School Is To Submit

Most animals in the world can’t be usefully domesticated. This isn’t because we can’t eat their meat, or feed them the food they need. It is because all animals naturally resist being dominated. Only rare social species can let a human sit in the role of dominant pack animal whom they will obey, and only if humans do it just right.

Most nations today would be richer if they had long ago just submitted wholesale to a rich nation, allowing that rich nation to change their laws, customs, etc., and just do everything their way. But this idea greatly offends national and cultural pride. So nations stay poor.

When firms and managers from rich places try to transplant rich practices to poor places, giving poor place workers exactly the same equipment, materials, procedures, etc., one of the main things that goes wrong is that poor place workers just refuse to do what they are told. They won’t show up for work reliably on time, have many problematic superstitions, hate direct orders, won’t accept tasks and roles that that deviate from their non-work relative status with co-workers, and won’t accept being told to do tasks differently than they had done them before, especially when new ways seem harder. Related complaints are often made about the poorest workers in rich societies; they just won’t consistently do what they are told. It seems pride is a big barrier to material wealth.

The farming mode required humans to swallow many changes that didn’t feel nice or natural to foragers. While foragers are fiercely egalitarian, farmers are dominated by kings and generals, and have unequal property and classes. Farmers work more hours at less mentally challenging tasks, and get less variety via travel. Huge new cultural pressures, such as religions with moralizing gods, were needed to turn foragers into farmers.

But at work farmers are mostly autonomous and treated as the equal of workers around them. They may resent having to work, but adults are mostly trusted to do their job as they choose, since job practices are standardized and don’t change much over time. In contrast, productive industrial era workers must accept more local domination and inequality than would most farmers. Industry workers have bosses more in their face giving them specific instructions, telling them what they did wrong, and ranking them explicitly relative to their previous performance and to other nearby workers. They face more ambiguity and uncertainty about what they are supposed to do and how.

How did the industrial era get at least some workers to accept more domination, inequality, and ambiguity, and why hasn’t that worked equally well everywhere? A simple answer I want to explore in this post is: prestigious schools.

While human foragers are especially averse to even a hint of domination, they are also especially eager to take “orders” via copying the practices of prestigious folks. Humans have a uniquely powerful capacity for cultural evolution exactly because we are especially eager and able to copy what prestigious people do. So if humans hate industrial workplace practices when they see them as bosses dominating, but love to copy the practices of prestigious folks, an obvious solution is to habituate kids into modern workplace practices in contexts that look more like the latter than the former.

In his upcoming book, The Case Against Education, my colleague Bryan Caplan argues that school today, especially at the upper levels, functions mostly to help students signal intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity to modern workplace practices. He says we’d be better off if kids did this via early jobs, but sees us as having fallen into an unfortunate equilibrium wherein individuals who try that seem non-conformist. I agree with Bryan that, compared with the theory that older students mostly go to school to learn useful skills, signaling better explains the low usefulness of school subjects, low transfer to other tasks, low retention of what is taught, low interest in learning relative to credentials, big last-year-of-school gains, and student preferences for cancelled classes.

My main problem with Caplan’s story so far (he still has time to change his book) is the fact that centuries ago most young people did signal their abilities via jobs, and the school signaling system has slowly displaced that job signaling system. Pressures to conform to existing practices can’t explain this displacement of a previous practice by a new practice. So why did signaling via school did win out over signaling via early jobs?

Like early jobs, school can have people practice habits that will be useful in jobs, such as showing up on time, doing what you are told even when that is different from what you did before, figuring out ambiguous instructions, and accepting being frequently and publicly ranked relative to similar people. But while early jobs threaten to trip the triggers than make most animals run from domination, schools try to frame a similar habit practice in more acceptable terms, as more like copying prestigious people.

Forager children aren’t told what to do; they just wander around and do what they like. But they get bored and want to be respected like adults, so eventually they follow some adults around and ask to be shown how to do things. In this process they sometimes have to take orders, but only until they are no longer novices. They don’t have a single random boss they don’t respect, but can instead be trained by many adults, can select them to be the most prestigious adults around, and can stop training with each when they like.

Schools work best when they set up an apparently similar process wherein students practice modern workplaces habits. Start with prestigious teachers, like the researchers who also teach at leading universities. Have students take several classes at at a time, so they have no single “boss” who personally benefits from their following his or her orders. Make class attendance optional, and let students pick their classes. Have teachers continually give students complex assignments with new ambiguous instructions, using the excuse of helping students to learn new things. Have lots of students per teacher, to lower costs, to create excuses for having students arrive and turn in assignments on time, and to create social proof that other students accept all of this. Frequently and publicly rank student performance, using the excuse of helping students to learn and decide which classes and jobs to take later. And continue the whole process well into adulthood, so that these habits become deeply ingrained.

