True School Believers

A few weeks ago I met the head of a prestigious institute devoted to studying and promoting college education. He disapproved of Bryan Caplan’s writings skeptical of college social value, and felt so strongly that at one point he broke off our conversation to compose himself. Yet when I raised the point that most students don’t seem to ever use much of what they learn, he agreed and endorsed the view that college mainly helps students hone work habits, a view I find plausible and first heard from Tyler.

In a long review of education reform books, Steven Brint, who directs a similar pro-college institute, also ends up endorsing a similar view:

A few jobs require specialized skills that can only be acquired in technical programs, but most jobs are relatively routine. They require workers to know basic literacy and numeracy, but other skills can be picked up on the job. The most important requirements are that workers show up and do their jobs every day, feel comfortable working with people from a variety of backgrounds, and know how to find information they need in non-routine situations. Following the directives of supervisors is essential. Reliability and steady effort are highly valued. …

[In] the society in which we live, … educational structures that might otherwise seem low-performing, expensive, and inefficient make perfect sense. Dedicated work is not required in college because it will not be required at work. In most jobs, showing up and doing the work is more important than achieving outstanding levels of performance. … [People think] inequality is legitimate, talent can always be identified, a regulated work force is possible, technical training is possible, adjustments for credential inflation are possible, the regulation of ambition is possible, and the elite is preserved in gilded educational enclaves. (more)

Even so, Brint rejects the scenario where we use college less, and hone work habits on the job. He would instead “welcome” our “invest[ing] in a revival of the gospel” that college 1) should be available to all regardless of performance, 2) is the main route to personal success, and 3) solves all social problems, 4) including social inequality. This even though he “cannot be optimistic about the prospects for reform.” Like democracy fans who insist the only acceptable solution to democracy’s failings is more democracy, for many school fans the only acceptable solution to school failings is more school.

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  • I agree with you: If schooling really “works” by honing work habits and teaching some simple skills, this is not an argument for schools. The justifications people think up would not lead you to present-day schools. Put differently: Assume that the current school system didn’t exist and someone asked: “What would be an efficient, sensible way of helping people to develop good work habits, get along with others and solve non-routine problems?” Would anyone have designed the current school-system in reply?

    • Michael Vassar

      Yep. That’s generally one of the best cognitive reflexes to call bullshit with.

      • Cathal Woods

        I agree it’s a good cognitive reflex, but when I apply the reflex and think it through, I’m not sure that we wouldn’t design this system or something like it!

        Of Ole’s three items — develop good habits, get along with others and solve non-routine problems — the first two could perhaps be done before the age of ten (or even earlier) and the third might take another 3-5 years, (or least, it might take this long to determine those who were capable of doing so in further education.)

        But the cost of doing the first two of these in this time-frame is immense in terms of parental wages or nursery education costs and foregone leisure (that is, we are not willing, over the first 4 years of a child’s life, to spend the time and effort (for the work to be done by the parents) and the money (if paying for pre-school learning)) and so we’re currently willing to allow children the first 22 years of life to develop the good habits and get along with others, (or attempt to develop these – it might not be possible after some young age.

        This calculation is probably under constant revision, as the costs of children, their schooling and college compared to the additional wages and enjoyment from time not spent on children, particularly before schooling begins, fluctuate. In addition to giving the children signaling power, perhaps parents are using the cost of college (and prep school) in the child’s later years to signal that they (the parents) made a wise choice in their earlier decision to work, no matter how the child turns out.

        The cost of getting children to solve *routine* problems is/was the school learning through age 16 (now 18); it could be done more efficiently if the habits were in place, but since they are being given longer, the basic learning is now also being given 22 years.

        tl;dr: We might, in fact, develop this system, when we take into consideration the wider economic context.

        Btw: Today’s Dean Dad was very much along these lines — the employers he meets with want graduates with patience, affability and basic skills; the advanced skills can come later. See

  • josh

    Schools hone work habits compared to what? College was easy and I had barely any other responsibilities at all for the duration. It also cost 120K in tuition and took enough of my time to prevent me from finding a full time job.

  • Eric Falkenstein

    So, kids should basically learn the standard virtues necessary for a successful life. These could be learned working in the private sector, perhaps better, because there the kinder get real feedback, not feedback subsidized by taxpayers to inflate their egos. The necessary math and English skills needed are not fuzzy, rather, routine, and so one could spend $100/month on Kumon.

  • Sophronius

    Interesting point. Even from that perspective, university seems like a massive waste of money though.It certainly doesn’t seem optimized to prepare you for work, as employers are always looking for extracurricular activities that aren’t offered in any university program.

    On the last point: Might I also suggest that this is similar to how some libertarians suggest that the solution to all problems with the free market is…. more free market?

    • Wonks Anonymous

      Damn, you bear me to it with that list bit. And to a certain extent, I resemble that remark! Arnold Kling often likes to say “Markets fail, use markets”, which is at least explicit though not how I’d phrase it (I’d mention avoiding the nirvana fallacy and looking to where particular institutional setups are likely to perform differently).

  • +1 @josh, I wish I could have stayed in school forever, because I didn’t do hardly any work and I was often doing more than many of my peers. It’s pretty hard to less than nothing and still get by, and indeed be respected by your peers. Unfortunately, the fantasy had to end and all that was left was a mountain of debt (80k – just a foothill compared to josh’s 120k, but still) and a false sense of superiority. College was certainly an experience and I met a lot of friends that I wouldn’t have met otherwise, but I probably could just move to a college town (or some other place where people that are interested in learning things tend to gather) and have the same sort of experience.

