Signal Inertia

For millennia, we humans have shown off our intelligence via complicated arguments and large vocabularies, health via sport achievement, heavy drink, and long hours, and wealth via expensive clothes, houses, trips, etc. Today we appear to have the more efficient signaling substitutes, such as IQ tests, medical tests, and bank statements. Yet we continue to show off in the old ways, and rarely substitute such new ways. Why?

One explanation is inertia. Signaling equilibria require complex coordination, and those who try to change it via deviations can seem non-conformist and socially clueless. Another explanation is hypocrisy. As we discuss in our new book, The Elephant in the Brain, ancient and continuing norms against bragging push us to find plausible deniability for our brags. We can pretend that big vocabularies help us convey info, that sports are just fun, and that expensive clothes, etc. are prettier or more comfortable. It is much harder to find excuses to waive around your IQ test or bank statement for others to see.

Now consider these comments by Tyler Cowen on Bryan Caplan’s new book The Case Against Education:

Bryan’s strangest assumption, namely a sociologically-rooted, actually anti-economics “conformity is stronger than you think” argument, which Bryan uses to assert the status quo will continue more or less indefinitely. It won’t. To the extent Bryan is correct (and that you can debate, but at least he is more correct than most people in the educational establishment will let on), competency-based learning and changes in employer behavior will in fact bring about a new equilibrium…not quickly, but certainly in well under two decades.

And what about on-line education? Well, a lot of students don’t like it because they have to actually work on their own and pay attention. To the extent education really is just signaling, that should give on-line options a brighter future all the more. But not in the Caplanian world view, as conformity serves once again as an intervening factor. For better or worse, Bryan’s book subverts economics as a science at least as much as it does education. Bryan of course is smart enough to see the trade-offs here, and he knows if the standard model of economic competition were allowed to reign supreme, we would (even with subsidies, relative to those subsidies) tend to see strong moves toward relatively efficient means of signaling, if only through changes in the relative sizes of institutions.

Tyler suggests that Bryan’s views imply competency-based learning and on-line education are more efficient signals, and so should win a market competition for customers. Yet I don’t see it. Yes, such approaches may let some learn more faster, and signal what they have learned. But Bryan and I see school as less about learning.

Both competency-based learning and on-line education divorce learning from its usual social conformity context. You can use them to learn what you want when you want, and then to prove what you’ve learned. You don’t have to commit to and keep up with a standard plan of what to learn when shared by a large cohort, nor be visibly compared to this cohort.

Yes, such variations may let one better show initiative, independence, creativity, and self-actualization. And yes, we give lip service to admiring such features. But employers are not usually that eager to see such features in their employees. The usual learning plan, in contrast, is much more like a typical workplace, where workers have less freedom to choose their projects, must coordinate plans closely, and must deal with office politics and conformity pressures. It seems to me that success in the usual schooling plans work better as a signal of future workplace performance, and so would not be outcompeted by competency-based learning and on-line education. Even if they let you learn some things faster, and even if change was easier than it is.

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