write.

I'd like to think that when I teach our younger staff how to approach problems, that passes along what I learned.

As to learning about life, well that might have happened either way, but I sure met more different kinds of people at school than I would have met in my town.

And boy, even at 48, successfully completing my PhD was the hardest "work" task I've ever faced. So I don't begin to recognize what this guy's issue is. And I'm constantly amazed that this country doesn't recognize the value of education like... well, like every other developed nation, I guess.
posted by Ella Fynoe at 3:07 PM on January 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


Lord knows, there are arguably many problems with modern American education. Of all of them, the "education as commodity" line of thinking is the one that is most removed from actually discussing education, IMO.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 3:15 PM on January 15, 2015


I have two degrees but they are not Bachelor degrees and often when applying for jobs I feel like this is a major deterrent, despite me knowing several programming languages, having a portfolio full of active projects, most of which have press quotes, and a myraid of other technical skills. I can't quantify this much, but it has happened in the past and some recruiters brought it up. As well as saying "we only pay $x for people with your education level"

Where as the firms that don't care about education are pretty rad to work for. Right now I'm paid to play Bejeweled all day.
posted by hellojed at 3:24 PM on January 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


I often think that college does two things really well: makes young people get away from their parents and the town they grew up, reinvent themselves, and let them become adults on their own. The other thing I think it does is challenge your thinking and teach you how to work through problems.

I'm not sure college does either of those things spectacularly well compared to not going to college.

People I have encountered who were capable of going to college, but didn't, seem at least as impressive as those who did. Sometimes notably more. But that credential is often counts for more to employers. That is the signaling Caplan is referring to, which is a different matter altogether than the lofty ideals about education people want to bring to the argument, a bubble Caplan freely admits to exploiting.

I meet people everyday who are none too impressive college grads, who, if anything, absolutely understand that their educational value was signalling, and seem to conduct their lives exactly as such. College was where they broadened their horizons, got a credential, and now they can officially stop with all that. Or worse, they became well rounded in college. They are officially wiser than the rest of the commoners.
posted by 2N2222 at 3:25 PM on January 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


He is... trolling. He's making claims he knows will be controversial in a provocative way. He's deliberately choosing his framing and rhetoric for a certain effect. And, oh! He'll be selling a book on this topic soon!

It's a useful, interesting debate. And his "side" is well worth considering and discussing. But he isn't approaching it in a very productive, thoughtful way here. It is not nearly so simple as he presents it. There are numerous fields where it is trivial to show that graduating seniors (most of them) are capable of working in that field while incoming freshmen simply are not, for example.

There is no question that learning occurs in those [roughly] four years. Whether our higher ed system is the best way for that learning to occur, whether it is promoting the "right" kind of learning, or whether it is even remotely efficient at promoting it... all debatable. But the learning is happening, and there is far more than just signaling going on, as others have eloquently explained.

I'm sure his book will sell quite well.
posted by whatnotever at 3:32 PM on January 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


Many educators sooth their consciences by insisting that "I teach my students how to think, not what to think." But this platitude goes against a hundred years of educational psychology.

Total, uninformed bullshit. Constructivist approaches to educational science have been around since (at least) the thirties, with foundations that existed even before that. His "hundred years of educational psychology" is a single perspective in a much larger and more nuanced debate, and reading through current academic journals on education, his proclamation of that mindset as a "platitude" is so outmoded as to be laughable. Like a person bringing up phrenology as the dominant way that we assess mental health.

This is basically a self written PR blurb for his book.
posted by codacorolla at 4:00 PM on January 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


Hmmm, I wonder what political ideology would drive someone to call public education useless, and call for a radical restructuring with 'less education' while deriving his livelihood from it:

3. Politics. As a libertarian, I value freedom for myself and others...

Ah, there we go.
posted by codacorolla at 4:02 PM on January 15, 2015 [10 favorites]


My education did, in fact, teach me how to think. How to solve problems. Even how to do practical stuff, but hey I'm an engineer. My literature minor certainly taught me how to interpret texts and to write.

