The Storyteller

There was once a boy who wanted to tell stories. These were exactly the sorts of stories you would expect a little boy to tell; they involved video game and cartoon characters that he thought were cool. They spent most of their time getting into fights that the boy would contrive some reason for. Sometimes the boy could be bothered to write these stories on paper, but most of the time he simply acted them out with an ever-growing army of action figures.

As the boy grew, he aspired to write down more of these stories, but was never very dedicated to the task. Every so often he would spend a lot of energy on an idea for a story and then drop it before he was finished. Long after he had become a man—to the extent that one could call him such a thing with a straight face—the number of completed works of fiction he had seen through in his lifetime could be counted on his hands.

However, he had been far from idle as a storyteller. At some point late in his childhood, he began to tell stories about things in the world he had heard about, and read about, and talked about, particularly the things he had talked with his father about. Current events, history, philosophy, and every sort of idea filled the thousands of stories that he told. Though he had never had a trouble writing essays for a grade, still he was quite bad at telling a good story to begin with. But he enjoyed it, and he kept at it. After more than a decade of such storytelling, he began to find that the number of stories he produced that he was proud of was beginning to exceed the ones he considered duds.

Yet the fact that he never spent any of that energy telling the kinds of stories that excited him as a boy ate at him. He thought, surely, as I have been telling stories all along, it would be a simple matter to switch over and start doing the other sort. But domain dependence turns out to be far narrower than he had thought; writing fiction was hard work, while writing nonfiction came as easily to him as breathing.

Finally he came to terms with the fact that there was no shortcut for rounding out his abilities as a storyteller. If he wanted to tell the stories he had so loved growing up, he would have to start in the same place that he had started with the stories he could now tell so effortlessly. He would have to commit to stories that he could finish, no matter how small. He would have to keep at it, rather than writing one story and then not doing another for months or years. He would have to accept that it would be a long time before he was ready to write stories that he could be proud of on a regular basis.

So, afraid that he might be setting himself for another false start, he began. He began with the simple story of how he got here, because it’s a story he already knew well and knew how to tell. And that is the story you have just finished reading.

An Homage to the Wimp Turned Badass

Spider-Man_spider-bite

The eldest of the superhero icons, Superman and Batman, are badasses through and through. Superman was born stronger and faster than is humanly possible, along with having the ability to fly (among other things). Batman has no powers, but is well-rounded in his mortal badassness—not only is he fit and strong and capable of kicking your ass with ten different types of martial arts, but he’s also smart and mega-rich.

Spiderman came later than these two, and he is emblematic of a different sort of hero. Peter Parker was scrawny, a nerd, and—let’s be honest—something of a loser. How did he gain his powers? He was hanging around some boring science demonstration and pretty much got bit by it. Peter Parker was a wimp, but his powers turned him into a badass.

steveditko-asm-05

Spiderman was my hero of choice growing up. It was the 90’s, and comics in general and Marvel in particular were going through a weird time. But Spiderman nevertheless remained true to Stan Lee’s original vision of a superhero that had a lot of problems. Most of them were boring, normal human problems.

Perhaps it is because I grew up on Spiderman, but I am a huge sucker for the wimp to badass genre. After my consumption of Spiderman and American (non-web) comics in general fell, my main source for these stories has been Japanese manga and Korean manhwa.

Manga has a specific genre called shounen that is targeted to teenage boys that is rife with wimp to badass stories. The most emblematic is probably Naruto, current king of the manga mountain, about a ninja who has no skills at all but manages to achieve greatness through hard work.

As my teenage years are now nearly ten years behind me, it’s a bit embarrassing how addicted I can get to this formula in these settings. My current obsession is a manhwa series called The Breaker that comes out every Friday. Come Friday morning, I am eager to wake up so I can read the next 18 or so pages of Shioon Lee’s adventures. I sometimes get so impatient waiting for the next installment that I go back and reread a few hundred pages of the earlier parts!

