Who Wants School? 

We can explain human behavior on many levels. For example, we can explain a specific choice in terms of that person’s thoughts and feelings at the time. Or we can explain typical patterns of individual behavior in terms of their stable preferences, resources, abilities, and a rough social equilibrium in which people find themselves. Or one can try to explain why different social worlds find themselves in different local equilibria.

For example, while pressures to confirm are indeed often powerful, that power makes conformity especially inadequate as a total explanation. Yes in an equilibrium where everyone squawks like a chicken when they meet, you’d seem weird if you didn’t also squawk. But if we found a place where that was in fact the equilibrium, we might still puzzle over why that happened there.

Last week I tried to outline an explanation for why young people in rich nations today spend so much energy signaling their work potential via school. Yes in today’s equilibrium you look weird if you try to skip prestigious schools to show your work potential in other ways. So yes we can explain the typical pattern of personal school choices today in terms of the equilibrium that people find themselves in.

But centuries ago few went to school, and the few who went didn’t go long. So young people mostly showed their work potential in other ways, such as via family background and child labor. And then over the last few centuries enthusiasm for school grew greatly, until today 2/3 of US kids graduate from high school, and 2/3 of those at least start college. Mere conformity pressures seem quite inadequate to explain this vast change.

My tentative story less tries to explain individual behavior given a local equilibrium, and more tries to explain why cultures changed to support new different equilibria. I can believe that today school’s main function is to signal work potential, and that child labor has always been better at school at signaling work potential and at acclimating kids to work habits, if the local culture supports that pattern.

But as I said in my last post, cultures around the world and through history have been typically hostile to industrial work habits, such as frequent explicit novel orders and ranking. Adults resisted both such taking such jobs themselves and sending their kids to learn such jobs. And culture seems to have contributed a lot to this, such as via status concepts; people were often ashamed to take such jobs.

Because schools have long and widely had a more prestigious and noble image, people have been more eager to send their kids to school. So schools could habituate kids into industrial workplace styles, and parents could be less ashamed of accepting this. I’m not saying that this was a conscious plan (though sometimes it was), but that this was a lower-resistance path for cultural evolution. Societies that adopted more industry friendly schooling tended to get richer and then other societies were more willing to copy them.

Bryan Caplan seems to accept part of my story:

Let me propose a variant on Robin’s story.  Namely: While school is not and never was a good way to acclimate kids to the world of work, it does wrap itself in high-minded rhetoric or “prestige.”  “Teaching every child to reach his full potential” sounds far nobler than “Training every child for his probable future.”  As a result, making the political case for ample education funding is child’s play.  Education’s prestigious image in turn cements its focal status role, making academic achievement our society’s central signal of conformity.

Where Bryan disagrees is that he sees government as the main agent pushing school. He says it wasn’t individual workers who were unwilling to adopt industrial work habits, it was government regulators:

The main problem of development isn’t that people in poor places won’t individually submit to foreign direction, but that people in poor places won’t collectively submit to foreign direction.  “Letting foreigners run our economy” sounds bad, but individuals are happy to swallow their pride for higher wages.  Voters and politicians in LDCs, in contrast, loathe to put a price on pride – and therefore hamstring multinationals in a hundred different destructive ways.

And he says it wasn’t individuals who were eager to send their kids to school, it was government:

While I don’t dwell on history, my book does answer the question, “Why does schooling pass the market test?”  My answer is: “Market test?!  Government showers almost a trillion dollars a year on the status quo, and you call that ‘passing the market test’?!” … When individuals spend their own money, of course, they at least ponder whether what sounds wonderful is really worth the cost.  For collective spending, in contrast, Social Desirability Bias reigns supreme.

But these just don’t match the history I’ve read. For example, In the US there was a lots of other school funding before government took over:

The school system remained largely private and unorganized until the 1840s. Public schools were always under local control, with no federal role, and little state role. The 1840 census indicated that of the 3.68 million children between the ages of five and fifteen, about 55% attended primary schools and academies. (more)

On typical worker reluctance to follow orders, see Greg Clark’s classic “Why Isn’t the Whole World Developed? Lessons from the Cotton Mills”:

Moser, an American visitor to India in the 1920s, is even more adamant about the refusal of Indian workers to tend as many machines as they could “… it was apparent that they could easily have taken care of more, but they won’t … They cannot be persuaded by any exhortation, ambition, or the opportunity to increase their earnings.” In 1928 attempts by management to increase the number of machines per worker led to the great Bombay mill strike. Similar stories crop up in Europe and Latin America.

