Monday, November 9, 2015

Tyler Cowen's Model of Education

Economist Tyler Cowen recently referenced his 2006 post on what education is all about -- especially but not exclusively higher education -- so I looked it up. The core of it is this:
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.
So to Cowen, higher education is about learning how to be an educated person. Educated people are different from people who are not educated. It is true that some people manage to educate themselves very well, but most do not. Hence, college.



David said...

FWIW, with my students I often use the rhetoric of "what a college-educated persons does" etc. I tell them that, in coming to college, they've signed on to be the person who actually understands the difference between "royal" and "noble," who will actually read something and understand it and be willing to say something about it, who will make the effort to ensure that something they've written isn't crude-sounding and sloppy, who can use words like "federal" and "ambivalent" in conversation, and knows that the monarch of England is a figurehead. I tell them they've signed on to bring out their inner nerd.

Is that all that college is all about? No. No human activity, and certainly not one involving millions of people spending years at something, is about one thing. But I think there is something to what Cowen says.

On the other hand, I'm wondering where he's getting his concept of nerd from. It may be he's thinking of the tech entrepreneur who says he'll pay kids not to go to college. But I'm not sure that attitude is very common among nerds, or that one vocal eccentric should alter the basic understanding of nerd as philo-learning and philo-education.

John said...

I've always identified as a nerd and I loved college.