When students finally switch from school to work, most will find work to be similar enough to transition smoothly. This is especially true for desk professional jobs, and when bosses avoid giving direct explicit orders. Yes, workers now have one main boss, and can’t as often pick new classes/jobs. But they won’t be publicly ranked and corrected nearly as often as in school, even though such things will happen far more often than their ancestors would have tolerated. And if their job ends up giving them prestige, their prior “submission” to prestigious teachers will seem more appropriate.

This point of view can help explain how schools could help workers to accept habits of modern workplaces, and thus how there could have been selection for societies that substituted schools for early jobs or other child activities. It can also help explain unequal gains from school; some kinds of schools should be less effective than others. For example, teachers might not be prestigious, teachers may fail to show up on time to teach, teacher evaluations might correlate poorly with student performance, students might not have much choice of classes, school tasks might diverge too far from work tasks, students may not get prestigious jobs, or the whole process might continue too long into adulthood, long after the key habituation has been achieved.

In sum, while students today may mostly use schools to signal smarts, drive, and conformity, we need something else to explain how school displaced early work in this signaling role. One plausible story is that schools habituate students in modern workplace habits while on the surface looking more like prestigious forager teachers than like the dominating bosses that all animals are primed to resist. But this hardly implies that everything today that calls itself a school is equally effective at producing this benefit.

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  • lump1

    Let’s consider some related questions:

    1. What made institutionalized education the way it is now?
    2. Why do we care so much about someone’s educational attainment?
    3. Why do young people choose to get an education, rather than some available alternative?
    4. What good does education do (for recipients; for society)?

    I suppose most of the focus is on 2. – “[W]hy did signaling via school did win out over signaling via early jobs?” – and my thoughts about it are far less complex than Robin’s.

    For me, education is a human competence rating service, and though it is profoundly imperfect as such, no more perfect system exists. My thesis predicts that if we produce a less costly but equally reliable people rating service, it could be a gamechanger.

    First of all, let’s acknowledge that universities essentially vouch for the competence of a graduate. The degree says “We’ve put this person through the paces, and she made it through.” Though this masks a lot of detail, we know that this procedure is broadly standardized, the “paces” are diverse. Also, we lack reliable alternatives. Letters from previous employers are far less standardized, because both good and bad letters can have many different kinds of explanations.

    Notice that previous income *IS* another fairly reliable competence-rating tool, but notice also that this is very eagerly used. Educational attainment is used most for young people who don’t have much of an income track record.

    In short, I’m saying we need a young people rating tool, education is the best tool we have for that job, and this leads to answers for the other questions: It’s in young people’s interest to get a high rating insofar as they can, a fact which then makes the tool more reliable, etc. I imagine some economists will suggest that there are better young-people rating tools. If so, I’d love to see suggestions. If you’re right, I don’t imagine it will be long before Amazon starts sweeping up the uneducated competents based on that tool. Then, everyone else will follow, like every sports team now is a powerball team when buying talent.

    • bluebuckeye04

      Actually, if Robin is right, doesn’t his argument tend to rebut the most cynical versions of the “education as signaling” story? In his account, students are not just signaling some pre-existing level of conscientiousness – they are learning to do something difficult and counter-instinctual, i.e., submitting to domination. So schooling is actually adding (not just revealing) significant value – even if the only thing that is being learned is “how to submit”.

      I am tempted to file Robin’s argument under “Education is about Assimilation”.

      • lump1

        I would still say that it reveals and certifies a capacity for submission, and employers want employees with that capacity. But the difference between our positions is not big.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        I would still say that it reveals and certifies a capacity for submission, and employers want employees with that capacity.

        Then why isn’t college more farmer-like? [When I went to college, I certainly didn’t feel like I was submitting; I had never felt so free.]

      • lump1

        Maybe because it comes naturally to you to complete a wide range of exercises that are basically meaningless, just because they were assigned. And you probably got turned on by the novel ideas that college introduces, which made it all go down easier. If I had jobs to fill, I’d want to hire someone like you – the sort of person who thrived in college. And that’s why I think that success in college is a good measure of your competence in the modern workplace.

      • Dave Lindbergh

        It felt pretty damn farmer-like to me.

        The day I left college I never felt so free.

  • Robert Koslover

    Re: “Most nations today would be richer if they had long ago just submitted wholesale to a rich nation, allowing that rich nation to change their laws, customs, etc., and just do everything their way. But this idea greatly offends national and cultural pride. So nations stay poor.”

    I suggest to you that the above perspective is at best incomplete. In many/most cases, most of a poor nation’s miserable citizens simply never had a choice. Consider, for example, South Korea vs. North Korea. The first is now a relatively-modern and prosperous society. The second is now a nightmarish failure. Yet they had the same root culture. Is it really “national and cultural pride” that made the difference here? That seems quite a stretch. No, I think that rather that it was simply freedom vs. slavery, free markets vs. communism, a benevolent representative democracy vs. an evil dictatorship, etc. Those kinds of factors seem far more important in determining if a nation will be rich or poor. Just my humble opinion.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      But surely you agree with me that if the poor nation of N. Korea would complete submit to the rich nation S. Korea and let S. Korea dictate all of their policies, N. would get richer.