Chris Dillow says my viewpoint is not new, and quotes some 70s Marxist scholars:

Robin would, I guess, reach for the holy water and crucifix on learning this, but his idea is an orthodox Marxian one. I don’t say this to embarrass him. Quite the opposite. I do so to point out that Marxists and libertarians have much in common. We both believe that freedom is a – the? – great good; Marxists, though, more than right-libertarians, are also troubled by non-state coercion. We are both sceptical about whether state power can be used benignly. … However, whereas Marxists have engaged intelligently with right-libertarianism, the opposite has, AFAIK, not been the case – as Robin and Bryan’s ignorance of the intellectual history of Robin’s theory of schooling demonstrates. This is perhaps regrettable.

To be clear, I’m only somewhat libertarian, I’m happy to credit Marxist scholars with useful insight, and I wasn’t claiming my view on schools to be starkly original. I’m well aware that many have long seen school as training kids in industrial work habits. What I haven’t seen elsewhere, though I could easily believe it has been said before, is the idea of schools being an easier to swallow form of work habituation due to the ancient human connection between prestige and learning.

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  • brendan_r

    Robin sorry to stray but I’ve got a post request/suggestion if you’re interested: reconcile Heinrich’s many stories on how deeply and unconsciously we copy and learn from role models with the behavior genetics lit on near zero parental/environmental influence.

    For example, mental toughness is a key trait. People with more of it get more done. So how can both this (the quote that follows, just as one of many examples) be true, and the behavioral genetics stuff.

    “Parents, like me, have probably had the experience of watching their child fall and then look up at them for a reaction. If the parent has a smile or looks unconcerned, the child may just stand up and press on. If the parent flashes a grimace, empathetically feeling the fall, the kid is more likely to burst into tears and need a hug. Some pain is good for us, so we humans have to learn to distinguish the good pain (working out) from the bad pain (stab wounds). Experimental work shows that believing a pain-inducing treatment “helps” one’s muscles activates our opioid and/or our cannabinoid systems, which suppress the pain and increase our pain tolerance. In contrast, believing the identical treatment is damaging our tissues results in a different biological response, which lowers our pain tolerance. 22 My UBC colleague, the psychologist Ken Craig, has directly tested the relationship between cultural learning and pain. Ken’s team first exposed research participants to a series of electric shocks that gradually increased in intensity and thus painfulness. Some participants observed another person—a “tough-model”—experience the same shocks right after them, and some did not. Both the participant and model had to rate how painful the shock was each time. The tough model, however, was secretly working for the experimenter and always rated the pain about 25% less painful than the participant did. Then, after this, the model left and the participants received a series of random electric shocks. For this new series of shocks, the participants who had seen the tough model rated them half as painful as those who didn’t see the tough model. This is interesting, but I’d worry that the participants were just saying the shocks were less painful so they didn’t look wimpy to the experimenter compared to the tough model. That’s not it. Ken showed that this was not some subjective effect on reporting. Those who saw the tough model showed (1) declining measurements of electrodermal skin potential, meaning that their bodies stopped reacting to the threat, (2) lower and more stable heart rates, and (3) lower stress ratings. Cultural learning from the tough model changed their physiological reactions to electric shocks. The effect of observing a tough model and inferring their underlying experience is a more potent inducer of placebo effects than mere verbal suggestions.”

    Is it really the case that folks do lots more and deeper and unconscious copying and mimicry than we realize…but just not of our parents!

    • It doesn’t seem so strange to me that kids don’t assume their parents are especially prestigious, and mostly look elsewhere for prestigious models to copy.

      • But preschool kids tend to see their parents as especially prestigious.

  • Zhang Tingyu

    The historical evidence is:
    1. Elites send their children to school as a form of conspicuous consumption/signalling wealth and leisure.
    2. Middle class apes elite mores. Gotta keep up with the Jones.
    3. Government enforces elite mores. Think of the children!

    • I agree that is the most plausible alternative theory to consider.

    • eyes_in_the_sky

      “Elites send their children to school as a form of conspicuous consumption/signalling wealth and leisure.”

      Let’s keep in mind that before the invention of the internet, school was actually a relatively good way to learn things. (Still is really–motivating independent study is hard.) And you really do need solid proficiency in writing and/or math to succeed at most elite occupations. People in these discussions take things for granted because they are using the internet to read econ blogs where solid proficiency in writing & math is assumed. Life is much different for your average OB reader vs a randomly chosen US teen in the year 1900.

      We may see a gradual phasing out of education emphasis as trendy elites like Peter Thiel and Bryan Caplan point out that the education emperor is increasingly naked.

      • Peter David Jones

        “Maybe the real story is that once something gets fixated in the public’s
        mind as a positive, that has social desirability momentum and policy
        momentum that goes beyond the facts on the ground.”