I'd like to think that when I teach our younger staff how to approach problems, that passes along what I learned.


This is the whole point of the architecture curriculum in college, and also endurance...long hours and no sleep at school will translate to the profession. The strict deadlines for projects also teach personal responsibility and accountability.

In architecture circles amongst my colleagues... we like to say: "Those who teach could never practice. The real world would eat them alive."

But it was the break from common thought about art, community, personal space, human scale, etc. that is largely forgotten or ignored in the working arch community. Much of the industry, and design in particular, is decided by budgets, we forget our ideals.

My professors were the basis of my design philosophy, and without that first education I might as well have become a contractor who typically has no vision just decides everything on the dollar. There are other professional organization reasons to suffering through the degree, but college is important on so many levels, I would never have my loved ones miss the experience.
posted by Benway at 4:02 PM on January 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


IMHO this is a compelling argument because it has always struck me that the combination of education for personal enrichment and vocational training present in the current University system is one that is a one-size-fits-all solution to both that addresses neither particularly well.

To me the University experience is like buying a cable bundle package. You get some stuff you want, some stuff you need, and a bunch of shit that you have to pay for because some bureaucrat thinks it's worthwhile (or wants to subsidize).

I'd much rather be able to buy my University education a la carte so that when I'm too poor to take self-enriching courses I can focus on vocational ones, and so that I, as a student, have more freedom to take courses that interest me and aren't defined by a curriculum.

Separating the full-on massively-expensive University experience from vocational credential signalling would go a long way towards both cutting costs for those who cannot afford the full experience, and would allow those who have an intrinsic passion for learning to attend courses that are only attended by like-minded folks, and not people forced to be there for their unrelated course of study.
posted by unknownmosquito at 4:04 PM on January 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


I had a lot of sex and high jinks in college that I would not have had if I had not been in a dorm environment full of new and interesting people. The fun and the sex were worth the whole thing. Also the drinking, smoking pot AND learning new things and getting pretty good grades.

This economist is a libertarian so he probably had none of the above so I can see why he wouldn't get it.
posted by jnnla at 4:07 PM on January 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


I don't need to spend $20k+/semester to smoke a bunch of pot, have sex, and get drunk all the time.
posted by unknownmosquito at 4:21 PM on January 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


In Galt's Gulch a man will be measured by that which he provide...
posted by Damienmce at 4:26 PM on January 15, 2015


I had a lot of sex and high jinks in college that I would not have had if I had not been in a dorm environment full of new and interesting people. The fun and the sex were worth the whole thing. Also the drinking, smoking pot AND learning new things and getting pretty good grades.

This economist is a libertarian so he probably had none of the above so I can see why he wouldn't get it.


This particular thought is not unique among this clique of libertarian economists; I've listened to them talk about the subject in the past on their podcast. They completely agree with you, in the sense that many, if not most, college students expect sex drugs and rock and roll. They might make an argument that tuition's a bit high if that's your primary purpose.

But colleges compete on that front. New expensive exercise facilities, Student Experience Centers, etc. drive up the cost of top tier education. Fuck, our business school literally does not hold class on Fridays. Brand new building, just opened this year, classrooms empty 20 percent of the work week.

Maybe the libertarians and MeFi can reach a compromise: undergraduate business schools do not deliver much in the way of education, and are poor investments of money and time when evaluated on that basis.
posted by pwnguin at 4:31 PM on January 15, 2015


It's a useful, interesting debate. And his "side" is well worth considering and discussing. But he isn't approaching it in a very productive, thoughtful way here.