      • anon

        Marshal Kim Jung Un disapproves of this comment. He would like to let you know that the Democratic Popular Republic of Korea is in fact much wealthier than the barren land of South Korea, even though their misguided leadership keeps clinging to the tainted grasp of an outside power. It’s no surprise that those led by the enemy are in fact longing for the
        grand legacy that surrounds us North Koreans, and crying out
        for a day when they may live alongside us once again, in the warmth of
        the Sun cast by our loving Leader. The truth of their actions will be
        revealed as the curtain of time is pulled back, and our DPRK remains
        strong and righteously defiant in a world rocked by change.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        Which (at the margin) is weightier to you, Robin – pride or wealth?

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        Many Roman provinces because rich because they submitted to Rome instead of defying and fighting them.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        Their favored status due to their submission to Rome was parasitic on other populaces resisting. If most didn’t resist, Rome would not have tried to set an example by differential treatment. (Or so the historians have led me to believe.)

      • Axa

        So, as a obedient salary man I’m parasitic to other individuals that resist a a boring office job? The reason I have a higher salary is just because the employer needs to set an example.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        The reason I have a higher salary is just because the employer needs to set an example.

        The question is empirical rather than logical, of course. If you’re saying that your being parasitic this way is inconceivable, I’d suggest that a concern of employers is to avoid unionization. To that extent, the income of the ununionized salariat is partly parasitic on the higher wages obtained elsewhere by unions. [The same would more obviously obtain if a union does exist at your place of work but you are not a member and don’t pay dues but receive union wages.]

      • J K Brown

        The provinces perhaps. The indigenous rulers as well, but the indigenous population were often not included in the prosperity.

        A more apt example of areas submitting becoming wealthy eventually are the former British colonies. Unlike the continental European colonials, the British did not set up a bureaucracy made up solely of British colonials, but rather trained up local bureaucrats to run the institutions that carried the traditions of private property, individual rights, rule of law, etc. Whether the British were forced out or left by choice, those institutions and trained locals have eventually provided for the rising wealth of the former colony, see India.

      • Dave Lindbergh

        The Dutch invasion of Britain seemed to work out OK. (1688)

      • Peter David Jones

        You don’t need to show it works out in some cases, you need to show that it works out well often enough to bet on,

      • Dave Lindbergh

        I think Robin is proposing a hypothetical that assumes, for example, that SK wouldn’t impose slavery on NK.

        The idea is for the submitting nation to adopt the policies and culture of the richer nation – not that they become their property.

      • Peter David Jones

        Why won’t they impose slavery? You need to propose mechanisms, not assume things will work the way you want by magic.

        If the poorer country voluntarily emulates the culture and systems of the richer one, whilst retaining ultimate control and ownership, then they are fairly safe. But I would call that emulating, not submitting. And it happens a lot.

      • Robert Koslover

        Yes indeed. But it is their dictator who must submit or be defeated. Only after he is overthrown, and only if the people’s brief opportunity for freedom is successfully grasped, will they have a chance to be free.

      • Kaiser

        This is perhaps a case of finding an example to fit a theory. I suggest the historical tendency has been toward a scenario where of poor ‘nation submitts to a rich nation and becomes poorer still’ – especially given the fashion for economic pillage after conquest. The argument may also assume a rich nation is so because of some attached quality it can bestow upon the poor – as opposed to being a ‘lucky nation’. In large parts the USA owes its wealth to an easy access to raw materials and a buffer against outside miliatry threat. A supposed superiority of laws and customs could only partially explain its success. And mean also that at best only part of its sucess could be transferred to a poorer nation.

      • Peter David Jones

        Is there a way of letting another nation dictate your polices to help you get rich that doesn’t also allow them to asset strip you so that they get even richer?

      • Dave Lindbergh

        Yes, there is.

        Classical liberal policies seem to do a reasonable job of that.

        Look at former East Germany today.

      • Peter David Jones

        Is the causal factor there the ever-magical classical liberalism, or the Westies being scrupulous about ripping off their compatriots (and relatives) ?

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    It’s been suggested that one possible way to improve the productivity of many third world industries is to instill better management practices, I gather Robin’s position would be that it’s easier said than done.

  • dat_bro06

    I’m neither an expert or a historian on the subject but speculating from a US perspective: feels like the cultural-political backlash to the practice of child labor during the Second Industrial Revolution could have easily provided a spark for schools to fill a vacuum as a sort of ‘equitable-seeming sorting system’ wherein young people would be taught the basics until they were of appropriate working age. In fact compulsory schooling usually accompanied child labor laws (yeh, looked that up on Wikipedia).

