Education as Job Training

Economist Bryan Caplan argues that our educational system does not prepare our children for the modern economy.

Jim Henley offers a cryptic critique Bryan Caplan‘s recent post, “The Economy the American Curriculum Prepares You For.” No, it doesn’t involve jokes about criticizing the education system whilst ending titles with a preposition but rather something about piñatas and the Baby Jesus on Black Friday.

Let me try a more straightforward approach.  Caplan asserts:

  • Kids spend at least 10% of their time on art and music.  This would make sense if 10% of the workforce were professional artists or musicians.
  • Kids spend at least 10% of their time on P.E.  This would make sense if 10% of the workforce were professional athletes.
  • Kids spend at least 10% of their time on literature and poetry; this would make sense if 10% of kids became novelists, playwrights, or poets.
  • Kids spend at least 10% of their time on history and social studies; this would make sense if 10% of kids became historians and social scientists.
  • Kids spend at least 5% of their time on foreign languages.  On the surface, this seems reasonable; 5% of American jobs arguably require some knowledge of Spanish.  But well over 5% of Americans acquire Spanish outside of school.  And almost no American jobs use French, the second-most studied foreign language.
  • Kids spend at least 5% of their time on natural science; this would make sense if 5% of kids became biologists, chemists, physicists, astronomers, etc.

Now, it’s been more than a quarter century since I graduated high school and my daughter is a ways yet from starting pre-school, so perhaps my information is dated and my recollection fuzzy.  But those percentages seem a bit skewed to me.

Regardless, I reject both the premise that education exists primarily to prepare kids for productive life as members of the work force and the notion that being exposed to the wider world has no value even in the context of our lives as producers.

We can debate whether the our industrial age model of primary and secondary education is the most productive (I strongly believe it isn’t) way of achieving our goal, but it’s extremely worthwhile to expose our children to art, music, language, science, philosophy, culture, mathematics, and sports in order to help them become better members of society. Grappling with these things while young improves the mind and makes us better able to cope with the world around us.

It’s true that most of this knowledge has little direct bearing on our lives as members of the work force.  Indeed, I can confidently state that I’ve forgotten much more about art, literature, science, geometry, trigonometry, and other subjects than I still recall.   We eventually specialize, gravitate to the things which interest us and/or we’re good at, and the rest atrophies over time.

But just because I don’t use advanced mathematics or iambic pentameter on a daily basis doesn’t mean that it was a waste to train my brain to cope with those things.   For one thing, that exposure presumably shaped my ability to process information.   For another, how does one figure out a path in life without finding out where their interests and talents lie?

Now, if we were all going to spend most of our lives manning a station on an assembly line, it’s arguable that much of this is wasted.  But we’re not just Economic Man.  There’s a life outside the factory.   And in an age where most of us are working in a service and information economy, constantly re-tooling for jobs much different than we had a decade ago, it’s especially useful to have a broader platform on which to build.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Economics and Business, Education
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. ponce says:

    Hehe, I don’t think there’s anything “cryptic” about Henley’s critique.
     
    Bryan Caplan has always been the dimmest of the blogging econ profs and it’s fun to point and laugh.

  2. john personna says:

    School is to prepare kids to be productive members of society.  Being employed members of society is a good part of that, without being the whole thing.
     
    (People who make “school is job training” and “school is not job training” arguments are both being absurdly reductionist.)
     
    BTW, once we get past k-12, I’d hope that what we need to be productive members of society would be pretty much covered.  That’s why I think college, as a value added, can be even more jobs-centered.

  3. Tano says:

    Yes, I agree with your take on this James, and might well go further. I find Caplan’s vision verging on the creepy – its seems to be based on an assumption that we are nothing but what our eventual careers define us as, so to educate us in anything else is a waste. Thats quite the recipe for cultural suicide, as well as being just weird.

  4. CharleyCarp says:

    I’ll repeat (and lightly edit) my comment to Henley’s post.  Prof. Caplan’s point fails on its own logic.  There’s no meaningful relationship between each kid spending 10% of his time on PE, and 10% of kids ending up professional athletes.  Think about it.
     