He's like: "I'm ripping off society. These young people coming to me, I'm ripping them and their parents the fuck off and, man, that's not my problem." It's not an interesting debate, that's some real cold gangster shit there.
posted by ennui.bz at 4:32 PM on January 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


What the fuck happened to us?
posted by saulgoodman at 4:54 PM on January 15, 2015 [8 favorites]


As I see it, we have evolved a broken system where almost everyone who wants anything like a decent life has to go, whether they have any interest or vocation at all in having their minds tended by the old idealistic liberal arts education values that our schools are based on. It would be better for everyone (except people who want faculty or administrator jobs in Universities, heh) if 2-year, or other, more vocationally oriented, degrees, had the economic value of a random BA. I guess that's the old German system, basically. I know of no way that we could impose this kind of thing in the US, since we already have sub-BA degrees, and they are widely considered inferior as credentials.

It wouldn't be so bad except for the spiking costs of tuition and the debt burden. This is heightening the contradictions, I guess you'd say, and it's got to force some kind of change. Eventually. Right?
posted by thelonius at 4:58 PM on January 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


He's like: "I'm ripping off society. These young people coming to me, I'm ripping them and their parents the fuck off and, man, that's not my problem." It's not an interesting debate, that's some real cold gangster shit there.


Sometimes it's about learning personal limitations and ideals...see my above post.

In a broken way it works for architecture.
posted by Benway at 5:37 PM on January 15, 2015


Holy shit. This guy is a true piece of work. I decided that I wanted to see what his argument actually was, and couldn't because his book isn't going to be released until later this year. Ok. I went back through his blog looking for posts on education.

From "Why is the Right Soft on Education?"

When the American left complains about domestic poverty, you might think the American right's standard response would be either:

1. "What poverty? By any sensible standard, the 'American poor' are rich."

2. "America doesn't have a poverty problem; it's the American poor who have a conscientiousness problem."

Unfortunately, few right-wingers embrace either of these strong responses. The modal reaction, rather, is:

3. "We need more and better education for the poor."

The "better" part isn't necessarily a call for bigger government; sometimes it's a plea to convert existing expenditures into vouchers to check the power of the public school monopoly. The "more" part, however, is clearly a call for bigger government - to pile even more government spending on top of the existing annual trillion dollar pan-boondoggle. While it's easy to understand why "big government conservatives" would favor such an answer, even avowed "limited government conservatives" and "free-market economists" often rebut calls for a new War on Poverty with calls for a redoubled War on Ignorance
His second, preferred point there (that the poor are poor (well, not really poor) because they are rude and ill mannered) links to this gem within "Marsh vs. A Simple, Effective Way to Avoid Poverty",

It's hard to imagine a worse comparison. In a world of cheap, reliable contraception, any woman can easily avoid single motherhood with near-certainty. Simply use birth control until you find and marry a reliable man. Avoiding single motherhood, to be blunt, is a choice. Winning the lottery, on the other hand, is an extremely low-probability event based almost entirely on luck.
He seems stuck on the idea that education, simply, results in better 'signaling' to prospective employers (by the way, not a new argument whatsoever, and presented much better in other literature written by people with brains) and seems to carry no other value for the individual or for society, from "The Shared Illusion of Education",

Education's contrarian detractors and mainstream defenders have one illusion in common: Both think they can kill two birds with one stone. The detractors find little effect of education on job skills, so they ignore the evidence about the strong effect of education on worldly success. The defenders find a large effect of education on worldly success, so they ignore the evidence about the weak effect of education on job skills. Both sides make strong cases as long as they stick to the evidence they know. Both sides falter, however, when they use one body of evidence to close two separate cases.
He's unable to think of education (or anything, it seems) as a system that's measurable by any metric other than the market. Given his political predilections that's hardly surprising.

This guy says that his classes are him talking at his students and then asking them to regurgitate. He says that school is useless, and what I think he should say is that his class is useless.

This guy says that he has no experience outside of the walls of academia, and looking at his critical thinking and analysis, I absolutely believe that.

In other posts he says that he grew up as a sheltered, shy nerd with little human contact beyond his D&D group. No doubts here.

What a clown.
posted by codacorolla at 5:56 PM on January 15, 2015 [9 favorites]


unknownmosquito: To me the University experience is like buying a cable bundle package. You get some stuff you want, some stuff you need, and a bunch of shit that you have to pay for because some bureaucrat thinks it's worthwhile (or wants to subsidize).