By far my favorite work in this genre is the manga Holyland. Holyland has a great deal to recommend it: it doesn’t use super powers to spice up the fights, the artist actually knows a great deal about boxing and martial arts and the human body, and the female characters are actually proportioned like human beings, rather than some teenage boy’s deranged idea of a sexpot.

But the real draw is the main character, Kamishiro Yuu. Yuu is not like Spiderman. He doesn’t crack jokes, and his rise isn’t what you’d call a feel good story—though it has an excellent resolution. Bullied and marginalized socially, Yuu becomes stronger purely to overcome the feeling he has of being utterly pathetic. Once he is strong, the resentment he felt from being made to feel like garbage does not simply go away.

Holyland_v02_c012_p040

Mori Koji (the artist) introduces this darker element quite slowly and tactfully. At first it truly appears that Yuu is just an innocent bystandard who is defending himself from people who underestimate him. As the story progresses, however, it becomes clear that he takes a dark enjoyment in beating the shit out of people. The manga follows his character as he grows stronger, discovers this side of himself, is terrified by it, and fights against being consumed by it entirely. At the same time, the character is genuinely likable, as are the friends he makes along the way who help him resist falling into violence entirely.

I am not ashamed to say that I find it to be a masterpiece in the wimp to badass genre, and anyone who enjoys stories along this line owes it to themselves to give it a read.

Read from right to left

I have to say, as I get older I really wish that there were more stories in this genre that were set somewhere other than a High School. Even Spiderman started out there! But perhaps there’s something inherently juvenile about wanting to see scrawny nerds go around beating people up.

If so, my content consumption would seem to imply…a rather juvenile tendency in my tastes.

Oh well. If growing up means giving up my wimp to badass stories, then I don’t want to grow up.

Moving to Manhattan

Exactly one year ago today, Catherine and I took a Bolt Bus up to New York. The trip was one we had been saying we would take for a long time; more and more of our friends had moved there, and we had promised all of them that we would be coming to visit at some point. We were finally making good on those promises.

We arrived around lunch time, and headed over to Murray Hill, to our friends Peter and Jordan’s apartment, where we would be staying. Peter, Jordan, and I had gone to high school together, and Peter would be my best man at our wedding later that year. We’re close, and we were happy to have the chance to spend some time together.

It was a lighting tour, as we came up Saturday morning and returned to DC Sunday evening. Other than a trip to the MoMA, we did basically no tourist activities. We had lunch in Peter’s neighborhood, and walked around a bit. That evening, we went to an Italian place called Bianca that had a two hour wait, but it was worth it. We met up with our friend Laura, who Peter and I had gone to middle school with. The next day, we met up with our friends Alanna and Nasira for brunch; Catherine had gone to middle and high school with both of them. Alanna would be her maid of honor at our wedding, Nasira one of her bridesmaids.

As we sat on the bus ride home, our minds drifted to the same thought. We had never really seen New York as a place you could live, in all the times we had visited it before. It just seemed too big, too fast, too overwhelming. Great place to visit, but live there? Forget it.

But spending time there with residents, rather than as tourists, had shown us a whole other side to the city. Both of us could, for the first time, imagine living there. The idea even seemed a bit appealing. I, personally, had had this curiosity growing since we visited San Francisco the year before, about what it would be like to live in another city.

But at the end of the day, we had no reason to move. Nearly all of my friends and family were still in the DC metropolitan area, and Catherine had been there for about eight or nine years. Her family was mostly concentrated in the Boston metropolitan area. And we both had jobs already. Neither of us are the kind of people to just pick up and move because we felt like it.

That very week, Eric Litman reached out to me about the possibility of working for his company, Medialets. A company based in Manhattan.

Intercity Commuter

The recruiting process ended up taking about a month. Since I was leaving a very small company, I set my start date for Medialets at about a month after that, on June 4th, 2012.

