Productive Signalling: How to End the Academic Hunger Games
In the lead up to exam season, printers are whirring away up and down the country. Past exam papers by the millions are being printed off. At the same time millions of pages are being read, detailed notes are being made, hours are being spent memorizing formulae, doing practice questions, and writing practice essays.
Isn’t it great that hundreds of thousands of young people are spending hours and hours mastering the art of sitting exams on topics that are so incredibly relevant to the problems of the world around us? Isn’t it fantastic that these youthful minds are busy trying to scrape extra marks by toiling through hours of note making and past paper practice?
Even better, is that the smartest and most hard working young people keep being incentivized to spend a few more years repeating this process, with the promise of a higher paid job at the end. Higher education, graduate education, and every decade the bare minimum gets a little bit higher.
Everybody knows that, in their grandparent’s day, the same jobs that would today require a first class degree, only needed a few As at A-level. As students try to distinguish themselves from their peers they push the bar higher and higher. Isn’t it great that the young people of the world are taking place in this academic hunger games? Isn’t it just fantastic?
You can look at the economic data surrounding education and you might be shocked at how much is spent, but the true cost of education only becomes apparent when you realize that around 50% of young people are spending three to four of their most productive years sitting in lecture theaters and cramming for irrelevant exams. Plus, the extent to which this blatant waste of time and energy is just accepted isn’t realized until you mention it, only to be met with sneers and looks like you’ve insulted some national religion.
Individuals are trapped in a system that, if left or questioned, signals to the world that they aren’t like everyone else; there’s something a little off about them. Perhaps the drop out isn’t too bright. Maybe there are family issues. Either way, they’re probably not worth the risk. Perhaps the critic isn’t doing that well themselves; they’re probably just bitter.
It’s like the people who condone bullying at school because they survived it and made it part of their identity. The education system is something that we need to collectively shake.
The intellectual bear trap in which most of the nation is stuck, is thinking that systems like the education system be fixed with some strategic restructuring or even more funding. Public discourse is centered around modifying the current system; tweaks in the rules of the game. Some people think that there are too many exams, some people have problems with the amount of homework being set, and some don’t like the way that universities treat their students. They start off by accepting the system and will only challenge the game’s existence when something that ruffles their deepest sensibilities happens.
When we get to the stage that a retail managerial position requires a PhD in Biochemistry then people will know that they’re being duped. Ideally though, the realization will happen sooner.
This inflation of education credentials will eventually burst the education bubble; the jobs that education currently sorts people into are not getting more valuable at the same rate that higher and higher levels of education are being required. That being said, perhaps we will get to a stage where there are so many people in education that the diminished supply of workers shoots up the value of labor enough to justify the PhD retail manager. At that point the bubble will still burst as the infrastructure of the education system will become unsupportable.
The problem is that at the moment, it makes sense for kids to become students and it makes sense for employers to hire students over kids. It is convenient for each of us to go along with the system unless none of us do. A potential solution is the introduction of productive signaling. As things stand a lot of the work that students do isn’t valuable to anyone but themselves. It works as a signalling tool; even seemingly irrelevant and ridiculous degrees lead to an improvement in expected wages over not having gone to university.
Imagine that students could do something valuable enough to the rest of society that they are paid for it, whilst at the same time generating that high value signal that taking part in the education hunger games also generates. What would a young adult need on their CV to make up for not having a degree? A degree signals intelligence, diligence, conscientiousness and conformity.
There might not be anything that signals all four of those things quite so effectively, but not every job requires all four. Productive signalling might have to offer programs that sacrifice one or more of these traits with a particular job or career path in mind. Entrepreneurs could be the poison tipped lance which pops the bloated education system. Until then, it’s back to the books.
This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organisation as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions. If you’re a student interested in presenting your perspective on this blog, click here to submit a guest post!