Well, at a lot of schools (perhaps most) you can absolutely take whatever you want if you have the prerequisites. It's just that the school won't give you an accreditation (degree) without taking a specific class bundle. The problem is that if you don't have that kind of bundling, employers would have to parse the individual class selections of everyone they evaluate, which isn't really feasible (at least not until later in the selection process).
posted by Mitrovarr at 5:59 PM on January 15, 2015


I know how this guy can be a useful intersection between education and "the real world." He can develop a pedagogy that teaches folks how to use the magic handle that makes the yellow water go away in the employee bathroom. This is a problem that cuts across all social classes from dirt-encrusted blue collar workers to fancy-doodle suit-wearing wannabees. (Though it may be gender specific, I don't know.)
posted by CincyBlues at 7:01 PM on January 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


MetaFilter is a community that includes a very large number of over-educated people with a persecution complex.

Here's an article that says a great deal of their time and money was spent pointlessly.

It's like poking a grizzly bear with a stick.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:12 PM on January 15, 2015 [8 favorites]


It's like poking a grizzly bear with a stick.

A foolish idea, attempted by a moron?
posted by codacorolla at 8:26 PM on January 15, 2015


codacorolla: "A foolish idea, attempted by a moron?"

He didn't post it to MeFi, christonabike did. I'm not sure if you're calling christonabike a moron, or if you just got some wires crossed there.
posted by Bugbread at 8:42 PM on January 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


The author is certainly right that we'd be better off if we could shake off credentialism, but he's also smart enough that it's unlikely.

I can't tell how earnest his assertion that academic studies can't actually make people better at everything are. He must know that a liberal arts education won't make you skilled in most particular things, but it can make you a more formidable general thinker and problem solver... including the problem of picking up particular skills.

(I use very little of the specific mathematics I studied in the course of working my way through a BS in the topic, and I don't directly apply the education skills I picked up as part of the BA I added to that. But I apply what I learned about writing/reasoning carefully on slippery topics from Math all the time. I while was meant to apply William Glasser's choice theory in a classroom setting, I find it's useful in thinking about a lot of interpersonal problems.)
posted by weston at 8:52 PM on January 15, 2015


He is... trolling.

This guy already wrote a book arguing against democracy. If he's not a troll, he's at least extremely contrarian.
posted by miyabo at 10:14 PM on January 15, 2015


Frankly, I think people are being too dismissive here. For one thing, the number of jobs that used to require a HS diploma that now require a BA would be an argument in favor for a signalling model. And Bryan Caplan asks another question elsewhere: why, if the primary reason for going to college is the skills and knowledge acquired in the classroom, does the job market care so much if someone has left college just shy of a degree? (He uses the example of someone who omits a single class on Aristotle.) My understanding is that someone who drops out one class before completion is worth considerably less on the job market than someone who finishes out the degree. This doesn't make much sense under a skills-and-learning model — in theory, 95% of a degree ought to grant 95% of the skills, yet the market disproportionally penalizes the incomplete degree. Unless the degree is indicating diligence, conformity, work ethic, etc., and not knowledge, this makes little sense. Not to mention that every student who cheats for better grades is implicitly relying on a signalling model for the value of a degree.

Anyway, I think Caplan's argument is stronger than this single blog post. Here's a talk he gave on the topic.
posted by Wemmick at 10:41 PM on January 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm sympathetic in the short term. Academics coming down from ivory towers helps enormously, well frequently they'd realize their particular ivory tower doesn't matter than much, if given a bit more perspective.

There is however a larger issue that realistically we cannot, and should not, employ everyone, so..

Instead, we should eliminate bullshit jobs, automate everything possible, shorten the work week, pay people for not only research, writing, teaching, etc., and also for pay people for studying.