That week was the first time of many that I would take Amtrak from Union Station in DC to Penn Station in Manhattan, and then spend my nights at the Yotel near Hell’s Kitchen. It was one of only three times that Catherine would come up with me, during the four months between when I took the job and when we moved up here.

We stayed that whole week, and after that, I would work from home for a week, then come up for two or three days, and repeat. It was an exciting, but difficult time. I was caught between two cities and Catherine was dealing with the logistical run-up to our wedding. At first it was quite fun to come up, maybe see Peter every other time or so. But it got to be very tiring, and—I learned—there are few things more depressing than going to a tiny (but so efficiently designed!) Yotel room alone. More than once I monopolized Peter and Jordan’s time far too long because I didn’t really look forward to heading back to my room.

In DC, we had only ever needed to look to Craigslist to find a place to live. As far as we could tell, it was totally unreliable for Manhattan, and we weren’t too confident in what we could see in the alternatives, either. So on the advice from a few people I worked with, we got a broker. The results were mixed. Since we weren’t in New York yet, it was good to have someone to arrange viewings for us before I was in town. I think I saw over twenty apartments, something like fifteen of which I saw in a two day span in September in which we finally picked a place and jumped on it.

In case you had any doubts, the New York rental market is insane. No one lists square footage, because the buildings are so old that the information isn’t readily available. And in the time that it would take the broker to go in and measure the place manually, they could have already rented out the place. I saw so many places there were 40% more expensive than what we were paying in DC but only about a quarter the size, with ancient appliances and few amenities (other than location, of course).

As a result, we ended up very, very upper west, but the place is quite good (especially compared to most of what I saw) and it’s basically the same amount that we were paying in DC (not as big a place, of course!).

The broker cost a small fortune, and the broker on the other side of the transaction took forever to process everything. We ended up having to pay for movers and arrange a move out date with our DC building before we even had a signed lease! It was…stressful. But we made it, and my intercity commuting days came to a merciful end.

Adjusting

It is a very, very different place than anywhere I have lived before.

To begin with, I sold my car before coming here and commute entirely by subway. The Metro in DC is just incomparable to the subway system here. You can get almost anywhere in Manhattan so quickly from anywhere else there. In DC, ten minute waits are not uncommon, even at rush hour. In Manhattan, when you see that there is a four minute wait it often means that you only just missed a train. You also get the life experience of more than occasionally being packed into sardine can-like subway cars during rush hour, something you do not really experience in DC.

Nearly everywhere I’ve been in Manhattan has so many amenities within a couple of blocks. Our apartment is two short blocks away from a ton of stores—including a grocery store—for instance; there wasn’t anything that close to us in DC, and we were in a fairly dense neighborhood. There are an enormous number of lunch options literally on the same block as the Medialets office.

Living in the Upper West Side also means we have great access to parks; Riverside Park is right across the street from us and Central Park is five long blocks away. We enjoyed this to some extent when we first moved here, though it got to be winter quite quickly. Looking forward to spending more time walking around these parks—and the different neighborhoods around the city—as it starts to actually feel like spring.

The level of intensity is several notches up across the board. People here will run you over on the road and walk over you on the sidewalk if you do not get with the program and move your ass. Catherine was interviewed and given a job offer within the space of a week and they insisted that she start almost immediately. The sheer level of energy and churn in the business world here is astonishing.

It’s only been six months now that we moved here. Some things came more easily than expected, but it’s safe to say that we still have a lot of adjusting to do.

Is it Worth it?

After we got back from our trip a year ago, and before Medialets was on my radar, I wrote the following:

We spent the weekend in New York City. Do you ever wonder what your life would be like if you were living it in another city? I do that more and more lately, and this trip to the Big Apple just served to fuel that all the more. I think it really started after our trip to San Francisco last year; that city really worked its charms on me. In the end, it’s just fantasizing—the people I care about are more important to me than the particular attractions of particular cities. Still, who doesn’t wish that they could take everyone they care about and relocate them to their ideal city?

