Educational Signaling

I recently finished Bryan Caplan’s “The Case Against Education” which is a rollercoaster of a book. Caplan basically makes two claims: education is much more effective at signaling worker productivity than imparting practical/employable skills, and as a result of this we should cut state and federal funding for it entirely.

It’s natural to approach these assertions with a healthy dose of skepticism. I’ll withhold judgment on the second claim for now, but I admit I am moved by his arguments for educational signaling. In short, he demonstrates we learn nothing in school beyond basic literacy and numeracy. Take science. Caplan supplies the following table with data from the General Social Survey and his own corrections for guessing. IMG_0057He has similar tables for basic political and historical knowledge. Clearly, we retain very little in the form of pure information.

What about the old adage that education is supposed to “teach you how to think”? Caplan has an answer for that as well. He cites studies demonstrating that the entirety of one’s undergraduate education increases general reasoning ability marginally, and only specific areas depending on the choice of major. “Learning transfer,” or the ability to apply principles learned in one situation to another, is also rare, especially when the initial principles were learned in a formal context. Self-reflection confirms this. How many times have you explicitly used information/a pattern of reasoning developed in class to solve a problem outside of a test?

In fact, my own decision to study philosophy, and expect employment post-graduation, presupposes a signaling theory of education. I do not plan on becoming a philosophy professor, but that is the only occupation where what I learn in class will be relevant. Nobody uses Kant on the job, and I knew that ex-ante. Instead, I have to rely on the fact choosing philosophy signals something about me that employers value. In Caplan’s terms, I’m hoping it demonstrates my ability, conscientiousness, and/or conformity, as these are the primary signals a college degree functions to send.

I’m a convert. Signaling explains why students cheer when class is canceled, but are reluctant to skip, why MOOCs can provide an objectively better educational experience than many brick and mortar institutions but pose no threat to the establishment, why STEM graduates do not work STEM jobs, and why the years of college that see the most payoff are graduation years. The personal and academic evidence for signaling is gigantic. Why ignore it?

The individual implications for this conclusion are Excellent Sheepy. Because your degree + extracurriculars are the only measurements employers have of your productivity, maximize those. Do the minimum amount of work for each class. Cheat on tests. Join as many clubs as possible and try to get a leadership position in each. You’re not going to remember course material, and it’s surely not going to be relevant to your job, so who cares? Even if you’re overcredentialed for your ability and turn out to be a poor employee, you’ll stick around as long as your incompetence isn’t egregious. Firms will keep a marginal employee for years to delay finding a replacement and upsetting other employees.

The societal implications are also gigantic. If education is just signaling, should there be less of it? (Yes, but I’m not a full Caplanian). If education is just signaling, should it not be a human right? If education is just signaling, should this be an indicator e-learning companies should create better, more informative credentials rather than trying to improve content delivery?


I didn’t check my grades for two years

By the time college rolled around, I had made the decision not to check my grades at all. They had, quite literally, ruled my life during high school, and I was intent on making sure the future was different. This was not (fully) an irresponsible retreat from reality, but the consequence of some positions I began to hold about schools and learning. As a result, up until the end of my sophomore year, I never knew what letter grade I had received in a class or even what my GPA was. I never even got around to learning how to check my grades.

I knew how I did on tests and essays and the like. My policy was that, if the assessment is handed back to me, I’m allowed to know the score. In fact, knowing those types of scores was of the utmost importance to me.

To explain how I arrived at this strange and perhaps irresponsible decision, I am going to outline the general reasoning I used to get there. It will help to define some terms at the start. I’m going to use “marks” to refer to the individual scores one receives on specific assignments. 87/110 is a mark that one might receive on a test. “Grades” refer to numbers that are usually composed of the weighted averages of all of your marks. 88.4% is an example of a grade. “A,” “B,” “C,” etc. are also examples of grades because they are assigned by calculating the weighted average of your marks.

