What students know that experts don’t: School is all about signaling, not skill-building–by Bryan Capland


“Is it possible that students are on to something? There is a massive gap between school and work, between learning and earning. While the labor market rewards good grades and fancy degrees, most of the subjects schools require simply aren’t relevant on the job. Literacy and numeracy are vital, but few of us use history, poetry, higher mathematics or foreign languages after graduation. The main reason firms reward education is because it certifies (or “signals”) brains, work ethic and conformity.”

Bryan Caplan


Although not in every class and not in every university, I’ve certainly experienced the self-defeating “Signaling” habits of some students.  Regardless of these disconcerting traits, students still need a comprehensive education.  Consequently, I would suggest that most of us in the classroom would not agree with the author’s negative assertion regarding the practical application of a university education. Just getting through college requires some semblance of critical thinking and a whole lot of perseverance. But more importantly there is something else, something far more indicative of the learning process; “Curiosity.” Curiosity drives motivation. Motivation fuels purpose and intent; an intent to learn, an intent that looks beyond degree collection and over credentialization. Somewhere early in one’s education curiosity seems to either build or get’s lost in systems more concerned with image, funding and rankings. This actually starts at home and through the K-12 system. Universities need to be aware of not enabling superficial student efforts that result in a grade inflated, grade obsessed environment. If this is the case, actual learning seems to take a back seat. It fosters the  signaling habits highlighted in this article. As to the author’s negative attitudes toward what he perceives to be useless academic specialities and outdated curricula, I offer this observation. This nation has an acute cultural-social identity problem. Liberal arts courses, history, literature, governance, current affairs, etc., contribute to our collective understanding of who we are, where we have been, and points to where we are going. These fields, along with the hard-sciences, provide the fertile ground for curiosity. Along the way this process provides the bonds that bind us. It reflects our commonalities and our desire to learn. We become more whole as citizens with purposes and motivations that go beyond the confines of our narrow pursuit of economic interests.  Public and private sector employers alike need thinkers that are in tune with the ever changing face of society. Parents, students, educators, and academicians, we have our work cut out for us. Collectively we must encourage an environment of curiosity wherever and whenever we can.

Steve Harding

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