My friend Lauren reblogged this and added:

There are a lot of cities I’d rather live in, but my family is here. Life is too short and I already see my family too little for me to intentionally do something to put more distance between us.

I agreed with her at the time, and in many ways this is still how I feel. I am very close to my immediate family; for most of my life my family would have dinner with my paternal grandparents and my aunts and uncles on that side every Sunday. I miss being able to do that. We both miss our friends in northern Virginia and in DC who we could see a lot more often than is practical now that we’re up here.

However, we have a lot of friends and I have a fair amount of family both in and near Manhattan. It is nice to be able to see them more often. And we’re much closer to Catherine’s family, who live in the Boston area, so we can make more quick weekend visits than was practical when we were down in DC.

One thing I can say is that there are more career opportunities in New York for both Catherine and myself. A lot more. She’s in market research, and I’m in digital advertising—there is just nowhere on this coast that can compare to New York in those industries. And of the alternatives, DC does not rank high.

All of life is trade-offs, and it’s not always easy to say when you’ve struck the right balance, if such a thing exists. But we were aware of the trade-offs coming into this decision, and however long we end up staying here–whether it’s a couple of years, five years, or more–I know we’ll have gained something from it.

RSS is a Tool for Living in the Long Tail

Over a year ago, I talked about my information diet and Google Reader was a central part of it. Today, Google has announced that Reader is being shut down. I thought this would be a good opportunity to discuss some of the big changes I’ve made to how I make use of RSS, and to my information diet more generally.

These days I don’t read any big sites at all in my RSS reader; instead I use it to keep up with lower-volume, interesting long tail content.

Drowning at the Head of the Tail

This time last year, something like 300 “items”—blog posts or comics—were going through my Google Reader account each day. And that was after already cutting back a fair amount, after reading Clay Johnson’s book.

This is exactly why RSS reading has never really taken off the way that a lot of other sexy web 2.0 things from the same era did—the people who tried it would subscribe to their favorite websites, see “100+ items unread”, get stressed out about it, and never return.

I always just thought those people were wimps. I was perfectly happy living in a perpetual stream of content; I could glance over most of it and pick out the ones that looked interesting. I was aggressive about marking whole folders as read if I didn’t feel like dealing with it. It worked for me.

After reading Johnson’s book, however, I started to rethink the matter. What was I really gaining by staying on top of everything that was posted by sites like The Verge, Gizmodo, and Boing Boing? Any big story blows up on social media. They put out dozens and dozens of posts a day, most of which I don’t even remember glancing over. I could just as easily check these sites once a day, or every so often, and there’ll be plenty for me to choose from then. Meanwhile, they crowd out the low-quantity feeds that constitute the overwhelming majority of my subscriptions.

So I eventually unsubscribed from all the professional, high-quantity posting sites.

What surprised me was how much of a relief I found it. After defending this approach and saying I could handle it, it felt absolutely awesome to give it up. Some days I don’t even bother to check The Verge. It’s been a pretty big validation of Clay Johnson’s argument.

I don’t use Google Reader anymore—I’ve been using NewsBlur for a few months now—so I don’t know exactly how many items are passing through my account on a daily basis anymore. But it is an order of magnitude fewer than it was a year ago.

RSS Readers Were Made for the Long Tail

Imagine all the time lost going to sites when they haven’t updated. This was the original argument for RSS readers, one that I’ve made throughout my usage of them. With RSS readers, that time is not wasted. You only interact with a site when it has updated.

It’s precisely that argument that demonstrates why it’s so pointless to subscribe to a site like The Verge. You know that The Verge will be updated every day. Even during the slow days of the weekend they’ll update two or three times at least. During peak gadget release season, in the middle of the week, they will sometimes post over 70 times in a single day. If you want to read new posts from The Verge, you can go there. There will be new ones.

