Why education is productive — a parable of men and beasts

We know the paradox.  Education improves earnings but most formal schooling appears to be a waste of time.  Many economists claim that education is mostly a means of signaling quality.

I view education as a self-commitment to being a more productive kind of person.  Education is about self-acculturation.

Men are born beasts.  But education gives you a peer group, a self-image, and some skills as well.  Getting an education is like becoming a Marine.  Men need to be made into Marines.  By choosing many years of education, you are telling yourself that you stand on one side of the social divide.  The education itself drums that truth into you.

Similarly, if you become a Mormon or a Protestant in Central America, your life prospects go up.  It is not that Mormons have learned so much more, but rather they have a different sense of self.  They have a positive self-image about their destiny in life and choose a different set of peers.  They also choose not to drink. 

The beasts model differs from classic signaling theory.  If education is pure signaling, just give everyone a standardized test in seventh grade and then close up the schools.  But the process of self-image formation, at least for most people, is far from complete at that point. 

That being said, education will look like what the signaling model predicts.  It will be about subtle brainwashing, image, and learning markers of status.  What the signaling model misses is how important those features are for your subsequent productivity.

Nerds will hate education and tend to embrace the signaling model.  Their sense of self is often formed quite early, and they do not why so much time should be wasted in school.  This is one reason why the signaling model is so popular in economics.

Part of the East Asian growth miracle was that so many citizens bought into the self-acculturation model and imposed it on their children.

So how much acculturation do you need? 

If you move from Myanmar to America at age seven, you probably grow up as an American.  Age thirteen, you probably grow up as an American.  Age eighteen, it is harder to say.  If you move at age twenty-five, you probably stay fairly Burmese.  So your identity is shaped by what you are doing, and your peers, between the critical ages of thirteen to your early twenties.  Those are precisely the years covered by our educational system.

Of course apprenticeships can turn beasts into men, but apprenticeships also turn them into working-class men.  You spend your childhood hanging out with other laborers.  As society becomes wealthier, more parents are willing to spend on education rather than apprenticeships.

Comments are open.  I am especially interested in how such a theory might be tested, and what it implies for the optimal content of education.


Completing higher education is a signal of the ability to delay gratification, the ability to complete a given task- however pointless it may seem- in order to achieve the certification necessary to join a desired socio-economic group.

Education is a signal of buying into the system.

Consider why educationally sucessful minorities are often accused by their peers of 'acting white'. Contrast this behavior to the efforts of many young men to flamboyantly dissociate themselves from 'the system' through hip-hop culture and anti-social behavior.

Oh yes, the horrible working-class men who get those wrongheaded ideas about unions, living wages and socialism. Guess that's one of the reasons why there aren't any more apprenticeships.

Where does the idea that formal schooling is a waste of time come from? Do you think Larry and Sergey could have started Google if they'd dropped out in high school? Somehow, I don't think they'd have had the insight the eigenvector decomposition of the link matrix could be used to make a great page ranking algorithm if they didn't have a bit of further education behind them.

Mordechai, that would seem to be a bit of a stretch, however. The outcomes have to be the result of some structural factors otherwise the entire concept of socialization is a farce and we are forced to posit that we are everything we will ever be from day one.

Education is a means to the end of higher marginal productivity later in life. That productivity is a function of skill set and membership in a network of connections - personal and professional. Education accomplishes both skill development and network development simultaneously. Skill development can be completed independent of others, but network development can best be completed while others are doing so as well. As you have noted, it seems that networks that are established early are the most successful, a problem later immigrants have difficulty overcoming. A test of network value could be performed using indicators of membership: university degrees, religious affiliation, professional memberships while controlling for skill level.

"I view education as a self-commitment to being a more productive kind of person. Education is about self-acculturation."

"Men are born beasts. But education gives you a peer group, a self-image, and some skills as well. Getting an education is like becoming a Marine. Men need to be made into Marines. By choosing many years of education, you are telling yourself that you stand on one side of the social divide."

I think that's broadly right. I think, for example, about many kids from non-educated backgrounds having trouble and dropping out of college not because they can't handle the work intellectually, but because, I think, they come to realize (accurately) that becoming educated means becoming a different sort of person and, in doing so, inevitably putting themselves on the other side of a social divide between from their families and old friends. For some students, higher education means becoming the person they'd always pictured themselves being, for others, it means becoming somebody quite different.

