On Education

Bryan Caplan continues his argument against, well …, education (at least as we traditionally think if it):

Unless I misunderstand her, Ravitch draws a radically different conclusion.  To her, a dynamic economy somehow argues for a traditional academic education focused on literature, history, science, and foreign languages.  What a non sequitur.  Yes, it’s hard to figure out which occupation students will have in the future.  How is that a reason to prepare students for occupations they almost certainly won’t have?  The economy is changing in countless ways, but it would be amazing if literature or history saw major job growth.  It’s easier to imagine job growth in science and (living) foreign languages.  But is the labor market really likely to reward the degree of scientific or linguistic competence the typical student can realistically attain?  A B+ in high school science or foreign language* doesn’t open occupational doors for you today, and probably won’t in the future, either.

I think Bryan is too strong here.  It isn’t that obtaining a traditional education in which one studies history or literature or even the sciences will directly get you a job in one of those fields.  It is that a certain course of liberal arts education develops the way you think and the way you can conceive of the world such that one is well-prepared for a host of different jobs.  And that includes doing more than just taking a wide-variety of classes.  It means immersing oneself in the study of a particular discipline at the same time as you surround that intensive study with some connected breadth.  Indeed, with a rapidly changing economy, that type of education will be even more valuable given that it rewards a critical and flexible mind rather than one that sees the world through a specifically trained lens.

And no, I don’t outright reject the signaling model of education.  Indeed, the right model of the value of education would include many factors besides what one studies.  And I accept the possibility I think this way to avoid cognitive dissonance!

3 thoughts on “On Education

  1. There’s a difference between what education is and what role education plays in a given society. Caplan, due to his economic focus, is more interested in the systemic role played by educational institutions in our society. I’m with Grover on this issue–we’re talking about apples and oranges and cognitive dissonance is only a sign that the correlating portion of the venn diagram looms larger in our minds than the whole picture of education. Autodidacts provide the most eloquent defense of education in the various uses they put to an education received outside of signaling institutions. Caplan seems willfully obtuse in believing that bi- or multilingualism will bear fruit only if there is economic activity enabled within the economy of the target language. Advocates of foreign language training have never been so narrow-minded (though the need to justify their existence to administrators of Caplan’s mindset might have more recently shifted the content of their most public pleas). The study of a foreign by a curious and capable student can lead to habits of mind best described as cultural/cognitive parallax. Just as the eyes gain the ability to perceive depth through two or more points of reference, so does the foreign language trained individual gain the capacity to compare different paths toward the same outcome. They can often come up with surprising and creative solutions as a result.

  2. “a certain course of liberal arts education develops the way you think and the way you can conceive of the world such that one is well-prepared for a host of different jobs.”

    This would be nice to believe, but what is the evidence for it?

    And an even more pressing question would be whether those students who do well after majoring in liberal arts would do as well or better in other majors.

    Not that earnings are the sole (or even most important) consequence of a quality liberal education.

    I’m also wondering if the value of a liberal education is degraded by the fact that (and here I follow James’s wise insight) much of what claims to be liberal education is, indeed, quite illiberal.

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