     

  5. wr says:

    But this is the right wing vision of education — just enough learning to allow the drones to function in their minimum wage duties, never enough so that they might actually figure out how to question their masters. The one lesson they want kids to learn is “sit down and shut up.”
    Special bonus feature: If they never actually learn anything, then when someone like Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin lies about what’s in the constitution, they’ll never know…

  6. JKB says:

    …extremely worthwhile to expose our children to art, music, language, science, philosophy, culture, mathematics, and sports in order to help them become better members of society.
     

    That is fine as far as it goes but the error comes in the “art” portion.  From the post and normal usage, I take that to be the fine arts.  A fine and useful exposure to the creative world but it neglects the Useful Arts.  The Useful arts are those tool skills in moving an idea from mind, to paper, to metal, wood, plastic, etc using the math, science, art, philosophy and culture learned from books.  Granted much of these useful arts in industry are now automated or executed by machine tools so teaching students to use hand tools, pencil and paper to create a precise, functional object won’t create marketable machinists.  But then we don’t need a lot of marketable machinists but we do need pretty much everyone to be able to appreciate the arts that run our society as well as the context of the histories, philosophies and cultures they study in more academic manners.  Much of this appreciation used to be passed on from parent to child in the home although even in 1970s it was fading as fewer homes held the tools and few parents had the skills to alter their world using the basic tools.  Now far to many children have fathers like Frasier and Niles and not like Walt Kowalski or Tim Taylor.  In fact, popular culture denigrates the man who can keep his house up and teach his children how to tune a build a treehouse.
     
    Education should expose students to a wide range of inputs to broaden their experience and therefore improve their selection of further study but it should also not concentrate solely on developing only two outputs, i.e., speaking and writing, when the hand can do so much if only provided with a little guidance.  That students leave school unable to speak or write well is a failure.  That they leave having never been exposed to the basic tools that built human society and have not familiarity or confidence with these tools which will permit them to provide beneficial work for their employer is a travesty.

  7. michael reynolds says:

    It’s not rare to find someone wrong on the internet.  It’s rare to see someone achieve total, 100% wrongness.  So kudos to Mr. Caplan.

  8. john personna says:

    Be happy JKB, the maker movement continues to thrive:
     
    http://blog.makezine.com/archive/2010/11/hackerspaces_on_nprs_weekend_editio.html
     
    I fear that Useful Arts suffer at schools because their modern cost structure is so severe (fine arts too, actually).

  9. JKB says:

    The one lesson they want kids to learn is “sit down and shut up.”

    Well, I  guess the right has failed miserably then since the educators are heavily indoctrinated leftists and right now at airports across the country, adults and kids a like are not sitting down, standing still or shutting up.

  10. john personna says:

    My dad and his buddies were right leaning teachers and administrators, for the most part.  Well, “right” in a 70’s and 80’s sense.

  11. James Joyner says:

    @JKB,
    I didn’t intend that to be an exhaustive listing of the things kids should learn; I was mostly reflecting on Caplan’s post.
    I’m not sure how much time schools should devote to such things as woodworking, wiring, cooking, sewing, and whatnot but certainly wouldn’t mind some their inclusion somewhere along the way.
    I don’t know that the exclusion of the “useful arts,” as you term them, come from the feminization of society so much as specialization.
     

  12. Andre Kenji says:

    In fact, knowing a foreign language is quite important. A businessman can get lots of information that aren´t published in English.

  13. john personna says:

    James, do you think kids sent home with bandaged fingers would be as well accepted as in our day?

  14. mantis says:

    Kids spend at least 10% of their time on art and music.  This would make sense if 10% of the workforce were professional artists or musicians.
    Kids spend at least 10% of their time on P.E.  This would make sense if 10% of the workforce were professional athletes.
    Kids spend at least 10% of their time on literature and poetry; this would make sense if 10% of kids became novelists, playwrights, or poets.
    Kids spend at least 10% of their time on history and social studies; this would make sense if 10% of kids became historians and social scientists.
    Kids spend at least 5% of their time on foreign languages.  On the surface, this seems reasonable; 5% of American jobs arguably require some knowledge of Spanish.  But well over 5% of Americans acquire Spanish outside of school.  And almost no American jobs use French, the second-most studied foreign language.
    Kids spend at least 5% of their time on natural science; this would make sense if 5% of kids became biologists, chemists, physicists, astronomers, etc.

