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Submitted by Skanda Amarnath on Tue, 2011-11-29 12:47

That's right. Education is magic. So says Bryan Caplan. We've covered Caplan's views on education; he strongly believes that education follows a socially wasteful signalling model. Yet one of the arguments we have not discussed in much depth is his belief that work experience trumps education. I would say this is true for more lines of work than people are willing to admit. Ask anyone working in high finance straight out of undergrad if what they learned in undergrad actually helped them. Their answer will be no. I would like to reiterate that signals on their own are not wasteful; it's only when signals cost 200k and 4 years of life that they can produce negative social product. The only area where I would differ from Caplan is in STEM. It's hard to go far as a chemical engineer or a physicist without taking some necessary undergraduate courses. It's also important to note that Caplan is going after the argument that education is the key to economic opportunity (I've written in the past about how it likely crowds out economic opportunity in certain cases). Education can make you a better citizen and a better participant in democracy, but that is not the same thing as saying education is the key to uplifting the masses. The larger point that people should not miss is that the current system, which demands all students to attend college to get a well-paying job, is in need of disruption. Yet if graduation from college remains institutionalized as a labor market signal, it's hard to see where the disruption will come from.

Gonzalo Obelleiro Says:
Tue, 2011-11-29 13:29

The case of the Japanese higher education system is interesting. Like they do here, companies actively recruit on campus. Unlike here, ost undergraduate seniors spend their last year in school writing a thesis project and job hunting. The credit requirements for graduation are such that anyone enrolled full time for three years can pretty much have a fourth year without coursework (you still pay tuition, tough).

Companies in general do not care what's your major in school. The exception being for highly technical positions –Skanda's intuition is supported by the Japanese system. Now the interesting part: if you get hired by a large company with enough resources (Hitachi, Mitsubishi, Matsushita), you are likely to go through a period of training that can span from 6 months to up to three years. In other words, in the Japanese education/labor market we have what we could effectively describe as a transfer of higher level professional education (read MBA, MS, MA) from the education sector to the private sector.

This model, as you can imagine, is not without its critics. Some complain that the kind of training you get within the companies misses the big picture (historical, moral, political and other contexts to the knowledge you acquire). This big picture is usually not instrumental to get the job done, especially at entry level positions, but it becomes essential for leadership.

I think it is interesting that many of these debates about the relevance of formal approaches to professional education indirectly (and perhaps involuntarily) make a case for the liberal arts. The cultivation of excellence, an entry point into the history of valued artistic and scientific traditions, the forming of good habits of mind and character. These are the things universities do well, or at least better than most other institutions.

Skanda Amarnath Says:
Tue, 2011-11-29 13:39

I did not know that about Japanese higher education...it seems like those companies run everything. I'm not sure how much of a liberal arts education one gets in business school. I really enjoy my liberal arts education at Columbia but for me the benefit is internal; it makes me a more knowledgeable person and more informed citizen to read the great literary and philosophical works of the Western canon. As far as cultivating good habits of mind, I'm a little bit skeptical. I can only speak from personal experience. I enjoy learning and thus try to take advantage of all of the educational opportunities Columbia has to offer. There are others at Columbia who do not share the same enjoyment for learning and show no enthusiasm for the Core Curriculum and rarely engage their coursework seriously

Gonzalo Obelleiro Says:
Tue, 2011-11-29 13:57

Your hit the nail on the head, Skanda, All an educational institution can do is offer the resources and opportunities. Liberal education just does not work through external motivations like getting good grades or getting a good job. And it is possible that a liberal education contributes little or nothing to making someone a better banker, a better manager, or a better teacher. What I am convinced of is that it contributes to the quality of experience (but, again, it seems that you cannot force a student to want this).