    In a similar vein I’m curious to understand why and how specialization became looked upon as inferior to well-roundedness. To get into a so-called top college, a student usually must exhibit strength in multiple disciplines. Indeed a student is better served to pursue pointless extracurricular activities and perform charity than to get an after-school job. Students who excel in math but struggle in English are prodded, and looked upon as delinquent/lazy in their area of weakness (consider how silly this is relative to the individual’s life).

    This bias too could signal a cultural value that may stem from an Industrial Revolution inspired ‘backlash’, namely, the specialist at his/her post on the assembly line repeating the same task ad nauseum. Why, we must still learn the liberal arts so as to avoid automation? (Except there is this thing called leisure time, during which poetry, the musical arts, and dancing may all be done).

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      But school IS “child labor.” The difference seems to be that “child labor” has a dominating boss, while school seems to have high prestige people to copy.

      • Trimegistus

        Schools, even with attempts to quantify learning, are very subjective in how students are evaluated. A girl is “energetic” while a boy is “disruptive,” and so on.

        Jobs have some metrics of accomplishment: did the job get done? Did money get made? If no, then the worker has failed.

        That doesn’t apply in schools, so students can be evaluated subjectively by their teachers. Which means there’s more room for ideological winnowing and social engineering. Kids who parrot back the right bumper-sticker slogans can go to elite colleges. Kids who disagree with their NEA teachers have to go to State U., or straight to work. It doesn’t have to be conscious: a student who stubbornly supports the wrong candidate is obviously less bright than one who agrees with her teachers.

        It’s the start of our Mandarin system. Show the right opinions, get into a good college. Show more correct ideology in college, get a fast-track job in government or a nonprofit. A few years of that and you’re ready to enter politics. Barack Obama’s career follows that trajectory precisely.

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        In my experience it is usually easier to bias the evaluation of an employee than of a student.

      • dat_bro06

        I believe schools used to have dominating bosses. Indeed corporal punishment was a common practice (across religious/ secular lines, too). Even today I do not get the impression that elementary school teachers carry high prestige — rather teachers at that level of the system are considered to be social workers (low prestige), people who have entered an occupation because they felt called to it because of moral/ altruistic causes.

        But schools were different from child labor not because they swapped dominating bosses for high prestige people, but because they swapped filth and machines and health hazards for a ruler and a pencil.

        Robin, sounds like you were thinking about secondary education system. My comments were w/r/t K-12.

      • Dave Lindbergh

        School teachers used to have much higher prestige than they do today.

        And still do in other countries.

        See http://mugwumpery.com/?p=82

      • Dave Lindbergh

        That’s true, but there is a cost to doing so for an employer – no such cost for the teacher.

        (A hired manager may not feel the cost – it falls on the owners, of course.)

      • J K Brown

        School is “child labor” but labor in an apprenticeship. There was a time when students did provide some small return of productive work for the benefit of the school in return for the inefficiency introduced by their instruction. A bit of clean up, etc. Even historically, in the British public school, the students took up positions in school administration as they progressed.

        I recently came across an article reporting the poor outcome of the first entrance exam at West Point. The exam results were seen as a fair survey of the state of public education across the nation in 1908:

        They indicate a lack of thoroughness and a weakness in methods of instruction which must result in a vast waste of time on the part of a great portion of the student body. It is a saddening reflection that a child and youth should be kept under servitude in the treadmill of mental instruction for so many years of the joyous period of life, with a result as meager and inadequate in proportion to the sacrifice and effort as that demonstrated in so many of the cases under consideration. If education is a thing worth doing, either for the individual or for the State, it is certainly worth doing well, and is defensible as an exaction only in proportion to the excellence of the results obtained. If the results obtained from these examinations are to be accepted as a criterion, the conclusion is inevitable that the ten or twelve years consumed in their production are not well spent, and that the youth in these cases have not received a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work. It is to be remembered that the objective* in this apprenticeship to learning has been almost wholly a mental one.

        The Inefficiency of the Public Schools
        Author(s): Charles W. Larned
        Source: The North American Review, Vol. 188, No. 634 (Sep., 1908), pp. 336-346
        Published by: University of Northern Iowa
        Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25106199

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      In a similar vein I’m curious to understand why and how specialization became looked upon as inferior to well-roundedness

      One guess that’s consistent with Hanson’s theorizing is that “well-roundedness,” that is, mastering subjects you don’t care for, manifests submission.

  • Zhang Tingyu

    Elite colleges might be forage-like as you say, but those elite kids have been through the whole 12 year school system which is absolutely farmer-like, and you don’t get into Harvard unless you’ve been a very, very submissive farmer from age 3 to 18.