No job because machines replaced all your skills? Just go take a class to earn a basic income. At least either giving or receiving some education broadly benefits society far more than say intellectual property anything, prison guards, etc.
posted by jeffburdges at 12:56 AM on January 16, 2015 [4 favorites]


I really doubt that higher education improves general problem solving. I have met too many people who went through college who can't think their way out of a wet paper bag. It selects for people who can solve problems, such that you have a higher likelihood of finding someone non-braindead in the applicant pool if they have a B.S. or B.A., but considering the business model of community colleges and lower-end colleges in the US is "get the poor, dumb people in the doors, stamp the right things on their FAFSA applications, and get their money before they drop out," well, it's hard not to sympathize with someone saying education is a sham, even if his politics are distasteful.
posted by sonic meat machine at 5:36 AM on January 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


He's right on though that many people's college curricula don't teach any practical skills when the educational system doesn't have to be that way. Someone could, for example, get a degree in English, and still take lots of the traditional courses, in addition to some courses that teach real, concrete skills like editing or bookmaking or printing. Why aren't there more institutions that offer possibilities like this? Why does it have to be all theory and no practice? It's pretty idiotic, frankly.
posted by ChuckRamone at 6:55 AM on January 16, 2015


It's like poking a grizzly bear with a stick.

That's a ridiculous oversimplification of hundreds of years of history. Why is it that every idiot going these days thinks they're the first person in generations of humans to see through the lie and pierce to the gritty, unsentimental truth of things like this? (Not the commenter here; the original article author I mean.)

Liberal arts education is a valuable end in itself; the fact that university credentials have become an employment qualification for many employers doesn't change the fundamental importance of universities as cultural centers in public life.

It really is a little like we're being overrun by economic barbarians.

I really doubt that higher education improves general problem solving.

I don't know about general problem solving, but without it, I would never have been able to develop the basic organizational and project management skills that I've relied on throughout my professional career and in my more creative personal projects. If you don't ever learn how to sit down and work through tedious and difficult tasks, you can't ever achieve anything worth a damn regardless of what field you're working in, and for a lot of people, university education is one of the first exposures to doing self-directed work and managing time that requires that level of effort and attention. Sure, it's possible to coast through with minimal effort in some programs at some universities, but the vast majority of people pursuing higher education aren't doing that and have no incentive to do that. People have a stake in ensuring they get something--whether real skills and knowledge or social relationships or whatever--out of their university experience. FFS, most people who go to college spend the rest of their lives paying off the debt these days--people have every incentive to get something of value for themselves out of the deal, and most people take advantage of the opportunities universities offer and really do.

What we're quibbling about here, is that some people want to exert top-down control and dictate to everyone else what a university education is supposed to be about. And mainly, they want to reduce its role because they don't like having to deal with all these people thinking they know things and having independent ideas that run counter to the preferred narratives of our big business elites, who want us to see universities as being about nothing more or less than football and vocational training, reducing everything to a particularly blinkered idea of economic function and their totalizing ideology of competition as a good in itself independent of its practical effects or utilitarian value.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:57 AM on January 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


It's possible that 3 things are true at the same time:

1) Colleges teach students humanities, philosophy, art, language, science, and math, which is a valuable goal in itself

2) These skills are not really relevant for the working world (college isn't vocational education, and shouldn't be)

3) At the same time, students who are able to thrive in a stimulating intellectual environment are also likely to thrive in the workplace (due to selection effects)

That is, workplaces need a filter to select smart people, and society needs a place to inculcate shared cultural knowledge. So we have students study cultural knowledge really hard for 4 years in a competitive environment where many of them fail. I don't see how this is a bad thing.
posted by miyabo at 7:15 AM on January 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'll address the article more directly as applied to employment :

Bryan Caplan is an economist. Not such a deep field really. At least not as usually applied in industry.

If work in a STEM field, then you encounter a temptation to solve rote problems a visionless employer wants solved. There isn't usually any on-the-job training for the theoretical underpinnings that determine what is or is not possible.

A education in STEM fields with a healthy mixture of breadth and depths provides you with a meaningful vision for where technology can go and helps you build said new technologies. You cannot build Google unless you understanding Markov processes.
posted by jeffburdges at 8:42 AM on January 16, 2015


It really is a little like we're being overrun by economic barbarians.