Here’s the reasoning:

  1. The objective of school is to learn.
    1. You should do things that contribute to this objective.
  2. Learning, roughly, consists of knowing things you did not know before.
    1. This is a two-part process. First, you must identify the things you do not know. Next, you learn those things.
  3. Knowing the marks you receive on individual assignments helps identify the things you do not know. Example: if you receive poor marks on a quiz that covers the binomial theorem, this is a good indicator you don’t understand the binomial theorem.
  4. Knowing marks on assignments contributes to the first part of learning. (2.1, 3)
  5. You should know your marks. (4, 1.1)

As the example in (3) suggests, marks are helpful because they give you feedback at a low level. What you receive on a single essay or test can often tell you what you know or don’t know with a fair amount of specification. This, I admit, mostly happens if you get the actual assignment handed back to you with a certain level of feedback. If you only know the “true mark,” or what percentage of points you received, it can sometimes be difficult to figure out the exact extent of your knowledge. Luckily, individual assignments often cover only a handful of topics, so it can be easier to infer what you missed.

So far, we’ve only established that you should know your marks. Great. How did I arrive at the idea these are the only things you should check?

This conclusion was established negatively. I couldn’t find any argument that appealed to learning that says I should check my grades. Let’s try to start from the first two premises of the prior argument, incorporate grades, and arrive at the conclusion we should check them.

  1. The objective of school is to learn.
    1. You should do things that contribute to this objective.
  2. Learning, roughly, consists of knowing things you did not know before.
    1. This is a two-part process. First, you must identify the things you do not know. Next, you learn those things.

We can’t use the same move as last time. Grades, because they are a weighted average of many individual assignments, can’t carry information about what specifically you don’t know. If you get a C in a Shakespeare class, you can convincingly say “I don’t know Shakespeare,” but how helpful is that? You’ve identified what you don’t know on a superficial level, but that statement doesn’t provide a useful direction towards actually learning the stuff. Are you shaky with Othello? Does the play format give you fits? Can you even penetrate Shakespearean English? A poor grade only says you need to do work. It does a horrible job of specifying exactly what needs to be done.

We’ve seen that grades are ineffective at identifying the things you do not know. The only remaining way to relate them to learning, and establish that you should pay attention to them, is to claim they somehow help you learn those things.

Now, how can grades help you in the act of learning? This is unclear. In what way does knowing the weighted average of your marks allow you to understand academic material better? A certain type of knowledge about the points you’ve earned doesn’t seem related to your ability to comprehend unrelated concepts.

I can see a skeptic coming up with a counterargument. They might say that knowing grades can give someone motivation to study and learn. They might want a better grade rather than a worse one, so knowing where they stand pushes them to spend time with the material. An attitude like this violates the first premise, though. A student who is motivated by grades supplants learning with credentialism as the goal of school. The student would have to reject premise 1 and commit themselves to a school experience that makes learning an afterthought. No good.

This is reasoning, in some inchoate form, was what was floating around my head when I decided not to check my grades after my first quarter of college, and the second, and the third, and the fourth, etc… I had a faint idea of what my GPA was since I saw the marks on the tests I got back, but it was very vague. Basically, I knew I wasn’t going to be on academic probation anytime soon.

I must also emphasize this is the literal truth. I didn’t peek here and there or do some back of the napkin math to get an approximate sense of my grades. I was in complete and utter ignorance of my official GPA.

And it was wonderful. For the first in my life, I felt a deep sense of academic freedom. I understood that I was at university to learn, and my behavior was fully consistent with this fact. I did close readings of texts when I could have skimmed them. I revised essays two, three times when I knew the first draft would do. I read more books in my free time than I had since middle school. I felt comfortable talking candidly with my professors and TAs because I wanted to learn, not grovel.

This doesn’t mean my college experience was/is faultless. An unambiguous focus on learning was somewhat of a compensatory mechanism meant to address the many faults I found in my institution. Nonetheless, the experiment was a success.

Readers at this point are perhaps left with several questions. “Riley,” they ask, “do you still not know your grades? Why submit yourself to such paralyzing uncertainty? Don’t you understand your GPA determines a significant part of your adult life, playing an instrumental role in considerations like, but not limited to, your attainment of internships, full-time jobs, graduate school admissions, scholarships, loans, and other professional opportunities? Are you out of your mind?!?”