Right now I would say that the upper end of posting for the feeds I follow is 10 posts a day, if that. The greatest value comes from the feeds that post once a day, or less than once a day, or even less than once a month. There are feeds I’ve subscribed to that have gone dark for years and then suddenly started up again. It costs me nothing to continue subscribing, and if they start up again it becomes a wonderful surprise.

I currently follow dozens of webcomics. The post rate for these varies from 5 times a week, to 3 times a week, to once a week, to once a month, to whenever the hell the artist feels like updating. There is no way I could keep up with the amount of webcomics I do without RSS. It would become unmanageable.

Despite the fact that Google has abandoned the playing field, I think that RSS readers are a phenomenal way to explore the gems that exist out there on the open web. The stuff that is more personal; the stuff that people are doing because they love doing it.

The head of the tail is basically inescapable; why not work a little harder at mining the long tail?

Stories About Education

My piece this week at The Umlaut was inspired by the ongoing debate about online education. I say “inspired by” because, while it was my intention to write about online education at the outset, that’s not where I ended up at all. I came to feel that the whole debate wasn’t really about Udacity or any of the new sexy education tech of the moment, but rather about a general sentiment that something has gone horribly amiss in the American system of higher education.

Moreover, it became clear to me that there isn’t anything particularly special about the latest online offerings. Cheap, practical alternatives to the college path have existed for a long time now in the form of professional development courses, industry certifications, and vocational schools. For some reason, people tend to look down their noses at these options, if they even acknowledge them as options at all. I decided to make our weird priorities, and the consequences of them, the main thrust of my piece.

It’s always fascinating to me the different stories that we have about why we go through this crazy 16 year process called formal education. One thing I noticed is that proponents of the “online education is going to change everything” point of view tended to all subscribe to the notion that education was about information transfer. Their critics, on the other hand, were much more ambiguous in what they thought education was for—and seemed to lean towards some sort of cultural, rite of passage type argument.

Meanwhile, in economics, you have the signal theory of education. The short version of this is that the content of your education is more or less worthless, it’s really just about sending a signal to the market about what kind of worker you are. One of the biggest proponents of this point of view is Bryan Caplan, who is quite skeptical about online education’s ability to make a dent in the establishment. Unlike most of online education’s critics, he is arguing from a place of cynicism rather than idealism about the nature of education in general.

Information Transmission

The productivity of teaching, measured in, say, kilobytes transmitted from teacher to student per unit of time, hasn’t increased much. As a result, the opportunity cost of teaching has increased, an example of what’s known as Baumol’s cost disease. Teaching has remained economic only because the value of each kilobyte transmitted has increased due to discoveries in (some) other fields. Online education, however, dramatically increases the productivity of teaching.
-Alex Tabarrok, Why Online Education Works

The whole point of learning is that you learn something, right? It’s all about imparting information upon the student. Whether we’re talking about multiplication tables or the date and consequences of the Battle of Hastings, students are—in theory—supposed to walk away from the school year with more information in their brains than they had at the beginning of the year.

If this is your story of education, then brick-and-mortar education must surely be doomed. In the essay linked to above, Tabarrok points out three reasons why this would be so:

I see three principle advantages to online education, 1) leverage, especially of the best teachers; 2) time savings; 3) individualized teaching and new technologies.

The first point goes to the fact that a single recorded lecture or piece of writing can now be viewed by anyone anywhere in the world that has access to the Internet. Tabarrok’s TED talk has been watched 700,000 times, several hundred thousand times more than his non-recorded, un-uploaded lectures ever will be. This is the blockbuster effect. In theory, the very best lectures by the very best teachers can now dominate the education of everyone in the world.

The time savings comes from the fact that with a recorded lecture, you can be as concise as possible, since people who don’t get it the first time have the luxury of rewatching it as many times as they want. Meanwhile, the people who get it the first time can move right on to the next lecture, a convenience not afforded students in a classroom who have to wait while the teacher answers their classmates’ questions.

