What’s the point of education?

One of the blogs I currently read daily is Rate Your Students. It is a helpful antidote against any desire to become a professor, whenever — or if-ever (it seems to be somewhat of a black swan event as of late) — I start developing a, uh, “passion” for teaching undergraduates. RYS offers professors a chance to vent about their students and it’s amazing what they have to deal with on a daily basis(*). One frequent professorial lament is that students are not interested in the subject material, that they don’t show up for class, and that they pump and dump the material for their exams. Now, for someone with sufficient tunnel vision to stay in the educational system for the 25-40 years of focused effort it takes to qualify for professorship these days, it is perhaps understandable that they have not realized that perhaps only 10% of the students (and based on my own experiences that’s being optimistic) are actually interested in learning something.

(*) I tell you, when I was young, and that’s not more than a couple of years ago, nobody ever put up with some of the behaviors that are reported on RYS.

The fact is that the main function of the educational system is “education”, it is not about learning. Universities essentially serve two main functions:

  1. The first function is to propagate itself by finding out which of the students have the personality and ability to become professors.
  2. The second function is to “educate” the other 99%, where by education, I mean prepare them socially for the real world.

There is a third function, which I’ll get to right now. Consider which factors are indicative of future job success. In other words, how should a company go about hiring, if it wanted to maximize productivity.

  1. GPA
  2. Degree
  3. Interview performance
  4. Biography
  5. References
  6. IQ test
  7. Interest

It may interest, ha!, you to know that the poorest indicator of job performance is “job-interest”. This probably does not hold for all jobs, but an expressing an “interest” in “efficiently processing questions regarding subscription renewals via phone and email” is probably not that decisive for one’s performance. My apologies to those who find this exciting. Both of you.

The job interview is likewise a poor indicator of future job performance. That may surprise some managers, but it doesn’t surprise me the slightest. After all, the universe is full of books, videos, etc. on how to give such a performance. Unless you’re in sales, correlation is understandable low.

Your bibliography, that is, what you have done in the past actually does indicate what you will do in the future, to some extent. Only to some extent, for instance, if the past record was due to a lucky coincidence, that is not so indicative.

This is followed by references, that is, what other people think you have done. Here the correlation is not as strong as the bibliography. Sometimes references get the wrong impressions. Also, some people are good at selling themselves e.g. work horses vs show horses. There are, obviously, also different kinds of horse sellers.

The number one indicator for job performance is …. your IQ. Of course, an indicator that egalitarian, in the sense that you can’t pay your way out of it, is illegal. How could it be otherwise?

Therefore employees have to use a proxy: Your so-called education, which is even using a teaching method called “standardized testing”, as if it wasn’t obvious already with the multiple choice tests that only tests “what’s in the syllabus”.

I think most students realize this (I didn’t, I was one of the 10%) and therefore they try to do the least amount of work for the greatest amount of rewards. This means just-in-time (JIT) delivery of papers, a management technique invented by the Japanese. It means pumping and dumping (regurgitating) information (this demonstrates efficiency and adaptability). Indeed, carrying an inventory (information) is costly. It also means picking courses where the G/W (think P/E for stocks). that is grade point/work effort is high (maximizing profit). In short, students are already turning into pretty good white collar workers. If only I had been more clever …

The third purpose of education is therefore to serve as a proxy for IQ tests. With education you get a little more information. Someone completing a degree shows some ability to meet deadlines, etc. and generally perform like described above. It shows they are properly socialized for the white collar working world.

There is a fourth purpose of education. This is called higher education, but what it really is is longer eduction. The purpose of “higher” education is to regulate the inflow to the job market. This happens automatically. Suppose there is a shortage of demand for a certain vocation, say, microbiology. Anyone hiring microbiologists will look over the resumes and pick those with the highest degree first. This puts pressure on the others to accumulate more education as well. Of course this establishes a new equilibrium, and so it goes. Today, many fields thus require PhD degrees to do what essentially is a technician’s job or bachelor degrees for what essentially is a floor management job (must be able to lift 50lbs and stand for 8 hours). In short, more education is an almost perfect substitute for unemployment. Since society (not all of them) for some reason has decided to work full time and keep a certain fraction of its population unemployed at all times rather than simply reduce working hours for everybody, it has resulted in more education.

I’ll leave you with a hypothesis. I bet that for two equally productive countries (or adjusting for productivity), you will see that the country with the longer education actually has lower productivity per work hour. Go figure! — Yeah, that’s probably worth going back to college to write a paper about. Oh I slay me 😀

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Originally posted 2009-03-06 08:40:48.

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