In response to the first question, I currently know my GPA. This experiment concluded at the end of my sophomore year, but the effects are, hopefully, permanent. I understand what it’s like to put learning first, and, though it takes much effort, I intend to keep it this way.

An explanation of why the experiment ended addresses the remaining questions. I began to pay attention to my grades again because I realized the argument I gave above is wrong. Premise 1 is faulty. Ask anyone who isn’t a philosophy major what the purpose of school is and they will say anything but learning. Formal education can be about creating a workforce, increasing social mobility, instilling civic knowledge, cultural assimilation, personal maturation, landing a job, proving something to society, or proving something to yourself. All of these are valid ends of the enterprise. Surely, you can find an argument that appeals to one of them and concludes you should check your grades. Instead of reading “the objective of school is to learn,” premise 1 should say “an objective of school is to learn.”

Do I regret this decision? Absolutely not. I acted in full accordance with my values. Were my values those of an educational idealist, dismissive of the many social, cultural, and economic objectives of formal schooling? Sure. Should you ignore values arrived at via ample reflection because you’re unsure if they will change in the future? Almost never.

I’ll maintain that learning should be the principal objective of school, or at least near the top of the list. However, as soon as you introduce other grade-influenced ends into the mix, saying you should not check your grades is indefensible. That’s why I know my GPA now. I don’t obsess over it. I don’t stake my emotional health on whether it twitches in one direction or another. It is a metric that, for one reason or another, people care about. If I want to convince these people I deserve to study with them, work with them, or use their money, I shouldn’t neglect it entirely.

Yet, I remain committed to learning. I’ve seen what wonderful academic experiences are possible if I let it motivate my decision making. I recommend you take this idea seriously. If you do, this doesn’t mean you should ignore your grades. Just check them a little less often.


Did household appliances actually save time? Does this matter?

I used to have this idea that the introduction of electric appliances circa 1960 dramatically reduced the number of hours people, especially housewives, spent on domestic tasks. The thought is pretty intuitive. It’s quicker to wash clothes with a washing machine than with a tub and washboard. Dishwashers are more efficient than washing dishes by hand. In the span of a couple of years, I thought, American housewives had much more free time. This idea fits nicely with the fact women’s workforce participation rate increased in the 1960s and the decade marked the beginning of second-wave feminism. Just perhaps, a decrease in the domestic load allowed women time to reflect on unjust norms and mobilize against them.

Unfortunately, the data do not support me. Household appliances are not the fiery instruments of social change I imagined them to be. There is no doubt they altered American domestic life, but they did not reduce the aggregate time spent on household duties.

Several time-use studies from 1925 to 1965 corroborate this.

Screen Shot 2019-12-29 at 8.04.51 PM.png
Source: (Ramey 2009)

As we can see, total home production, or the amount of time housewives spent on domestic tasks, remained approximately constant from the 20s to the 60s. This is surprising considering home appliances diffused rapidly during this period. In 1925, fewer than 20% of American households had a washing machine. By 1950, more than 75% of them did (Bowden and Offer 1994).

However, the allocation of time had changed between the decades studied. Hours spent in food preparation and care of clothing decreased and were shifted towards general managerial tasks (purchasing, management, travel, and other). We can imagine appliances and relying more on store-ready food contributing to decreases in food-prep time for the 1960s housewife. We can also imagine frequent trips to the grocer increasing the time spent on travel, for example.

Even the presence of basic utilities didn’t seem to decrease time spent on domestic duties. Time-use studies comparing black and white families in the 1920s reach surprising results. Black housewives at the time, most without the luxury of a kitchen sink or running water, spent just as many hours on housework as their white counterparts. Both parties averaged around 53 hours a week. As it turns out, time spent on household production is not correlated with income (which is —most likely— correlated with the amount of technology in the home). How could this be? (Ramey 2009) explains:

[Since] lower income families lived in smaller living quarters, there was less home production to be done. Reid argued that apartment dwellers spent significantly less time in home production than families in their own houses; there was less space to
clean and no houses to paint or repair. Second, there is a good deal of
qualitative evidence that lower-income families produced less home
production output. A home economist noted during that time “if one is
poor it follows as a matter of course that one is dirty.” Having clean
clothes, clean dishes, a clean house, and well-cared-for children was
just another luxury the poor could not afford.

