Monday, November 28, 2011

Education as Much More than Just a Mechanism to Allocate People into Jobs

This is a reaction to Bryan Caplan's "The Magic of Education" posted here.

First, formal studies DO teach things related and about the real world. One learns the real world from studying at school, at least in my country (which is very far from being the best in OECD's PISA). Of course, spending one semester abroad teaches you more than reading about life abroad. Opening a car's hood and playing around with the engine helps you more if you want to be a real-world mechanic than reading a book about cylinders and pistons. Still, "indirect" learning does improve one's knowledge of the real world. Still, reading that book about engines improves, even if only a little, your knowledge of cars.

Second, Bryan Caplan's argument is based on a fundamental premise: people study to find jobs and only for that. Assuming that premise, I agree that people study way too much for the jobs they get, they study things way too unrelated to those jobs. And, keeping that premise, a huge part of studying and doing exams is not but costly signalling. Then, the conclusion of the argument is right: since what matters is the relative ability of potential workers, decreasing the "standard level" of education would save costs while still letting education work as well as a ranking mechanism aimed to allocate people into jobs.

It is easy to accept that those signalling costs are too high for the objective of allocating people to jobs: consider all the time- and money- costs of education incurred by students, parents, governments. But is it that the allocation of people to jobs is the only objective of education? Is it the only reward of education to signal a potential employer that you are a good worker? And, if not, if there are other benefits of education, are still the costs bigger than the benefits?

The fundamental premise in Caplan's text is wrong: people study for much more than finding jobs. Education is much more than that. Keep in mind the word "some" before the word "people" for the rest of this paragraph. Some people study for pure pleasure. People study out of curiosity. People study to be able to more adequately relate with the physical and social worlds. People study to develop and change their own beings. Human beings are much more than just job-seekers and workers: there are uncountable other dimensions more to being human and formal studies answer to those dimensions too: just think about musical education and languages, but, then, why not history? For instance, my nationality is part of who I am. To understand that aspect of my being, it was helpful to read history (both in and out of the classroom). And, no!, just going out and living in the real world was NOT enough to understand my own nationality: I had to read, to study.

Bryan Caplan seems to ignore that people CONSUME education: education is taken for immediate benefits, pleasure, utility, not only as a means (signalling) to an end (to get a job). Education is consumption and its benefits as a consumption good should be assessed when doing cost-benefit analysis. But, then, since education is consumption, does it still make sense to decrease the "standard level" of education??

I don't want to spend much time about the sub-topic of the "education externalities". Even if they are zero, my previous argument holds the same. I will just mention that it is already unpleasant to suffer with the lack of education of others (when one cannot avoid it) and I don't like to think what the real world would be if people were on average even less educated. Can you imagine how worse television would be? I guess Caplan's answer to that is: if you yourself were less educated too, you wouldn't notice any difference! In the limit, if all people were equally and absolutely ignorant (except for the knowledge necessary for working...), we all would be much happier. But... would we??

Finally, knowledge is accumulative: can one really have a "real life" job without any formal theory? Say a lawyer without ever studying a bit of philosophy, a manager without a bit of mathematics? And skills require mind training, which is a function of time and effort.

Post scriptum: accepting that the objective of education is either "for real world jobs only" or "full personal development" must have consequences in terms of the politics of funding education (who pays and why, which social benefits, etc.). But thinking about what education is and is for can be done without (and before) those political concerns. Actually, it SHOULD be done before thinking of those consequences. The discussion of what education is for can also be done prior and without the debate of who the educators should be (teachers only, teachers and parents, etc.).