The individualized teaching comes from the fact that teachers can outsource the lecture part of education to online resources and spend the time they would have been lecturing answering individual questions instead, and talking one on one with students. This is what is called flipping the classroom.

Clay Shirky also subscribes to the education as information transmission story. In his post which kicked off a huge debate about online education and education in general, he compares Udacity and MOOCs to Napster and the MP3. Infinite copies can be made, it can be transmitted over the Internet, and it’s available at no charge. In a response to critics of the piece, he bluntly states what he believes to be the chief purpose of education:

What we do is run institutions whose only rationale—whose only excuse for existing—is to make people smarter.

I am highly skeptical of the information transmission story of education. I’m sure that some information does get transmitted, though, as Caplan points out, most students forget most of it, and it doesn’t even take very long. Moreover, as I outline in my Umlaut article, there have been more cost-effective methods for transmitting information to students for decades, and these have only multiplied in quantity and variety, and lowered in cost.

Yet still we treat the 16 year path from K-12 to a bachelor’s degree as the proper way of doing business. Does it really take 16 years for us to convey all the information we want conveyed to our youth, even without digital technology? I find this story hard to swallow. Something else must be going on here.

Manufacturing Persons of Quality

The classroom has rich value in itself. It’s a safe, almost sacred space where students can try on ideas for size in real time, gently criticize others, challenge authority, and drive conversations in new directions.

-Siva Vaidhyanathan, A New Era of Unfounded Hyperbole

My suspicion is that this whole formal education thing is just a case of cultural snobbery. K-12 makes a certain sense—there’s certainly a lot of value in promoting literacy and basic math skills. I don’t think there’s any reason why that should take until we’re 18, but there you go.

But college in particular was never about information transmission, back before the modern push to universalize attendance to it. College was where Persons of Quality went to learn how to sound intelligent when talking with other Persons of Quality.

We talk about college as if it’s the only thing standing between the average student and a lifetime of unemployment—or worse, a lifetime as a cashier or burger flipper at McDonald’s. But I think on some deeper level, people just think there is something wrong with the kind of people who don’t go to college. Or that college imbues its students with something glorious and unquantifiable that it is unjust to deny anyone access to.

But if you don’t want to work at McDonald’s, you could become, say, an electrician. According to the BLS, this requires 144 hours of technical training and then four years of paid apprenticeship, after which the median electrician makes $48,250 a year–enough to live comfortably. And this is just one example–there are tons of paths that cost enormously less in both money and time to avoid the burger-flipping or gas station clerk outcome, if avoiding that sort of work is your goal.

But if it’s not a lawyer or a doctor, we sneer at vocational education.

In the week leading up to submitting my piece at the Umlaut, I read a lot of responses to Tabarrok and Shirky’s arguments. One thing I found odd was that these critics seemed to have a less clear idea of just what education was for than Shirky or Tabarrok did. However, I detected cultural snobbery in the background. Take the Siva Vaidhyanathan quote above. Or the following:

As a student, when I was at Ohio State I took a class with Jennifer Cognard-Black, a graduate student. I had been reading George Orwell’s letters. I just went to her office hours and I was like, I’ve got these letters, aren’t they cool? And I had nothing to say! I was really just thrashing around, [it was] incoherent excitement. And she said, “So, what are you interested in, which part of it?” I don’t even remember what we said. It wasn’t that this was an intellectually transformative experience; it was that I was taken seriously as a thinker, and it validated the entire idea of being excited about George Orwell’s letters. It sounds like a small thing, but it wasn’t; it was huge.

That’s Aaron Bady, quoted in the Awl. Unlike most of the participants in this debate, Bady seems refreshingly clear that we don’t really know what this is all for:

The thing is, when you frame this as, “what does this give them for the rest of their lives?” one never really knows, and I think that’s the point; there is something, but it’s something we’re all discovering together. When we reduce education to job training; when we reduce it to, “we need X skills, so let’s do whatever causes X skill to come out,” you really close down all the possibilities.