"The beasts model differs from classic signaling theory. If education is pure signaling, just give everyone a standardized test in seventh grade and then close up the schools. But the process of self-image formation, at least for most people, is far from complete at that point."

But even if signalling theory were right giving everybody a test wouldn't suffice, would it, because what is being signalled is a capacity for self-control and persistence over many years rather than just intellectual candlepower.

You're quite right about how education forces changes that some don't want to make. This is very true in Appalachia, where a common phrase aimed at those who aspire for more is "you're getting above your raising." This is a generational phenomenon for those who choose to stay or can't leave, and the effects of this sentiment go a long way to explaining the pathologies of Appalachia. Those who do get educated often leave immediately (hence WVa having the oldest population in the country.), while those who remain resent anyone successful. Lawyers in West Virginia medical malpractice suits seldom make cases based on any evidence; more likely, a doctor on the stand will be asked about how much money he has, what kind of car, house, etc. in a blatant appeal to the simmering class resentment of the population who make up juries. Of course, this results in medical crisis facing most of Appalachia today.

The old "eleven-plus" system in England is much despised now by the contemptibly ineffectual New Educators. But it had a point. If a kid hadn't learned how to convey his native intelligence by age 11, the overwhelming probability was he never would. And, as Murray proves in The Bell Curve, native intelligence is the defining characteristic for productivity and social success. Also, at age 11 most kids weren't as locked into a particular class viewpoint as they would be at, say, 18. So you could argue that the 11+ provided more real opportunity than the comprehensive system does today.

Education is NOT merely "means to the end of higher marginal productivity later in life." Tyler's acculturation idea ("beast theory"), which Slocum and CMC have aptly commented upon, is correct, though it's difficult to say how large a role formal ed. plays compared to, eg, family, friends, etc. Formal ed. is important, however, because of the way it is subject to political control: it's the polity's chance to shape its future citizens, to directly and intentionally play a role in acculturation by setting educational standards (that's not supposed to have a totalitarian ring to it - on the beast theory, acculturation is always the result of "external" influences - you can take some of the bite out of the Szasz quote above by noting that parental child-rearing is likewise a form of "social control" - all acculturation is). I'm afraid I don't have an idea for a test of the theory off the top of my head, but I did want to note that if it is correct, then we might think that, eg, after security and basic services, the essential project in Iraq and Afghanistan should be to set up an educational system with the aim of trying to produce liberal democratic citizens - much more important than setting up elections, writing constitutions, ie, giving them the institutional framework of liberal democracy, but not directly working on their acculturation (though hopefully participation in the institutional framework will be educational as well).

This discussion, as I understand it, started out talking about the processes by which an identity is formed, roughly between the ages of ten and the early twenties. I am not so sure of the relevance of higher education in this context. I do think, however, that there is a lot to be learned from the writing of John Taylor Gatto (an actual teacher) on the subject of public education. From his website:

"Perhaps the greatest of school's illusions is that the institution was launched by a group of kindly men and women who wanted to help the children of ordinary families—to level the playing field, so to speak."

In my humble opinion it's worth having a look at what he has to say. He would, for example, suggest that an apprenticeship might be better at creating citizens than our current system, and that in fact our current system was intentionally designed to create willing workers only.

"Isn't that an argument for the self esteem movement?"

No - studies have shown that kids dropping out of high-school may have a strong (even exaggerated) sense of self-worth, but their sense of self worth does not depend at all on school and grades.

there is really a difference between parent rearing and social control as exemplified by some forms of schooling. It is not merely superficial, but a rift to the foundation: the parents usually attempt to pass on the mystery of being human (however crass this sounds) while social control is about, well, control. Read C.S.Lewis "Abolition of Man", he said it all.
Regarding Iraq and Afghanistan, I doubt that such a project could gain traction in the USA, it would be considered too dangerous to provide really good education to potentially hostile nations. The joke is that a Prussian-style army-schooling is also dangerous, it suffices to remember the history of Prussia to prove this point.

I personally know an entire generation that is literally self-taught in terms of computer literacy. I didn’t learn to blog because of a course at school. I didn’t learn html, Photoshop or a plethora of other wares from any kind of formal course. In fact, I didn’t learn to type or use the basic features of a GUI from the instruction of a teacher. Nor have my friends or many of my peers.