    Indeed it’s a good idea to look at how college signaling replaced job signaling; but we should look at the history of how it actually happened. And if you look at the history it just looks like the elite sent their children to university to signal wealth and leisure, and slowly those elite values trickled down.

    What people signal by going to college is simply conformity and status; are Harvard students really smarter and more conscientious than those from Columbia? Does anybody care?

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      But WHY did elites have their kids signal via school than via work?

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        Do you agree with Zhang Tingyu that the 12-year school system is absolutely farmer-like? [I recall that students had to ask permission to use the restroom.] If so, doesn’t that break your theory that school is a transition process to submission?

      • Zhang Tingyu

        Because everybody has to work, even the underclass; while the elite can afford to send their kids to college to study useless highbrow culture.

        Conspicuous consumption.

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        There are a huge number of ways for rich people to waste their wealth visibly. Why THIS way?

      • Zhang Tingyu

        All small children go to school in our society; education is regarded as being a good thing.

        It follows that more education is even better. Rich people must show their ability to get more good things than you, so you get a signaling spiral where rich people pay for their children to get ever longer education, until a breaking point (25+ years today) is reached.

      • A. Ezhutachan

        ‘WHY did elites have their kids signal via school than via work?’ Surely, the reason was Oedipal. A son who grew up watching you might become better at the job and long to oust you. Take Edsel Ford. But for his expensive education he might have taken power within the company the old fashioned way- viz. pushing his dad into the furnace.

        The great value of a Liberal Education, as George Bernard Shaw pointed out in ‘Man and Superman’, is that it prolongs the child’s neotenous dependence on the father or, for those from middle class backgrounds, the Corporation.

        Human beings have a lot of plasticity in their phenotype. Neoteny is a successful evolutionary strategy though it increases dependence not the drive to dominate.

        Western education and Military practice meant that sons remained neotenous with respect to the parent. In the East, on the other hand, the Crown Prince had no compunction about rebelling against his father and chopping off his head.

        Punitive Gods don’t come into the picture. In India, both Hindu and Muslim Princes indulged in this sort of behavior as did European Princes till the system of Military and Civic education was changed in a manner such that apprenticeship and journeyman status in elite professions was prolonged into one’s middle years. On the Continent, in particular towards the East, Collegial decision making reinforced this trend.

        Some wealthy parents still prefer their kids not to signal via scholastic achievement- but this is because the nature of the family business is such that control of Capital is divorced from Scalability of Operations. Thus, though the son can exceed the father in building up the business, it is the latter who retains control

      • joshgl

        Didn’t elites not used to work? Didn’t they signal their eliteness by not having to work? (Ruling, being a different matter).

      • J K Brown

        Well, for one thing, from Rome, work in the manual arts was associated with slaves. The idea of the “elite” not working is also continued in the tradition of non-commissioned officers in the military habit of admonishing “Don’t call me sir, I work for a living”.

        But one example of the unacceptability of work vs study (which eventually became schooling) was that Robert Hooke, an accomplished man in the sciences, could not be invited to be a fellow of the Royal Society due to his need to work for a living. He was provide a job by the Society, curator of experiments, as a means of support and also participation in the Society.

      • Dave Lindbergh

        Hooke was a Fellow.

      • Dave Lindbergh

        Because education was already established as a signal of membership in the elite.

        Some fraction of education was practical and efficient, esp. for children of the rich – literacy, arithmetic, etc.

        So the rich provided some education to their children for practical reasons – education that the poor couldn’t afford.

        Once education was established as a signal of prestige, other classes would naturally want to mimic that.

        So elites responded by providing *more* education to their children, as part of an education arms race.

        …so today you need a BA to sell cosmetics in a department store.

        [Sorry; I posted a previous draft of this reply in the wrong place above.]

  • Frederic Bush

    “Most nations today would be richer if they had long ago just submitted wholesale to a rich nation”

    I don’t think the history of colonialism supports this argument. Poorer nations often ended up defunct, not rich. People who submit to a rich nation didn’t tend to become citizens of the rich nation or get full legal protections; instead the citizens of the rich nation moved in and took over most of the colony’s resources and prime real estate and the former inhabitants were pushed to the periphery. Perhaps rich nations have developed morally sufficiently so that this is no longer the case, but you can perhaps see why poorer nations would be wary of such a move.

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  • A. Ezhutachan

    ‘centuries ago most young people did signal their abilities via jobs’ – surely, they signaled their abilities by first undertaking the voluntary servitude of apprenticeship or impressment into the Armed Forces or the strict discipline of the Novitiate or else enrollment in highly regimented Academic institutions of Ecclesiastical provenance?

    No doubt, for manual labor, the best signal was a muscled torso and the willingness to sling one’s knapsack over one’s shoulder and set off to where work might be found. However, that still remains the case today.