There are additional historical factors that explain why household production did not decrease with the introduction of appliances. The first views appliances as a substitute for another labor-saving device whose availability was dwindling: servants. In the early 20th century, it was common for middle-class housewives to hire help. Servants and maids assisted with cooking, cleaning, and caring for children, among other things. Foreign-born residents were usually employed in this capacity, but when immigration restrictions were imposed, domestic labor became scarce. The decline in servants and maids coincided with the rise of electrification and home appliances, allowing a single woman to accomplish what used to take a staff of two or three servants to do (Ramey 2009). Appliances, in this sense, compensated for the loss of a maid. Perhaps it used to take an hour for you and two servants to do the laundry. With a laundry machine, it’s now possible to do the laundry by yourself in an hour. Time spent in home production remains the same, but there are now fewer “inputs” to the process.

The second explanation appeals to changing standards. While appliances were being introduced to American families, new ideas about sanitation and nutrition were also spreading. Housewives learned they could positively influence the health and well-being of their family through their housework, so they opted to do more of it (Mokyr 2000). Even though they could have cleaned the house or cooked dinner much quicker than before, housewives decided to keep cleaning, or cook a more demanding meal, rather than take the time saved by appliances as leisure.

Do not fear. Hours spent in home production by women did begin to decrease near the end of the 1960s. Yet, this was not due to advances in labor-saving technology.


Screen Shot 2019-12-30 at 5.00.26 PM.png
Source (Ramey 2009)

Men began to contribute more. As a result, the average woman devoted only 30 hours per week hours towards household production in 2005, compared to the ~50 hours she may have expended in 1900. However, total hours spent in home production per week, the sum of male and female hours, has not shifted much over the century. The average person today is likely devoting as much time towards domestic tasks as their ancestors did over 100 years ago.

I think there are potential implications here for thinking about the future. Many of us imagine that advances in technology will increase productivity dramatically, and as a result, we will be able to enjoy much more leisure. If we can accomplish in 20 hours what it used to take 40 hours to do, why work the additional 20 hours?

Yet, history suggests that advancements in domestic technology do not necessarily save us time. Their benefits roll over into things like increasing living standards before we see additional leisure. Standards for health and cleanliness may increase steadily as our capacity for nutritious meals and clean homes increases as well. Perhaps something vaguely similar to the immigrant/servant situation could happen. Innovations in household technology might decrease time spent in home production, but maybe our jobs become incredibly demanding, eating any time saved by being able to cook or clean quicker. In both scenarios, leisure loses.

I don’t think this is disheartening news. Recall the black and white families studied in the 1920s. Even though housewives of both races spent approximately the same amount of time on household production, the white families were much better off. They enjoyed a higher standard of living due to basic utilities like running water and probably also other bits of technology present in their homes. Even though inputs, in terms of hours expended, are similar, the difference in outputs is astounding.

As a result, a more realistic version of the future might still have ~50 hours of home production for each household, but living standards that are much, much higher. Our health will be fantastic, we will conform to the highest standards of sanitation and hygiene, and we will unequivocally be better off, leisure be damned. We imagine an ideal future as a place with infinite leisure, but a society in which our standard of living is ten times as high with us putting in the same amount effort is still pretty damn good.


Works Cited:

Bowden, S., & Offer, A. (1994, November). Household Appliances and the Use of Time: The United States and Britain Since the 1920s. The Economic History Review, 725-748.

Mokyr, J. (2000). Why “More Work for Mother?” Knowledge and Household Behavior, 1870-1945. The Journal of Economic History.

Ramey, V. (2009, March). Time Spent in Home Production in the Twentieth-Century United States: New Estimates from Old Data. The Journal of Economic History, 1-47.