  • THR

    I’ve always been suspicious of the work/study habits learned in college. If for no other reason, all the necessary information is simply handed to you. That measures self-discipline and little else. How about we start measuring affability, public-speaking, shrewdness, etc.? Perhaps, in addition to standard lecture-based classes, we have courses where teams of students compete against the each other on open-ended projects.

    Add onto that the contrived social environment in college and it sets up people up for shock in the real world. Cue the adrift 28 year-olds running back to university for the quarter-life-crisis master’s degree.

    If I were going to design a degree that prepared students for the real-world, it would basically be a 1 then 3 program. One year of intensive full-time courses year round, then 3 years of part-time internships or co-op jobs., while taking night/distance ed classes year round. If were to go back to college, I would likely take that route.

  • Robert Koslover

    Reminded me of this:

    Perhaps the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do, when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not; it is the first lesson that ought to be learned; and however early a man’s training begins, it is probably the last lesson that he learns thoroughly.
    Thomas H. Huxley

    (Cited at

  • Rob

    “The question that remains… is how marginal practices of supposedly legitimate culture can become before they lose their relevance for the population in general.”

  • Back in the day I was the manager of people, some of whom had worked their way up the organization after graduating high school, some of whom had college degrees and often less experience in the organization. From my standpoint, there was no correlation of ability to do the job with degree status. It was true, however, that those who had a BS/BA were more confident than those who didn’t.

  • Justin

    The virtues of education that are being described seem far more applicable to high school than to college. High school requires students to show up at a specified time every day unlike college where, for the most part, students are free to arrange their schedule to avoid morning classes or to skip lectures they’re not interested in. It teaches basic literacy and numeracy. There are plenty of directives from supervisors to follow.

    I’m not sure, in fact, that the high school model isn’t superior to the college model in producing these sorts of basic job skills. The high school schedule is certainly more similar to the workday schedule than is the college schedule. For at least a large fraction of the jobs filled by college graduates, the sorts of tasks they’re likely to be given are much more closely modeled on assignments in high school than college where you tend to be given more short-term assignments with very specific guidelines rather than college which tends to assign more longer-term assignments with more flexibility in what is produced. And it wouldn’t shock me if a strong majority of jobs filled by college graduates followed this sort of pattern.

    • Doug S.

      The purpose of the freedom given to college students is to give them enough rope to hang themselves.

  • Lord

    Probably depends on where you go to school, but one thing school would offer that jobs do not is a multiplicity of bosses. One has to learn each instructors expectations and style, interpret what they say, mean, and value, and adapt to them and switch between them. While there are co-workers on jobs, most really only have one boss which would give you very limited experience when it comes to changing them.

  • Colin

    An interesting book on this subject is Freedom to Learn (3rd ed.) H. J. Frieberg, C. Rogers. Roughly put, it states that learning should be collaborative, teachers valuing the students as human beings and trusting them to learn for themselves.

  • Abelard Lindsey

    The current system of higher education is a goddamned expensive method for merely honing work habbits. Did you mention this to the head of the prestigious institute in your discussion with him? If so, what was his response.

  • Abelard Lindsey

    Like democracy fans who insist the only acceptable solution to democracy’s failings is more democracy, for many school fans the only acceptable solution to school failings is more school.

    All this means that Brint is just an another brain-dead liberal-left. Of course brain-dead liberal-left is a redundant phrase.

  • Rudd-O

    Brint = corn-pone opinion.

  • DK

    The entire argument, both pro and contra, resides with the assumption that the primary goal of college education is vocational training, one way or another. But the problem is that there is a substantial contingent of Ivory Tower inhabitants who subscribe (or pretend to subscribe) to the idea that higher education has nothing to do with job preparation. Instead, it’s all about “teaching critical thinking” and “learning about the world around us”.

    This is how one science professor puts it:

    “The problem with that defense is that it implicitly buys into the assumption that the goal of teaching science students is to train them to become scientists.

    I reject that assumption. The goal of science education is to teach students how to understand and appreciate science and the scientific way of gaining knowledge. That’s valuable knowledge for politicians, lawyers, sales clerks, business employees, and taxi drivers. A large part of that kind of teaching involves teaching about critical thinking and writing essays is an effective pedagogical tool.”

    I bet that this professor is loving the fact that taxi drivers pay his salary!

    • Instead, it’s all about “teaching critical thinking” and “learning about the world around us”.

      Wouldn’t PBS and the Discover be a much cheaper and better way to do that?

  • Michael Wengler

    For me, college was transformative. It was the first time I ever had to work to keep up in classes. It was the first time I ever had classes where it would matter if you missed a day. It was the first time I was completely surrounded by hard working, competitive, intelligent people.

    The real problem with college is it seems to have gotten so expensive, following an inflation curve similar to medicine’s (if I recall correctly). So we see a rising demand for something which is highly correlated with success, and like Yogi Berra, we say “no one should go there anymore because it is too crowded?”

  • Of course I do not see why we cannot teach students to work while teaching them stuff that is likely useful in their future lives

    • DK

      We can. But dumping on students basically random lectures by essentially random lecturers followed by exams that test rot memorization and are designed for ease of grading first and foremost is probably the worst way toward accomplishing a goal like that.

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