    Poor countries don’t actually boast citizens who refuse to be dominated. What they feature is a ‘dominant caste’ or elite ethnicity which may resist work-place discipline but only so as to capture a rent. If employers can switch from recruiting from this class to more docile, lower status, ethnic groups or genders (apparently there are more than 3) then they can change the economic regime. In Japan and, more recently, China- rural women proved docile workers. In India, on the other hand, paternalistic legislation coupled with the militancy of the dominant castes- or Kaleckian ‘intermediate class’- Labor problems bedeviled Industrial Relations and we witnessed a ‘reswitching’ type paradox whereby the Big Mills- which employed a lot of men- closed down while power looms, employing women and kids, took up the slack.

    Gabriel Tarde came up with the theory that people will mimic the behavior of those of higher status or who enjoy greater prestige but instead of working class people now wearing top hats and tails, we see the rich wearing jeans, sporting suntans and adopting sartorial styles which highlight the muscular body of the proletarian. Why? The answer, of course, is that within group signalling militates for Zahavi handicaps. A really rich guy shows how really rich he is by not wearing a suit, pretending instead to be a cowboy or a boho tramp or whatever.

    Similarly, when I was young, those of my contemporaries who had the lowest cost of acquisition for the skills needed to be a Merchant Banker or Corporate Master of the Universe, nevertheless Zahavi handicapped themselves by posing as Leftists or sartorial rebels of some sort. To the chagrin of genuine proles, pulling themselves by their bootstraps, this pretense earned them higher signing bonuses and fast-track promotion.

    The crisis in Higher Education is surely related to Zahavi handicap type signalling aimed at capturing power law driven earning differentials. The good news is that we get plenty of baristas with PhDs though the scum, alas, continues to rise to the top.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      The answer, of course, is that within group signalling militates for Zahavi handicaps.

      Hanson’s claim that the uniqueness of humans resides in our drive to mimic the prestigious seems to founder on countersignaling, which suggests that the drive to imitate the prestigious isn’t the fundamental drive. When we can signal culturally valued traits better by doing the opposite of what the prestigious do, that’s the route we take.

      • Dave Lindbergh

        Those who are not already prestigious attempt to mimic those who are.

        Those who *are* already prestigious attempt to distinguish themselves from other prestigious people by conspicuously *not* following standard prestigious behavior.

        So the manager of your local bank branch wears a suit, but Steve Jobs doesn’t.

        Borrowing from Stephen Pinker, it’s kind of signalling treadmill.

  • RhymesWithSilver

    I wonder how much this has to do with school presenting a more meritocratic opportunity for upward mobility than a first job. Jobs past and present are largely linked to social connections and trust networks. But schools, unlike companies, are more likely to be organized along those enlightenment principles that obligate them to pull up students from lower socioeconomic brackets. And it’s really only in the past 100 years that education has really begun to act on those enlightenment principles at scale. Couple this with intense urbanization and an uptick in ethnic and racial diversity in these new urban environments, bringing together individuals and families seeking any way up the social ladder, and a rise in the value of signaling through schooling for seems inevitable.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      If kids would have been willing to work for cheaper wages in jobs that presented a more “meritocratic opportunity for upward mobility”, employers should have been eager to offer such a situation. Yet instead it was the negative wages of school that won out.

      • AG

        Negative wages of school need to be considered within the context of worker sophistication, right?

        Meaning, as jobs became more sophisticated more schooling was required to be a functional cog in a firm. So, negative wages in school are based on a future expected value of output (in the eyes of the firm). Further, employers were unable to to offer such a situation IF they didn’t have jobs to give that required less schooling. Labor’s Need to pay for lunch while studying meets industry’s need for better educated workers = higher wages.

        A lot of schooling is redundant or inefficient if we limit ourselves to considering the final career/position of an applicant. Let us set that aside and assume that people are assigned a job and only trained in what they need to know for the job. Let us further assume that we don’t have to worry about errors in “fit”, the person has the non-social skills (retention, pattern recognition, quick enough memory, ability to sit around for desk work). Given all that, the person will have to learn more and therefore require more time in school…. isolating the sum extra time seems like a goose chase, but the model serves the purpose of pointing out relevant context – I think.

  • joshgl

    I don’t have time to fully reflect on this and write a long response, but I would say, that if you interact with concrete history, you will see that there was quite a substantial top-down movement led by men and institutions with tremendous resources to create the change you are describing.

    I think you accurately describe the tool that ended up being useful in creating the new system, but perhaps a decent explanation for how it cam about is just that “The Establishment” wanted this to happen.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      But WHY did they want it to happen?

      • joshgl

        To rule the world?

      • A. Ezhutachan

        Why would parents want their kids to be neotenous? Why would Society evolve purely neotenous, expensive to acquire, Ackerloff signals?

        Nobody doesn’t know the answer but the money is in avoidant Availability Cascades.

      • Dave Lindbergh

        Some fraction of education was practical and efficient, esp. for children of the rich – literacy, arithmetic, etc.