So college is a place where you can be taken seriously as a thinker, but we don’t really know what value that will have for the rest of your life. But if you hone in on one particular thing, you’re being closed-minded about all the other possibilities.

As someone who spends a lot of time being excited by any number of nerd-equivalents to George Orwell, I feel confident saying that I’ve been able to live Bady’s experience over and over for something like half of my life. I did it online. When I was a teenager, I went from forum to forum, raging about politics and philosophy to anyone who would engage. And engage they did. I found plenty of people to share my excitement over esoteric intellectual subjects with over the years. After forums, it was blogs, which are obviously still a big part of it. Then Facebook and Twitter and the new wave of social tools grew up and it became that much easier to connect with others who would share my excitement.

So finding a group where you can be “taken seriously as a thinker” is easier than it has ever been. And I’m not sure it’s worth cramming billions of dollars in subsidies and encouraging people to take on hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans to keep an open mind about what college might be about.

It would be unfair not to link to Bady’s own critique of Shirky here, which is much more targeted to Shirky’s specific arguments.

But from Bady, Vaidhyanathan, the author of the Awl piece, and elsewhere, I’ve sensed an implicit cultural judgment in the same family as complaints that we’re reading tweets rather than Tolstoy. I always wonder–why Tolstoy? A lot of people are reading Harry Potter, for instance. Are they somehow spiritually inferior if they haven’t also read Tolstoy, or some great classic?

I don’t meant to imply that there is no value in Tolstoy or in the great classics. I do mean to imply that obtaining that sort of value probably isn’t actually worth the enormous amount of money that is currently being spent on it by governments, charities, and private individuals. Especially when you can read Tolstoy for free online!

Signaling Theory

According to the signaling model, employers reward educational success because of what it shows (“signals”) about the student. Good students tend to be smart, hard-working, and conformist – three crucial traits for almost any job. When a student excels in school, then, employers correctly infer that he’s likely to be a good worker. What precisely did he study? What did he learn how to do? Mere details. As long as you were a good student, employers surmise that you’ll quickly learn what you need to know on the job.

-Bryan Caplan, The Magic of Education

Signaling theory in economics was pioneered by Michael Spence. The basic idea is that there are people with desirable qualities for employers, and people without them, but on the surface they seem identical. However, it turns out that obtaining a college degree costs less for the people with the desired qualities than the people without them. Maybe this is because those people tend to come from middle class families, and therefore have the financial support of their families. Or maybe this is because the people without the desirable qualities don’t have the discipline to make it through four years of coursework.

Whatever the reason, the cost differential is all that matters. The students could learn nothing but garbage for four years, but if they can get to the diploma at a lower cost than people without the qualities that are valued in the market, they will increase their lifetime earnings by getting the diploma.

Note that education policy understandably aims to lower the cost of access for everyone. If education is largely signaling, then this is extremely wasteful. Since the cost differential is what matters, then lowering the costs for everyone just raises the bar for obtaining the differential. In practice this means spending more years in college than people would have under a less generous policy. So, if signalling theory is what explains most of why people go to college, then our current policy is wasteful both in spending and in that it encourages people to waste their time for longer.

Caplan brings a lot of empirical arguments to bear to defend the signalling theory of education. Most of these are intended to demonstrate how worthless an education actually would be in the market, if all we cared about was the actual content of it. Consider the following:

Yes, I can train graduate students to become professors. No magic there; I’m teaching them the one job I know. But what about my thousands of students who won’t become economics professors? I can’t teach what I don’t know, and I don’t know how to do the jobs they’re going to have. Few professors do.

Many educators sooth their consciences by insisting that “I teach my students how to think, not what to think.” But this platitude goes against a hundred years of educational psychology. Education is very narrow; students learn the material you specifically teach them… if you’re lucky.

