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


“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. When did evidence of knowledge become nothing more than a growing number of letters following one’s name?

What is the genesis of curiosity?  How does it continue through life? To one degree or another it is innate in each individual.   It is either encouraged  or ignored by externalities. It starts at home and through the K-12 system. Without it, time spent in school becomes nothing more than a perfunctory trek based upon putting in just enough effort to get through.  Teachers and university faculty alike need to be aware of not enabling these superficial student efforts. In many ways it encourages a reward system for minimal effort; a grade inflated, grade obsessed environment. Without curiosity and the subsequent motivation to learn, the signaling habits highlighted in Caplan’s article gain credence. Education has to be more than a collection of vocational “How To” training manuals. 

As to the author’s negative attitudes toward what he perceives to be useless academic specialities and outdated curricula, I offer this observation.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 purpose and motivation that go beyond the confines of the narrow pursuit of maximizing economic return through credential collection and a singular focus on employment.  Both the public and private sectors need critical thinking inquisitive problem-solvers. For parents, educators, and academicians alike, we have our work cut out for us. For the university level, somewhere along the line teaching has to be valued as much as the narrow confines of faculty research. It certainly could be argued that the system itself sets the environment for the negative signaling habits of todays students. Should we ask: “Are we collectively killing or facilitating curiosity?”

Steve Harding

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