Tag Archives: School

Aaronson on Caplan

Scott Aaronson just reviewed Caplan’s Case Against Education. He seems to accept most of Caplan’s specific analysis and claims:

It’s true that a large fraction of what passes for education doesn’t deserve the name—even if, as a practical matter, it’s far from obvious how to cut that fraction without also destroying what’s precious and irreplaceable. He’s right that there’s no sense in badgering weak students to go to college … we should support vocational education … Nor am I scandalized by the thought of teenagers apprenticing themselves to craftspeople. … From adolescence onward, I think that enormous deference ought to be given to students’ choices.

And yet he can’t endorse Caplan’s recommendation:

I’m not sure I want to live in the world of Caplan’s “complete separation of school and state.” … There’s not a single advanced country on earth that’s done what he advocates; the trend has everywhere been in the opposite direction. … Show me a case where this has worked. … In any future I can plausibly imagine where the government actually axes education, the savings go to things like enriching the leaders’ cronies and launching vanity wars.

You gotta distinguish Caplan’s favorite option, which is extreme, from the obvious cautious advice based on his book. Maybe huge school cuts haven’t been tried, but small cuts are being tried all the time, and the data Caplan points to suggests that we suffer little harm from those. Its overwhelmingly obvious that most such small cuts are not mainly spent “enriching the leaders’ cronies and launching vanity wars.” They are put toward all other government spending, and rebated to taxpayers. So the obvious advice here is to try somewhat bigger cuts, and slowly increase them as as long as things seem to be going okay.

Aaronson is also reluctant to cut school funding for fear of destroying innovation:

OK, but if professors are at least good at producing more people like themselves, able to teach and do research, isn’t that something, a base we can build on that isn’t all about signalling? And more pointedly: if this system is how the basic research enterprise perpetuates itself, then shouldn’t we be really damned careful with it, lest we slaughter the golden goose? …

It’s easy to look at most basic research, and say: this will probably never be useful for anything. But then if you survey the inventions that did change the world over the past century—the transistor, the laser, the Web, Google—you find that almost none would have happened without what Caplan calls “ivory tower self-indulgence.” What didn’t come directly from universities came from entities (Bell Labs, DARPA, CERN) that wouldn’t have been thinkable without universities, and that themselves were largely freed from short-term market pressures by governments. …

I work in theoretical computer science: … the stuff we use cutting-edge math for might itself be dismissed as “ivory tower self-indulgence.” Except then the cryptographers building the successors to Bitcoin, or the big-data or machine-learning people, turn out to want the stuff we were talking about at conferences 15 years ago. … There’s also math that struck me as boutique scholasticism, until … someone else finally managed to explain … [that its] almost like an ordinary applied engineering question, albeit one from the year 2130 or something.”

Yes of course, where government supports most basic research, most good work is funded by government. But this hardly implies that basic research is crucial, or that enough wouldn’t happen without government support. And as US governments spends roughly 25 times as much on schools as on basic research, we could double basic research funding while cutting school funding by only 5%, and have plenty left over. And even today 56% of U.S. basic research is funded outside of government.

More important, my reading of the innovation literature is that high prestige academics tend to vastly exaggerate the economic value of their work. Most economically-relevant innovation is not driven by basic research, and observed variations in basic research funding don’t much predict variations in rates of innovation. Cuts to government funding would move some basic researchers to private funding, and some to other activities. This wouldn’t hurt economic growth much, and might even help it.

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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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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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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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On Exposing Hypocrisy

Imagine that you are a kid, and that you recently acquired a new friend who likes to come over to your house to play. You’ve started to notice that he pays a lot of attention to your sister when he visits, that he likes to visit when she is home, that he likes to play in the house near where she is at the time. You suspect that he has a crush on your sister, and that is why he recently became your friend.

This is a case of hypocrisy, where X is less about the Y that it seems about, but is instead more about Z. Here X is your new friendship, Y is his liking to spent time with you, and Z is his wanting to get closer to your sister. Of course Y is probably true to some extent, though not as much as he’d led you to believe.

Now consider some possible responses to this situation:

  1. Nothing: Do and say nothing; pretend you don’t notice.
  2. Private support: tell him privately about your suspicions, but make sure he understands that you will fully support his efforts, and that you don’t hold any grudge.
  3. Private confrontation: tell him privately about your suspicions. Act mildly offended.
  4. Public exposure: speak loud and clearly, in front of all his friends, as well as your sister, giving evidence of his hypocrisy. Act deeply offended.
  5. Indirect private confrontation: have a mutual friend tell him that his behavior seems suspicious. This mutual friend isn’t offended, and promises not to keep it quiet. But they were wondering, that’s all.

What if you like this person, and so want him to act more like a real friend. Which of the above responses are most likely to turn his hypocrisy, in pretending to do Y while really doing Z, into sincerity, i.e., really doing mainly Y?

In this case #4 is probably the absolute worst approach, and #3 probably isn’t that much better. #2 may usually have good outcomes, but even that risks him feeling embarrassed and avoiding you. #5 is a little safer, but even that could spook him. I’d say #1 is probably the safest: just do nothing.

Consider this as a metaphor for exposing hypocrisy more generally. Sometimes exposing hypocrisy, or confronting the hypocrites, can shame them into actually doing what they say they are doing. But at other times it scares them away, so that they do even less of what they said they were doing.

For example, people pretend to learn at school, but more plausibly they meet mates and signal their features. If this hypocrisy were made clear, would people actually learn more, or would they switch to other ways to meet mates and signal features? People also pretend to give to charity because they want to help, but more plausibly they want to bond with associates and to signal their gentle natures. If their hypocrisy were made more visible, would they try to be more effective at helping with their charity, or would they switch to other ways to associate and signal gentleness?

Consider this a partial answer to Ryan Carey’s request for criticism of effective altruism. A community associated with that label says it wants to promote charity as helping, and it points out how common charity patterns often fall far short of that goal. And if main cause of falling short were ignorance or laziness, this should induce a lot more helping. But if the main cause is instead hypocrisy, then what they are mainly doing is exposing hypocrisy.

And yes, for some people exposing their hypocrisy will shame them into more effectively doing what they had been pretending to do. But for others it may embarrass them into doing less. Maybe they will be more forthright about bonding and showing gentleness in other ways. I don’t actually know which it will be on net. But I do know that we should study hypocrisy more carefully, in order to better position ourselves to answer such questions.

Added 8a: People vary in their gentleness both via immediate system one reactions, and via more considered system two reactions. If people are more interested in signaling their system one gentleness, and if effective charity choices are those that look better to system two, then effective choices can be in conflict with their signaling desires.

For example, in the standard trolley problem people say they would divert the trolley to kill one person on the tracks to save five on other tracks, but would not push one person off a footbridge to achieve the same savings. Pressuring people to admit that pushing in the trolley problem is effective altruism is getting them to resist their system one inclinations, and if they succeed at that they may look less good to associates in terms of system one gentleness.

Added 10a: Sebastian Nickel reminds me of this study showing:

Large prior donors increase the likelihood of giving in response to information on aid effectiveness, whereas small prior donors decrease their giving.

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