    Is there any profession in which the amount of time spent learning applicable skills in school is the same as the percentage of population employed in it?  Is that a reasonable metric for deciding course curriculum?  If so, shouldn’t students be spending an awful lot more time in classes that prepare them for a) customer service professions and b) raising kids from home?   Seems to me those two “career paths” combined would account for a large chunk of the population.

    I just checked the <a href=”http://www.bls.gov/oes/2009/may/chartbook_occupation_focus.htm#figure1″>OES data</a>, and here are the top 15 professions in the US by population, accounting for more than 1/4 of the workforce:

    Retail salespersons
    Cashiers
    Office clerks, general
    Combined food preparation and serving workers, including fast food
    Registered nurses
    Waiters and waitresses
    Customer service representatives
    Laborers and freight, stock, and material movers, hand
    Janitors and cleaners, except maids and housekeeping cleaners
    Stock clerks and order fillers
    Secretaries, except legal, medical, and executive
    Bookkeeping, accounting, and auditing clerks
    General and operations managers
    Truck drivers, heavy and tractor-trailer
    Elementary school teachers, except special education

    So let’s see, just going off this data, it seems we need a system in which the largest chunk of the school curriculum is focused on customer service, food preparation, making correct change, cleaning, filing, and moving heavy objects.  Great idea!

     

  15. JKB says:

    john persona – Why do you think there are so many websites for making things or a couple of food porn channels on cable and untold number of home improvement channels?  People want to do useful things with their hands and alter their environment, even if it is just the food on their table.
     
    Well, modern “educators” killed manual education relegating it off to some vocational school and unreachable by students who might at 14 be thinking of going to college.  No longer was woodshop a class but rather a commitment.  Plus the infestation of lawyers and immature parents who’d sue over every cut finger.  Add to that the constant drive to specialization for some local employer rather than sticking with tool skills using hand tools leaving power tools and certification to vocational school.

  16. James Joyner says:

    @JohnPersonna

    James, do you think kids sent home with bandaged fingers would be as well accepted as in our day?

    No, likely not.
    @JKB:

    Well, modern “educators” killed manual education relegating it off to some vocational school and unreachable by students who might at 14 be thinking of going to college.  No longer was woodshop a class but rather a commitment.

    Even when I was in school — all conducted in Texas, Alabama, or American military bases — wood shop wasn’t required.  It took an “industrial arts” elective in junior high but it was never a significant part of the educational experience.  One presumes the thinking was that Dad would teach their sons to use a hammer and the teacher could concentrate on the three Rs.
    s

  17. Drew says:

    I think James’ post and subsequent comments (and others) are correct and stand on their own.   We need a mix of trade education and conceptual.  Any other prescription is just too rigid.  If you ever want to have some fun, get an MIT tech guy and Harvard liberal arts guy in a room and ignite this argument.  Grab a scotch, sit back, and enjoy. 
     
    BTW – if you want the perfect example of how no amount of education can overcome PMS – Permanent Moron Syndrome – read wr’s comment.

  18. wr says:

    JKB — If you can get someone to issue you a passport, you should try to make a journey to the real world someday. I realize that in rightie fantasy land where you seem to live, all elementary and high school teachers a slavering Commies who spend their days teaching children to bow down to Stalin and Obama, but here in the real world the curriculum is a little different.

  19. john personna says:

    You know, I’ve always been one for the reinvention of education.  For me the explosion of how-to sites (be they how-to start a camping stove or how-to start a business) are more opportunity than symptom of anything wrong.
     
    Things that can be taught on YouTube don’t need to be in (fully) schools, but of course not everything reduces to 4 minute video clips.
     
    Just the same, I love stuff like this:

    Now you can capture pictures of our furry friends by building a motion activated wildlife camera. Doug Paradis took his Air Freshener hack and used it to trigger a camera. The white dome in the picture above is the PIR sensor from an Air Wick Freshmatic, along with a cheap keychain camera and an MSP430 microcontroller.

    http://hackaday.com/2010/11/21/motion-activated-wildlife-camera-or-a-spy-device/
     
    For certain kinds of problems, information flies like never before.
     