I say this to suggest that if given the information in the form of lectures, notes, visual aides and the like - a motivated student could arguably learn many subjects as proficiently as someone sitting in a classroom (i.e. the social sciences and liberal arts fit into this category more than others).

I argue this point in: Will the University Survive? http://www.mises.org/story/2013

"If you move at age twenty-five, you probably stay fairly Burmese. So your identity is shaped by what you are doing, and your peers, between the critical ages of thirteen to your early twenties. Those are precisely the years covered by our educational system. "

But you don't actually spend those years in mainstream American culture. You spend them in a separate "adolescent" subculture.

Also, if we keep using "putting off childbirth for 10-15 years" as part of our signal for productive middle-class ability and temperment indefinitely, then either the quality of that signal will tend to decrease or the proportion of the population that actually has productive middle-class ability and temperment will tend to decrease as a few generations go by. Hopefully the former...

Surely this all points to the need for a college degree that is actually aimed at what (non-technical) course are supposed to do by accident?

Call it "Master of Core Business" or something and feature:
1. Heaps of public speaking in which marks are awarded for presentation and dress as well as content. Include actual instruction on dress and presentation, instead of expecting people to learn by osmosis.
2.A number of writing assignments, which are to be written in corporate, Technical or Journalistic style (as appropriate) with marking to be biased towards writing ability.

3. Group assignments, with one tutor per team, and marks given for teamwork and ability to get on with others. Actual one-on-one instruction from the tutor in this area.

4. Sales training and actual sales experience.

5. Actual hard marking

A 12 month course with all that should have much greater signalling ability than a 3 year BA in Merovian Feminist Pottery, and turn out people with much actual ability to fit straight into a business.

Furthermore, because a lot of the stuff (grooming, presentation, writing) is given explicitly, rather than relying on social networks, family instruction and the person being socially aware enough to work it out themselves, this course should work for your Appalachian, Hmong and New Orleans students as well as those from New England.

Obtaining an MBA degree signifies that you have made a 20-month sacrifice to join the officer class of the corporate world.

No, BC, I cannot come over. For one thing, you cannot derive "this system is right (should be adopted)" from "this system has been (so far) historicaly successful", unless you also suppose that "whatever has been so far(!) historicaly successful is right", and I don't think you agree with this last blunt statement. I could agree with your claims about acculturation, but they are very general. Any society produces acculturation to itself, otherwise it could not endure. Liberal democracies, as much as the USSR, depend on the masses being passive and not making waves.

Besides, the USSR system had many virtues which people are liable to overlook, i.e. extremely good job security, universal health care (even if unsophisticated), guaranteed housing (even if shabby and crowded), stable wages and prices etc. The USSR did not import significant quantities of high-value-added goods (except in its terminal phase) and was as self-reliant as possible in raw materials. Of course the military sector drained the lifeblood out of the rest of the economy and without doubt this was a major factor in the subsequent collapse; some estimates put the real military expenditures at 30% GDP. Sure, there was no real poalitics, government was only for nomenklatura class, and "anti-soviet" thinking was suppressed (much the same could be said about Cuba). But does this last sentence remind you of any other country? It does for me. It's just more subtle, is all.

Do economists really like the screening model? My experience is that most economists who work in labor and education believe the human capital model--that the purpose of schooling is to teach academic skills, and that people with more education earn more because the academic skills they learned make them more productive.

I think that a lot of this thinking is the legacy of Layard and Pscharopoulos's 1974 JPE paper, which argued against screening. They had two empirical arguments against screening: that years of schooling are more important to earnings than diplomas and other credentials; and that the return to education did not decrease with experience. Recent data tends to uphold these conclusions.

The sort of studies that labor and education economists pursue suggest a tendency toward human capital. Most studies of schools use measures of academic skill--usually math and reading test scores--to measure the effectiveness of schooling; Rivkin, Hanushek, and Kain's 2005 Econometrica paper is an example.

Bowles, Gintis and Osborne's 2001 JEL paper is pretty relevant to the "beasts" model. They do believe in the human capital model, but think that non-academic skills learned in school are more important than academic ones. Their evidence is how much of the empirical return to education remains after you control for IQ and other test scores.

You might want to think of a new title other than "beasts model". Catholics and high school drop-outs are not sub-human.