        I can vouch for the “ratchet effect” as it applies to public health provision. When people start getting free public healthcare, they start seei it as an intrinisic right. (Which is not a particularly a bad thing. Maybe all rights work that way. It is not a bad thing for a wealthy
        society to decide that it can increase its gamut of rights. What is important is maintaining the ability to afford them).

        “Let’s keep in mind that before the invention of the internet, school was actually a relatively good way to learn things … We may see a gradual phasing out of education emphasis as trendy elites like Peter Thiel and Bryan Caplan point out that the education emperor is increasingly naked (due to average is over + the internet).”

        The internet is full of people who have done anything but learn accurate information as a result
        of exposure to the internet. Thiel and Caplan are survivors, in the survivor bias sense. I am glad they started the debate, but I hope it doesn’t end with them.

        The problem with the non-survivors, the internet idiots, is that they they have not learnt how to judge the quality of information and information sources. The problem with current education is that it is stuck in the mode of teaching facts. But facts, information, are no longer a scarce resource…the contemporary world is drowning in information. What needs to be taught is
        meta-level skills, how to evaluate information sources, recognise good research and so

    • Peter David Jones

      One of the unmentioned issues here is that it is simply not true that all higher education is useless. It’s kind of obvious that people in technical professions are going to need a lot of training, because the world is getting more technically complex. If we were only educating engineers, doctors and scientists, we might expect them to be spending more time in college.
      So there are maybe two pressures here; the practical one, and the empty-signalling one.

  • arch1

    Robin, among the reasons I’m encouraging my kids in the direction of academic instead of occupational means of “signaling their work potential” is because I think the former will *also* help them become more flexible, and gain a broader and richer worldview (which has huge intrinsic value in addition to its instrumental value). The benefits of academic education in these regards are much greater than they were a few centuries ago.

    • I’m not so sure about school inducing more flexibility.

      • arch1

        Well, it helps one’s ability to locate and absorb diverse information both directly and via connections with others, and to go beyond surface appearances. This seems more conducive to flexibility than most on-the-job training (w/ notable exceptions, e.g. maybe management consulting intern).

      • Peter David Jones

        More flexibility than apprenticeship? I’m not sure that apprenticeship induces more flexibility than school.

        It is not just education that has changed, it is the workplace. The only thing you can be sure of is that you won’t be doing the same thing in the same way thirty years down the line.

        Once-and-for all on-the-job training is a bad solution to learning how to function in a changing workplace. Once-and-for-all schooling is somewhat better, because a school does not know in advance what career someone is going to go into, and so teaches them a wide range of knowledge (and, hopefully, how to research independently to some extent).

        The problem that remains unsolved is that we are stuck with the idea that education is something that’s over by your early to mid twenties, and then you have another forty years in a totally unpredictable employment marketplace. It would be better if people could “spend” the quite large amount of education that is being required at different points in their lives, as required.

        Shorter courses, not degree or PhD length. More responsive to the marketplace. Maybe vouchers for so many years of tertiary education that could don’t have to be spent all at once.

  • charlies

    Foucault’s ideas in Discipline and Punish are very similar to the theory here, re schooling as docility training.

  • free_agent

    One test case would be to look at the origins of CEOs of big businesses. Up until the 1970s or so, it was common for them to have “risen through the ranks”. Even into the 1980s, a friend remarked that the presidents of Bell telephone companies had usually started as linemen or something. But by the 1990s, the route to the executive suite always included college and an MBA.

    Of course, this doesn’t mean that the change was adaptive in any way, but it’s a reasonably well-documented instance of the problem, and so may be easier to study.

    In re school, my father noted that high school (in the 1940s) was good preparation for factory work because it trained kids “to endure regimentation”. What I notice in current high schools is the attempt to teach nearly 100% of the kids and to actually teach them the high-school curriculum, and on top of the traditional load of facts, a certain amount of creativity, self-directedness, and critical thinking. We’ve never attempted to do that before, and we’re not very good at it yet.

    • “What I notice in current high schools is the attempt to teach nearly 100% of the kids and to actually teach them the high-school curriculum, and on top of the traditional load of facts, a certain amount of creativity, self-directedness, and critical thinking. We’ve never attempted to do that before, and we’re not very good at it yet.”

      Thank you for a dose of reality here instead of the usual “school is a conspiracy to keep the masses in line” nonsense.

      • usual “school is a conspiracy to keep the masses in line” nonsense.

        A line now promulgated by the likes of the Kochs to attack the teachers unions, increasingly the only organized masses in existence.