  20. Steve Plunk says:

    This is not what conservatives would consider a proper education.  To make such a claim is ridiculous.  That said I think we can all agree education has lost it’s way to a degree and having a conversation about where it should go is a good thing.  Part of the problem is simply parents abdicating their portion of educating their children along with parents who demand special education benefits (gifted programs and special needs programs).

  21. sam says:

    ” If you ever want to have some fun, get an MIT tech guy and Harvard liberal arts guy in a room and ignite this argument. ”
    Years, and years, and years ago, I taught philosophy at MIT in the undergraduate core. I can tell you from first-hand experience, those kids, at least then, appreciated the Humanities curriculum they were exposed to. I was hard on my students in that I really pushed them to think about what they said and wrote. I pushed them to examine the preconceived ideas they may have had about whatever it was we were reading and discussing. One day after class, one of them came up to me and said, “I like the way you teach. You’re really aggressive in there.” I was a little taken aback by that. I hadn’t thought of myself as particularly aggressive (though when I thought about it later, I had to admit to myself that I was). I felt I was just exposing them to how philosophical investigation proceeds. You have to be pretty ruthless with you own preconceptions. My dismay must have crossed my face because he immediately said, “But hey, I like that. It’s human.”  He went on to tell me that in the science curricula they were primarily there for, everything was so cut and dried, so dispassionate (the first two years at MIT is brutal in the technical fields). He told me that he and his friends really enjoyed the Humanities classes, not because they were less rigorous, though the rigor was of a different sort, but because they didn’t feel that they had to get the “right answer” all the time.  It was a education is seeing things differently, not an education in getting things correctly. He told me that the Humanities classes were liberating for him and his friends. And that, I think, is what a liberal education is for.

  22. sam says:

    I just remembered something else about the melding of technical knowledge and art. In one of my other lifetimes, I edited medical books. I did a few books on plastic surgery. To a man (and in those days, they were all men), the plastic surgeons I worked with were accomplished musicians or artists. One, who specialized in faciocranial surgery,  was a first-rate sculptor. I asked him if his interest in sculpture preceded his interest in plastic surgery, and he told me they’d both gone, so to speak, hand in hand. He’d always wanted to be a doctor and he was always interested in art. He was able to combine both in his specialty. (Not all that surprising, I guess,  when you remember that the great Renaissance artists, especially Leonardo, were first-rate anatomists.)

  23. JKB says:

    Physicians have always had more in common with the craftsman than the academic.  Academics live in the mind and can maintain all sorts of falsity within their work.  The craftsmen speak with their hands and the hands in their work reveal the ugliness of any illusions the craftsman holds. For all their academic achievement, the physician in the end must produce with their hands and cannot hide behind words.  Their mistakes lie exposed growing cold upon the table.
     

    It is possible for the mind to indulge in false logic, to make the worse appear the better reason, without instant exposure. But for the hand to work falsely is to produce a misshapen thing—tool or machine —which in its construction gives the lie to its maker. Thus the hand that is false to truth, in the very act publishes the verdict of its own guilt, exposes itself to contempt and derision, convicts itself of unskilfulness or of dishonesty.  Charles H. Ham, Mind and Hand: manual training, the chief factor in education (1900)

  24. michael reynolds says:

    Sam:
     
    We’ve had this somewhat related experience.  We’ve received a surprising number of letters from physics departments at major universities that begin with, “I know this sounds crazy, but I’m at XXX university because of your Animorphs books.”
     
    In that series we spent a bit of effort on examining — always well-disguised by action — philosophical questions.  I don’t think we ever got a contemporaneous fan letter discussing philosophy, but a decade later we’re getting them.
     
    Smart kids actually seem to absorb that kind of thing, and to eventually appreciate it.  It doesn’t surprise me at all that MIT kids would enjoy your philosophy course.  Smart kids appreciate the opportunity to think about boring-sounding things like epistemology or moral philosophy or cosmology.  Unfortunately our schools are devoted to avoiding that kind of material.

  25. george says:

    Not that you can build up skills and abilities by doing activities not directly related or anything like that … after all, its well known that the only reason professional football players spend on the order of 10% of their training time lifting weights is because they know that 10% of a football game consists of bench presses, squats, deadlifts and the like – as shown the collection of barballs, free weights, and squat racks on the field.