I like this self-acculturation. It sounds like the missing complement to signalling. One thing though is that public education is forced consumption, and that makes for a bad consumer. This is why college is most accurately depicted by the movie "Animal House." Self-acculturation is at work, but working against social welfare in many cases. The prize is a moving target. In the '60s perhaps 5% went to college in the U.S., so simply making it there was quite a distinction. The consumer got we came for and did not demand a quality education, just plenty of beer. As that percentage has gone up it's become more important to distinguish oneself within college and by attending a prestigious college. It's dramatically improved the quality of higher education in this country, though there are still more backwards regions, like the South. There, boys and girls are taught to be suspicious of education, and so they compete on other dimensions, like bravado and beauty. So the key is making that cultural shift, where the prize becomes a socially worthwhile goal. I think that's not education per se, but rather knowledge, creativity, and wisdom. To that extent, public education perhaps plays a useful role, that is to shake-up failing cultures by redefining the prize. I'm not quite sure how to do that, but I'm pretty sure our current system simply perpetuates bad cultural prizes. Instead, maybe the money currently spent on public education should be doled out to organizations such as the Nobel Committee, the National Endowment for the Arts, and museums. (Somehow the music industry needs no such assistance.) Then let the wonders of self-acculturation go to work.

Two thoughts. The first is a correction. Will McBride writes that, "In the '60s perhaps 5% went to college in the U.S., so simply making it there was quite a distinction." In the 60s, and indeed since the Second World War and the GI bill, far more than 5% went to college in the U.S.

The second is a two=part question for readers. Given that there was so much less formal education in the U.S. and Europe in the nineteenth century, how did aspiring young people signal their higher quality? And should we try and recreate that system in some form or other? Would the abolition of compulsory schooling or, at least, the reduction of the school-leaving age help us achieve that goal?

Very interesting. I think there's more to it than that, though.

I work as a programmer, and as such work with a range of other programmers. Some have university degrees - in IT, maths, or other subjects - some don't. How much difference does it make? I don't use any of the knowledge I gained in my maths degree in my work. IT graduates use only a small portion of what they've learned, and other programmers have to pick that up fairly quickly anyway. So you might think that it wouldn't make much difference what degree or not they had.

What I find in experience is that it makes a huge difference. The worst programmers I've come across have been without exception programmers without university education, while the best have been degree educated. Interestingly, the best ones have been ones with math degrees, followed by engineers, then a range with IT degrees (the most common) and other subjects after that.

It could be argued that this is what you'd expect from a signalling point of view, if math is a more difficult subject and the non-degree people weren't bright enough to go to uni. But in theory the correlation then would be less strong, because some bright people for whatever reason don't go to university or do non-technical degrees.

Likewise if it's all about self-discipline (as the theory proposes), then it would make a lot less difference what subject they had chosen to study.

I have an alternative theory. I think that spending three years studying mathematics at university, having to prove everything to the most anal level, irrevocably shapes your brain and the way you think. You may use none of that knowledge, but the way you think as a maths student is exactly the way you need to think to be a good programmer. Simply working as a programmer doesn't have the same effect, hence experience is no substitute for education (in the broader sense).

It's not an original theory: I got it from a tv program a while ago which argued that the point of teaching latin in schools was not so that you could go out and speak to people in latin, but that the nature of the subject shaped your mind to think in a particular way. It argued that it was the same reason soldiers do drill: not because having clean buttons and standing up straight teaches you to kill people better when you're knee-deep in mud, but that it shapes your mind in a way that gives you discipline and attention to detail - so that if you have to watch an enemy position for ten hours, you will watch it non-stop and not lose focus for a few minutes every now and then.

Following on from that, different subjects would prepare you for different jobs, with any relevant knowledge and skills being at most a part of the benefit of education.

So my theory is it's not what you learn at school that makes the difference, it's how the study forms your mind.

What would education look like if it were based on this? Probably more-or-less like it did 50 years ago, with more focus on subjects like maths and classics and less "... studies" courses. Clearly my theory is not original or new at all!

It might interest you to know that there is a school in Massachussets where students are given the full responsibility over their own education. There are no compulsionary classes, no tests, no grades. The school has 170 students age 4 to 18. There are no age groups and the school is run democratically.

The results are impressive: over 80% pursues formal education after leaving the school. The range of professions pursued by the students of the Sudbury Valley School is similar to that of the American population, though there are more Sudbury Valley graduates working as independent undertakers and in social professions.

their website is www.sudval.org

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