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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