Respectfully, who's "we," exactly? And who are these economic barbarians of which you speak?

I'm sorry. This sentiment rankles me and (I think) leads to misunderstandings in every direction. When you're sitting in traffic, you are not sitting in traffic. You ARE traffic.

Just like people pining for the "good old days" don't remember their own dirty history, there is no pure Ivory Tower return to. Neither is there one to head toward. We are all Paycheck Visigoths.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:20 AM on January 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


In all aspects of public and private life these days, we're told we must defer to economic theorists who haven't told us what specific economic goals their models are optimized to select for, and who policymakers insist are doing non-political, value neutral science when that has never been what economics is. That's what I mean. We're told to analyze everything through the filter of certain economic frames--cost benefit analysis, ROI, etc.--but the value of various costs and benefits are always presented as if they are objective, scientifically demonstrable things when they aren't. Labor theory of value is a good theory if you want to have an economic system that returns a lot of value to its workforce, for example, while other ideas about value creation may be good for prioritizing returns to certain other economic role players, but none of them are objectively the right or wrong assumptions. The assumptions in economic reasoning have to be aligned with the non-economic goals for which we're trying to optimize our economic systems, not the other way around. Economists need to be letting the public and other people outside their field help them define what we are trying to accomplish with all our feats of economic engineering.

I'm not arguing there is or ever has been purity. I'm arguing that where we are now--with the public interest and meaningful democracy omitted from the processes of macroeconomic decision making--is untenable and will only continue to undermine the utilitarian aims of economic theory, regardless.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:01 AM on January 16, 2015


The free market purists, on the other hand, believe that purity is possible--that un-engineered markets actually exist and are in fact more optimal than engineered markets. My position is that all markets are engineered to some extent, the devil is in the details of what any particular market is engineered to optimize for.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:05 AM on January 16, 2015


It's fairly clear where Caplan stands, since he makes many overt assumptions. For example, in the above linked audio recording, he specifically says that more education correlates with people favoring "better" political policies, and explicitly states better means "more libertarian, free market policies."

Perhaps the most interesting bit is where he points out that if you believe that education is an inefficient way to signal your potential as an employee, the correct policy decision would not be to subsidize it, but rather tax it. So here we have a free market libertarian arguing that we should tax education to engineer a better market outcome. One which would generally lead to fewer people supporting his preferred policies, and possibly destabilize his own tenure track position.

Overall, I think there's some merit to the idea that the prestige society assigns to choice of college tempts people to make otherwise poor decisions. For example, taking on large debts to go to an Ivy instead of the taking the scholarship to the public school you were offered, when there's not much measurable difference in the quality of education you will receive. Or the weird fact that US News rankings factor in how selective a school is, causing a vicious cycle where the more applicants you reject, the more you get. Which also applies a thick layer of cement on the public schools whose public policy is to grow to meet demand rather than filter out more and more of society.
posted by pwnguin at 12:30 PM on January 16, 2015


Wemmick: Frankly, I think people are being too dismissive here. For one thing, the number of jobs that used to require a HS diploma that now require a BA would be an argument in favor for a signalling model.

I'm not sure it does. I think it is easily enough explained by a glut of educated candidates with no better options. If you can get a person with a BA for the same money as a person with no degree, and the field is so oversaturated with educated people that there's no special danger of that person getting poached by a better offer, why wouldn't you take them? The college degree isn't going to make them less capable.

There is probably some signalling component, but it doesn't mean that it doesn't also make you better. That jobs require it now even when they don't actually need it just means that employers think it might help, and they know they can get it for free.
posted by Mitrovarr at 5:22 PM on January 16, 2015


Said differently : On average, early education in theoretical STEM topics establishes limits on what a person can learn on-the-job. It's why interviewers for developer job ask candidates about run-time complexity.
posted by jeffburdges at 11:23 PM on January 16, 2015


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