        So the rich would provide some education to their children for practical reasons – education that the poor couldn’t afford.

        Once education was established as a signal of prestige, other classes would naturally want to mimic that. Which provides a handle…

    • Swami

      Actually, I would argue that the mechanism is more decentralized. Hundreds of states were competing with each other for over a thousand years, and a successful recipe of cultural values and institutions emerged which promoted better social cooperation. The states following this recipe flourished, while those taking alternative paths floundered, or were consumed by those who adopted it.

      Whether it emerged spontaneously or was the concerted effort of some elites is actually beside the point*. It appears to be part of the culture and institutions of prosperous nations.

      *It ignores that other elites in those hundreds of states may have tried another path

      • joshgl

        Only if by “flourished” you mean, won WWII. I realize I’m being glib and not very informative with my comments, but UNESCO was and is a thing. In the US, the Rockefeller General Education Fund and the Carnegie Endowment were largely responsible for creating college as we know it.

        Whatever their expressed purpose, the tendency has been to centralize control over the output of “Science” by a group of interlocked foundations and bureaucracies, while simultaneously promoting a unipolar system of idea production.

        Robin is dead on in that the most powerful force used is the natural desire to eliminate elites and that the goal is a docility and a willingness and even desire to be cogs in a giant apparatus producing wealth for the people at the top.

        If the question is why promote schools and not jobs as a means of training. I think it might be that a) school was easier to centralize and control since businesses are self funding and b) the research University offered the ability to both train the next generation and to select by grantmaking which ideas would receive official sanction as “elite” or sophisticated.

      • Swami

        We may be grabbing on to different parts of this post and then talking past each other. I am mainly playing off the part where Robin talks about how industrialization and employer hierarchies required socialization supplied by schools. But most of these workers got this socialization in primary and secondary school.

        You are talking about college. Sorry for creating the confusion with my first response.

      • joshgl

        Mandatory schooling in the south was largely a Rockefeller project. In the northeast it does have a longer history. The de facto takeover of the local school systems by the university system in terms of content, and pedagogical technique has been the dominant trend in schooling for a century such that the project is now essentially complete and we get hand wringing articles anytime some Podunk town in Kansas dares to question their assigned textbooks.

        So I would say, exaggerating slightly, that both lower and higher Ed were more about total social control then about creating workers per se.

      • joshgl

        I think imitate autocorrected to eliminate in the second to last paragraph, otherwise it was Freudian.

  • Phil

    Paul Graham had a bit about how prestige is about how to get people to do unpleasant tasks

    ————————–

    “What you should not do, I think, is worry about the opinion of anyone beyond your friends. You shouldn’t worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world. When you can ask the opinions of people whose judgement you respect, what does it add to consider the opinions of people you don’t even know? [4]

    This is easy advice to give. It’s hard to follow, especially when you’re young. [5] Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.

    That’s what leads people to try to write novels, for example. They like reading novels. They notice that people who write them win Nobel prizes. What could be more wonderful, they think, than to be a novelist? But liking the idea of being a novelist is not enough; you have to like the actual work of novel-writing if you’re going to be good at it; you have to like making up elaborate lies.

    Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious. Plenty of things we now consider prestigious were anything but at first. Jazz comes to mind—though almost any established art form would do. So just do what you like, and let prestige take care of itself.

    Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.

    Similarly, if you admire two kinds of work equally, but one is more prestigious, you should probably choose the other. Your opinions about what’s admirable are always going to be slightly influenced by prestige, so if the two seem equal to you, you probably have more genuine admiration for the less prestigious one.”
    http://www.paulgraham.com/love.html

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      Yes, that is a relevant observation.

  • AG

    We don’t need no thought control, No dark sarcasm in the classroom, Teachers leave them kids alone

  • JW Ogden

    If you are correct and the main function of schooling is to teach submission, we could easily cut school costs to less than a 1/3 of what we spend on schools today and get the same result.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      Yup, IF we were willing to push kids into early jobs to teach them submission that way.

      • A. Ezhutachan

        Whoa! Why this talk of submission?
        Neoteny- i.e. prolongation of dependence and the curbing of the drive to dominate- has been a winner for our species so far.
        As for ‘pushing kids’- urm… good luck… you are a better man than I am Gunga Din.
        My idiot son, who went to an ancient British Public School and got 5 As in difficult subjects like Math, Further Math but also Russian and other clearly horribly foreign languages, went on to do a crap degree and now teaches martial arts to miscegenated inner city kids- like… himself.

        He did study Econ under great Professors, but, also-quite stupidly- invested in learning Arabic, thinking Egypt and Syria etc. were about to liberalise. But, wannabe Schumpeter, the Fates ruled against him.
        BTW being a kid in a middle class, upwardly mobile, family is TOO an impressment into a particularly noisome galley slavery.

