On Education and Signalling

by F.

Karl Smith at Modelled Behavior speaks some sense about education:

My own theory is that the human capital formed in higher education is the ability to solve problems, manage time, work independently, seek out assistance, communicate your ideas, form and in some cases direct teams. These skills, not knowledge are what employers want.

Traditionally education focused on the classics for the same reason that athletes run hills. They’re hard. It’s not that your ability to run hills signals your ability as a football player or wrestler. It makes you a better football player or wrestler.

If you could master the six skills he lists, you would be a long way toward making your way in the world. His whole post is worth reading, but in case clicking through is too much work, he’s responding to the idea that education is basically useless. It’s just a signal–a stamp of approval.

I’m drawn to that idea, personally. I can remember being in college and thinking, “You know, Professor, why don’t you just, like, torture me with waterboarding for a few weeks and give me the A. I mean, I’m going to get the A. And I’ll learn about the same thing. And it will be a lot less painful that having to listen to your hokum for twelve weeks!

Smith’s point about the classics is interesting. I like the classics and I suspect learning them has utility. Why? Not because they are hard. They’re not. Because they are the template for everything else you will ever learn. (I’m overstating it, but not by much.) Atomic theory? Oh. Yeah. Democritus. Liturature? Oh. Yeah. Homer. Drama? Oh. Yeah. Sophocles. And so on. The only downside is many, if not most, of the classics are “wrong.” For instance, Aristotle thought that objects wanted to be at rest. Newton showed us that a body in motion remains in motion and a body and rest remains at rest (in the absense of other forces acting on them).

Is that too big a price to pay? I don’t know. I’ve seen research suggesting that learing the wrong thing first can interfere with later memory formation. (Good thing I never learned anything in public school.) I think little kids like old, mythic stuff–like the classics. Cyclopses. Sirens. Pythagoreans. (My favorite movie of all time was Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land, with Hemo the Magnificent a close second…then I saw Star Wars.) That stuff is cool. So given the interest kids might have in it, and its utility, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to learn the classics. Do I think they are “superior” to other learning, like cultural convervatives seem to? No. That question makes no sense. But the classics (and Shakespeare) may have serious utility.