Education and Culture

Proposition: K-12 education serves primarily to initiate people into a culture rather than actually teach them practical skills for life.
Adam Gurri

I have a story, which you may find plausible, about the nature of education.

Without touching on the loaded subject of education’s purpose, I think we can meaningfully talk about what its function has been, in practice.

Historically, the function of education has been to initiate young people from affluent families into a high-status culture. It has not been used to provide practical skills that would be put to use in the workplace. Leo Stein, one of Gertrude Stein’s brother, attended Harvard and then Johns Hopkins for college, yet he was rich enough that he never needed to work to support himself. He had no need or desire to accumulate human capital, nor to send any signal to the labor market.

Education is an extension of the universal human desire to be part of a group–especially if being part of that group makes you feel superior to those who are not.

Whether or not that is entirely still the case is a more complicated question. Since at least the progressive era, education has been viewed as an instrument for practical skillbuilding, and something that should be universal. Rather than rebuild education to suit that purpose, however, we have taken traditional education and tried to force it into a new role. Which may be one explanation for why it has been so bad at filling that role.

And we still look down on vocational schools, which are much more specifically tailored to skill building. That alone should tell you something about the true purpose of education even at this late date in its history.

I described previously how the economics department at George Mason University served as a hotbed for spreading a certain culture and ideas, and how most university departments played a similar role. Charles Nauert, Jr. has argued that it the emergence of the studia humanitatis curriculum in Europe played an enormous role in the cultural event that we have come to call the Renaissance. Education and culture have been inextricably linked for a very long time.

It seems possible to me that economists have entirely missed the source of the economic impact of education. Maybe it isn’t about getting skills or signaling that you’re a certain caliber of worker. Maybe it has sped up the diffusion of innovations by making more people more like one another in certain dimensions. Or maybe it’s about reducing transaction costs by giving people a common set of points of references, or building trust within the group of educated individuals.

Whatever it is, I’m coming to suspect that the economic impact of education is mostly indirect; and that the function it serves remains, as it was historically, a cultural one.

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Adam Gurri

Adam Gurri works in digital advertising and writes for pleasure on his spare time. His present research focuses on the ethics of business and work, from the perspective of virtue and human flourishing.

5 thoughts on “Education and Culture”

  1. Culture is all about signal-sending. Wrong tie, wrong phrase, wrong background – you’re out. And every culture requires an out crowd: otherwise, what’s the point? Education historically has been the imparting of detailed information to young people about which ties to wear, which phrases to use and books to read, how to acquire the appropriate cultural background, etc. Old Leo Stein didn’t give a hoot about the labor market, but if he was Gertrude’s sibling he probably cared to impress the literati (or maybe his fellow rich people).

    So I think you are right, but I also think that there’s no contradiction in saying that education is about sending a signal…

    1. That’s fair, but the signaling model in economics is pretty specific–it’s about signaling that you’re a high-value worker in the labor market, for the most part. I agree with you that this fits into the idea of social signaling more broadly.

  2. I have a way for tying together both Martin’s and Adam’s ideas. One of the problems facing a modern human is whose ideas to listen to. Even if you were perfectly rational in evaluating ideas, there are too many ideas to evaluate! So you have to triage them somehow.

    Going to college gives one a certain cultural vocabulary that can alert others to give your ideas higher priority. Going to graduate school gives you a subject-specific cultural vocabulary for establishing priority in that subject.

    Obviously, getting priority is useful to the individual in terms of _both_ professional and social capital. (Explaining why rich kids might want it. In fact, combining this idea priority with wealth may provide an even greater marginal value.) But as Adam says, it also helps promote the diffusion of ideas. “Memes” that originate from sources coextensive with intellectually promotional vocabulary will tend to survive longer and spread more widely.

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