  • efalken

    The Amish are a very successful US demographic, in that they are generally healthy, independent, and their aggregate wealth and population is growing above average. They are, technically, poor, in that they have high poverty rates, but that is because they work almost communally, and so many family members have low wages, but as part of a prosperous family they are generally not poor.

    They also stop formal schooling around 10th grade.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      Yes, the Amish do less school, and they do NOT work in modern workplaces.

      • efalken

        Very true…but they highlight that you can hack The Matrix if you can convince a sufficiently large enough subset to join you.

  • joshgl

    Robin, out of curiosity, how much do you know about the history of schooling?

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      Read the equivalence of a few books.

  • A. Ezhutachan

    Robin, this is a foolish post.
    You have no answer to the following comment of mine which I vaingloriously re-post.

    ‘WHY did elites have their kids signal via school than via work?’ Surely, the reason was Oedipal. A son who grew up watching you might become better at the job and long to oust you. Take Edsel Ford. But for his expensive education he might have taken power within the company the old fashioned way- viz. pushing his dad into the furnace.

    The great value of a Liberal Education, as George Bernard Shaw pointed out in ‘Man and Superman’, is that it prolongs the child’s neotenous dependence on the father or, for those from middle class backgrounds, the Corporation.

    Human beings have a lot of plasticity in their phenotype. Neoteny is a successful evolutionary strategy though it increases dependence not the drive to dominate.

    Western education and Military practice meant that sons remained neotenous with respect to the parent. In the East, on the other hand, the Crown Prince had no compunction about rebelling against his father and chopping off his head.

    Punitive Gods don’t come into the picture. In India, both Hindu and Muslim Princes indulged in this sort of behavior as did European Princes till the system of Military and Civic education was changed in a manner such that apprenticeship and journeyman status in elite professions was prolonged into one’s middle years. On the Continent, in particular towards the East, Collegial decision making reinforced this trend.

    Some wealthy parents still prefer their kids not to signal via scholastic achievement- but this is because the nature of the family business is such that control of Capital is divorced from Scalability of Operations. Thus, though the son can exceed the father in building up the business, it is the latter who retains control

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  • brendan_r

    The problem with the idea that school is to submit is that, relative to early work experience, it produces young people less willing to submit. That’s what Sam Walton thought, and it’s why WalMart preferred smart h.s. grads back in the day to know-it-all college kids. We hear all the time nowadays about the unemployed lib arts major who won’t submit to decent paying jobs that are beneath him.

    I’m reminded of the geological idea uniformitarianism – explain a thing’s history based on processes still operating today.

    Who most enthusiastically pushes school and why?

    Modern progressives love it. They’re the ones flipping out when Thiel pays people to skip it. Commies bought lots of school. And I hear cultural conservatives, back in the day when they were powerful enough to influence schools, wanted schools to assimilate all those Italian and Irish Catholics.

    Relative to early work schools can influence people more broadly; propagandize (broadly) and influence their worldviews.

    That was always attractive to those running the show but propaganda is expensive.

    The world’s gotten richer, states have gotten WAY richer, and so they’re buying more propaganda via more school.

    Why do folks put up with it? Many possible reasons:
    -school is actually useful for the most prestigious folks who we look to copy
    -reading and writing and other basic things are useful and we’re only a few generations removed from lots of variance in who was able to learn these things in school
    -“modern” countries do lots more school than 3rd world ones

    So it’s easy for the propagandists to tell a plausible story for how school is superior to early work.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      Relative to early work experience, it produces young people less willing to submit.That’s what Sam Walton thought, and it’s why WalMart preferred smart h.s. grads back in the day to know-it-all college kids

      Then why the requirement of a h.s. diploma?

      • brendan_r

        We’re talking about submission to work bosses and work norms not submission in general.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        Wouldn’t you think the two would usually go together? [Modify the claim to make it more precise. Do you hold that commie countries are libertarian regarding work norms?]

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      I agree that working in jobs where you must submit trains submission more than does school. But school still does better than did the typical childhood environment centuries ago.

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  • David

    “When firms and managers from rich places try to transplant rich practices….poor place workers just refuse to do what they are told.”

    This is a sweeping statement Robin, what do you base it on? Are the firms also transplanting “riches” to the workers so they are no longer living in poverty, or just “rich practices”?

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      I did give a link, and quoted it in the followup post.

      • David

        Thank you, I’m downloading it now, I don’t know how I missed that!

  • weareastrangemonkey

    Cowen’s Second Law: There is a literature on everything.

    In this case it belongs to a long Marxist tradition. I think this view on education goes back to Marx himself, but a more modern variant can be found in Bowles’ and Gintis 1976 Schooling in Capitalist America. Bowles and Gintis are also noted in the work on “non-cognitive” skills by Heckman.

    Or you can hear Chomsky give a very similar description to Hanson’s back in 1989: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JVqMAlgAnlo