Sunday, March 18, 2007

Why Are We Teaching These Kids?

The first page from Byran Caplan's new book summarizes a position he is stated many times about education - that it is mostly a waste of time. There are several points I'd like to make relating to the economics of Bryan's assertion and how he arrived at it. To maintain the reader's interest I'll address the juicer ad hominem points first.

First, Bryan says that education, for him, was mostly a waste of time. I would say much the same about my classroom education. Yet, in my case, and I suspect Byran's, this wasn't because there was too much learning going on but too little.

I could absorb material much faster than the teacher taught it. So much faster that I was better off simply to read the book and struggle with it myself rather than waiting for the class to come along.

This problem, however, exists for a small minority of children. Most children actually tend to lag behind the school systems highest expectations. Just because the best could do better on their own doesn't mean that most could.


Secondly, Bryan confesses that he has never really worked outside of academia or even spent much time outside of the education sector. This, I suspect, is the real culprit. Byran doesn't realize just what it means to be uneducated because he has not worked closely with uneducated people.

Its one thing to think that obscure memorization of multiplication tables or facts about rivers basins is useless. Its another to try to build a creek side patio with someone who doesn't know these things.

You don't often use much of the trivia you learn in grade school but when you do it can be vitally important.

Perhaps, if we were all perfectly specialized in our occupations and could predict what we wanted to do from an early age it wouldn't matter. You could just learn what you needed on the job. There would be no need for a generalized education.

Yet, when the demand for new houses rises, reminding a group of new apprentice carpenters what right triangles are and teaching a bunch 30 year-old guys who have never heard of an angle are radically different.

Ironically, when you work in the knowledge economy it can be easy to forget just how important knowledge can be. In jobs where knowledge aquistion is the goal, intellectual horsepower has a greater return than possesion of the very knowledge you are working to make obsolete. In most other feilds intelligence matters but well established empirically verified knowledge matters more.

Third, from a economics prospective its hard to reconcile the notion that there is too much schooling with the literature showing that the returns from schooling are high. I am not talking about simple minded studies that show educated people make more money. More careful examinations conclude that the causal effect of education on earnings dominates most of the return.

Indeed, at the margin education seems to be most important for groups that are disadvantaged in their ability to obtain it.

Lastly, there is the market test. If education is so useless why is the market so incapable of finding an alternative. Fast track programs are common in finance, consulting and now even retail. Shouldn't it pay to snag brilliant 16 year-olds and put them to work in I-Banking before they waste time in high school and college.

Despite the severe shortage of talented labor no one has thought of a way to do this?

12 comments:

Floccina said...

First I like to call it schooling rather than education because education is a far broader thing than schooling. I call our current schooling system the long test. The long test is over consumed by both employers and students. A diploma is a quick way for an employer to ensure a level of hire. Would you rather know what you learned in school and not have a diploma or have a diploma but nave learned what you learned in school.

My grand parents went to only one year of school each and yet they ran a successful barbershop and owned a house with an apartment for them and 2 rentals. They where quite educated on a broad array of subjects and they knew what a triangle was.

Finally consider that if you want to learn something you often will pay someone to teach it to you, a tutor or you may go to a for profit school but if need credentials you must go to a not for profit schools. Not for profit schools are providing the long test but as home-schooled children are learning the test could be much shorter.

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