Kling On School

Arnold Kling:

In a hierarchy, signaling respect for the hierarchy is very important. That is another similarity between academia and government, which I have discussed before. That is, part of the process of getting ahead in academia is showing respect for the academic hierarchy.

I think this offers a potential insight into the signaling role of education. It does not just signal intelligence or conscientiousness, which could be signaled more cheaply in other ways. It signals respect for hierarchy. Thus, large organizations will tend to value educational credentials, while small organizations may not need to do so.

There is no cheap alternative to educational credentials if you want to signal respect for hierarchy. … Any attempt to evade the educational credential system inherently signals a lack of respect for hierarchy!

This sounds to me pretty close to my emphasis on school as training kids to accept industry-era levels of overt ranking and dominance, with Bryan Caplan’s emphasis on doing the usual things to avoid seeming weird, since folks that are weird in some ways also tend to be weird in other ways. I’m not convinced folks care that much about your overall respect for hierarchy, but they do care that you go along with their local system, and defer to superiors.

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  • Philo

    “I’m not convinced folks care that much about [a] your overall respect for hierarchy, but they do care [b] that you go along with their local system, and defer to superiors [in that system].” They don’t care about [a] intrinsically; they do care about it extrinsically, because it is positively correlated with [b].

  • Vladimir M.

    One of my pet theories along these lines is that the notoriously high level of political correctness in universities serves a useful signaling function in today’s legal climate. A very productive employee will nevertheless end up being a huge liability if he says or does something stupid that results in a discrimination or harassment lawsuit. The probability of such blunders is clearly lower with people who have proven capable of functioning for several years in an institution that severely penalizes any such behaviors (and even other behaviors that tend to be correlated).

  • Georgi

    I think that Vladimir is correct. But this can only happen in a world where political correctness produces costs that are affordable. Since the US has the most productive economy and the most advanced higher ed system in the world, they can waste productivity on stupid ideas. That’s where the Chinese challenge is interesting. If the Chinese can somewhat close the gap with the US in 50 years without becoming politically correct themselves I suspect that they will suddenly cause a crisis in US elite social conditioning. At the moment they have their own self imposed handicaps. But at some point, their lack of PC may partially offset their lack of openness. If incomes got to within 25 or 30 percent of US levels and their academia became more focal internationally, then the anti PC meritocracy of China may produce enough Tiger Mother schools to scare the hell out of the Ivy League. But not for one generation yet.

  • Have you ever actually met an uneducated person? You’ll find that, in general, they are more obsequious than the educated. Employers reject “over-qualified” applicants, in part, for this reason. Compared to industry and the family, educational institutions encourage challenges to authority, at least on an intellectual plane.

    If education really made people more subservient (or even signaled subservience), you would find more support from our various hierarchical institutions for having an educated population. (Which is to say, the Republicans wouldn’t be calling for deep *cuts* to education.)

    • Steve

      I believe college is the only educational level in the US that encourages students to challenge professors in the open. Pre-college systems do the exact opposite. At least in the public school sphere.

  • Aron

    I thought from the title we were gonna be talking about combat training and virtue ethics.

    Most kids coming out of college are know-it-alls, particularly the ones that did well on their exams (those instruments that test real-world capability). Bosses just like to have an easy way to justify it when they say ‘We have a talented team working on this’.

  • Your last comment suggests that people are precisely interested in your attitude toward hierarchy!

    In my case, what I object to is getting credentials upon credentials, just for the sake of keeping credentialed people out. I am thinking in particular of the absurdity of my having to get a teacher’s certificate to teach high school even though I already have a Ph.D. For some reason, I am qualified to teach an 18 yr old, but not a 17 yr old. A Ph.D. should be an automatic high school teaching credential.

  • “…training kids to accept industry-era levels of overt ranking and dominance…”

    Seems appropriate for Klingon schools

  • Well it seems to be a question of hierarchy vs authority.

    What I understand from what you’re saying is that people demand an automatic deferral to hierarchy.

    A dry hierarchy forms the structure of an organisation, or ‘their local system’. But authority is the respect that an individual earns rather than automatically commands.

  • Michael Wengler

    What distinguishes humanity from all other species is the group mind. Our minds are linked to each other through our actions and especially our words. The internet, books, DVDs, and post-it notes serve as memory for the group mind. The group mind can build cities, cars with bluetooth, and billion transistor chips, all tasks gigantically beyond individual minds and therefore not accomplished by any other species.

    The human species has domesticated other animals, and also domesticated itself. Indeed, this may still be going on. Rates of violent crime within societies have dropped drastically in the last few 100 years. This could be due to the improved technology of living together, but it seems likely to me that we continue to domesticate ourselves. Do sociopaths have as many children as their more domesticated cousins? It seems the more violent, less controlled, less capable of living well in such densities as characterize the group mind get pretty marginalized.

    So yes, of course the group mind needs people who can function as part of the group mind. Not surprisingly, this involves a great subtlety of interaction socially, and a great ability to work on a task that has not been internally motivated within your own individual mind.

    Considering that the non-group mind version of humans is essentially the chimpanzee or bonobo, I’d hardly speak poorly of the innovations that have allowed us to have a group mind. The self-domestication that has bred a tremendous control over our violent impulses into us and into the people we interact with every day. It also seems clear from the increasing rate of knowledge creation and innovation in our society that the group mind renders us incapable of creativity or invention.

    So Kling saw one version of some of the moving pieces that allow a group of humans to extend their influence over hundreds of millions of other humans across multiple continents. Understanding those moving pieces will be very valuable, not so we can destroy them, but rather so we can abstract from what we see the essentials of creating the group mind, and continue to increase the intelligence and effectiveness of the group mind by properly training humans to function in it.