      • More evidence that the 2010’s right-wing is in many ways temperamentally similar to the 60’s far-left, which might be why guys like Horowitz had such an easy time switching sides.

  • Blissex

    The whole discussion seems to be based on a pretty big and perhaps wilful misunderstanding by our blogger: he is describing only the schools for the spawns of the servants, which are indeed designed to mould them to be be docile, know-your-place, obedient, conformists in the organizations run for the benefit of their masters.

    The schools for the scions of the masters are instead designed to mould them to be have a sense of superiority and entitlement, to be popular and political, to learn to dissemble, to be good at getting away with it, to be creative and to be leaders.

    Surely Groton and Eton, or Harvard and Oxford, or Wharton or the Tuck, are not meant to domesticate the scions of the masters into becoming zealous, obedient, cogs in someone else’s machine. The likes of A Gore or GW Bush are surely schooled to a very different profile.

    There are also the schools meant for the education of the precious babies of the trusties, those who supervise the servants on behalf of the masters, are the only ones who care about providing actual learning, in the sense of technical competence, to their inmates, as well as of course a sense of zealous loyalty to authority, as deferential “team players”.. Places like Caltech or A&M or Rochester or Imperial College at the HE level, or any high school serving an affluent “professional class” suburb.

    • Peter David Jones

      The use of the word “submission” is unfortunate several times over. What people are being inured to is a certain way of doing things, where you turn up on time, follow rules, co-operate, and so on, rather than direct master-servant submission. The offspring of the elites will generally need to learn the same lessons, because you need those basics in place to be a trainee stockbroker as much as a trainee burger chef.

      • Blissex

        Perhaps we have a different perception of what the masters are like. In my understanding, a trainee or a senior stockbroker is a trustie, an employee, an agent, unless he is the son of a major shareholder “learning the ropes”.

        A master, an owner, a principal, is someone who derives hes income from her property, and she does not not need a job. She wants to have the skills to protect and grow their property, she dons not want to become hired help for someone else. They have what Real American call the “F*ck you! I got mine” mindset.

        Masters train (sometimes) their scions in *self*-discipline, not in submission to authority or to prestige. These people and their scions consider teachers and professor as egghead trusties, not as figures of prestige or authority. The scions think of their egghead trusties “if you are so clever, how comes you have to work to earn money?”. People who end up teaching to the scions rapidly learn to know their place too, if they want to keep on good terms with potential donors or givers of well paid consultancies.

        Our blogger’s argument apply mostly to the spawn of the servants and in part to the precious babies of the trusties, because both are trained to submit to authority, but actual competence is still required of many trusties, at least those working as “professional” hired help.

      • The use of the word “submission” is unfortunate several times over.

        Robin may agree with you, inasmuch as he avoided the term in the second piece. But do I recall correctly that Robin has proposed a theory that schools are preparation for warfare? I suspect the acceptance of hierarchy is indeed key to all these forms of farmer-like discipline.

  • How does the quest for basic literacy fit into this? Is it just the byproduct of the drive to discipline the labor force?

    • That’s one thing a lot of people miss when criticizing traditional schooling. Learning to read well is a very, very intensive process, and in today’s “post-literate” media environment, where TV and video games are a more appealing form of entertainment than books for the great majority of the population, if students aren’t taught how to read in school, they probably will not learn how to read at all.

      I’ve encountered “home-schooled” and “cyber-schooled” teenagers who are shockingly illiterate.

  • JW Ogden

    If one of my friends has a child who did really well in school or went to Ivy league school or equivalent, I know about it. I also know about a great athletic achievement. Which seems odd.
    Athletics is like school and we know that for 99% of people athletics is useless, and that should be a hint. Competition and signalling go hand in hand.

  • static

    I believe the key factor is the competitive admissions itself. This creates a form of contest that allows for some sorting based roughly on intelligence and other work suitability factors. In other words, the ranking function of school you mention is more important than the workplace style. In fact, many hiring organizations of technical talent prefer internships as more direct means of assessing workplace fit for new graduates. Of course, they select their interns from schools that match the prestige rank of their organization…

  • brendan_r

    We’re talking about origins, and one problem I see here is that the general level of literacy, numeracy, etc. was very low back when going to school was becoming the norm.

    Isn’t it plausible that one of the prime functions back then was…actually teaching kids useful things?

    In other words most of us acknowledge that once this school thing became a norm it became a tool of government, certainly.

    The dispute is over how this thing got going in the first place.

    Robin says not government but instead a preference to be molded not by unnatural feeling work but by something more appealing to our forager instincts.

    But in a world where literacy and numeracy aren’t standard why not assume that school was simply the most efficient way for unschooled parents to teach their kids basic things?

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