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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