True School Believers

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

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

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

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

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

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