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.