Other educators claim they’re teaching good work habits. But especially at the college level, this doesn’t pass the laugh test. How many jobs tolerate a 50% attendance rate – or let you skate by with twelve hours of work a week? School probably builds character relative to playing videogames. But it’s hard to see how school could build character relative to a full-time job in the Real World.

Caplan makes strong, provocative arguments, and I look forward to his book on the subject. I tend to think that at least part of education must be explained by the signalling model. On the ground, this was certainly a story that my fellow students would often pay lip service to. The story was not so systematic or formal as the actual economic theory of signalling; instead it took the form of the belief that all we really got out of college was a piece of paper that for some reason bestowed magical qualities upon us in the job market. Whether or not anyone really believed that depended on the mood you caught them in, but it was a well circulated story none the less.

I also wonder if there isn’t some marriage of the signalling story and the Person of Quality story to be found. What if what employers really want are people raised with a certain set of values, and going to college demonstrates a commitment to those values?

In the diffusion of innovations literature, new ideas and products spread lightning fast when they reach that big chunk of the population (labeled the “early majority” and “late majority”) where the vast majority of the people involved have very similar characteristics. This sets them apart from “innovators” and “early adopters” who tend to be richer or of higher status on some margin than the majority, and “late adopters”, who tend to be poorer and of lower status than the majority.

What if the chief benefit of universalizing formal western education in this country was that it made everyone a lot more like one another? Just as we’re more likely to marry or befriend people who are more like us, we also may be more likely to hire someone who is more like us, or invest in a company run by someone who is more like us, and so on. Maybe education has almost nothing to do with information transmission, but instead is some mixture of acculturation and signalling?

How Education Has Changed and Will Continue To

The bottom line is that we don’t really know what function education serves. There are a lot of stories and you can put the evidence together in various ways to defend many of them, many that contradict one another.

But it seems clear to me that the way education will change, and has been changing, is clear, regardless of what story you choose to believe.

It will change in the way that all things have changed since the onset of the Industrial Revolution–we will see bigger blockbusters and longer tails.

Let’s say you believe the information transmission story. Then, as Tabarrok pointed out, you will get blockbuster lectures and educational materials; stuff that is seen by an unprecedented number of people around the world who are eager to learn. You will also get long tail effects–a huge amount of variety, some of which only gets seen by perhaps a handful of people but which may nevertheless enrich them intellectually.

Let’s say you’re a believer that the world has been going to hell in a handbasket ever since we all stopped reading Tolstoy. Well, as I mentioned before, now anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection can access Tolstoy’s works, for free. And anyone anywhere in the world can write about Tolstoy, and Shakespeare, and how society is going to hell in a handbasket since there are people who would rather read Harry Potter. There will be a long tail of communities populated by people who subscribe to the culture of the Person of Quality.

Caplan is extremely skeptical that online education will have much of an impact if the signalling theory is correct. But there has been a long tail of credentialing for a long time–consider project management certification, or SAS certification, or any number of other industry specific certifications. And Russ Roberts pointed out that homeschooling went from being a marginal activity to gaining acceptance.

Moreover, there’s an argument to be made that our current way of paying for higher education is simply fiscally unsustainable–Shirky makes this case at length. So the nature of the average education may end up changing due to some combination of financial implosion in the traditional sector and innovation on the outside.

Education is already a power law industry, and it will always remain one. It will probably grow even more skewed than it is today. But the particulars are going to change, and the long tail will get longer. On the whole, I am optimistic.

PostScript

After posting these, I received a couple of responses that tell a story of a different sort.

Along the same lines, my father added:

I think Shirky’s right: higher education is like the daily newspaper, a bundle of unrelated stuff. It all makes cultural sense, until it doesn’t. College was a place for the Great Middle Class to park their kids until they figured life out. The cost-benefit of that makes the commitment increasingly untenable…