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Does Success Depend on Education?

Does Success Depend on Education?
By Sarah Skwire
This post was co-authored with Steve Horwitz.

The great thing about being a young adult is that the world is all before you. There are a dizzying multitude of possible paths on which you can set your feet, and an incalculable array of possible futures at the end of each one.

The problem is that you have to listen to people our age tell you which path to take.

There’s a debate currently raging about the value of education, which is filled with people of our generation trying to tell people twenty years younger what they ought to do.

The sides in the triangle look, roughly, like this:

Drop Out, Cash In:

 The claim is that college is a waste of money and time and that young people would be better off becoming entrepreneurs and creating value in the marketplace and/or alternative institutions.  This is often coupled with a critique of higher education as being about learning to obey authority and conformism rather than creativity and learning.  It also often includes a critique of faculty as being disconnected and self-indulgent and caring little about actually producing critical thinkers and student learning.

Some of us do not prefer to go with the flow. They are inclined to join the "Drop Out, Cash In" crowd instead.

Some of us do not prefer to go with the flow. They are inclined to join the “Drop Out, Cash In” crowd instead. | Photo Courtesy:

Razzle-Dazzle them:

There is a large debate in economics over whether a college education adds to human capital in the form of skills and knowledge or simply signals to employers that you are smart, persistent, and teachable, among other things.  Although this view does not claim that going to college is a bad thing (at least not for most people), it does suggest that one should pick a school, a major, and courses mostly with an eye to their instrumental value as signals.

Grecian Urn:

In the rush to protest the hyper-practical exterior of the “Drop Out Cash In” crowd, and what can be the tacky “designer label” feel of the Razzle-Dazzle crowd, the academy often rushes to defend all learning, for all people, for its own sake. No cost can be too high for access to truth and beauty, right?

The problem is that all the sides of the triangle are made up of at least 50% unadulterated hogwash.

The Drop Out, Cash In argument is inspiring. And we like the way it encourages people to follow their dreams and think creatively about how to accomplish their goals. But it ignores, it seems to us, some very important questions about entrepreneurship. First, it ignores the ongoing and heated argument among entrepreneurs and educators about whether entrepreneurship is something that can be taught. Second, it elides the question of whether everyone is suited to entrepreneurial activity. Third, it seems to us , to vastly understate the difficulty and challenges of entrepreneurship. We are impressed by successful entrepreneurs (and believe us, we are very impressed) because we know it’s hard to succeed. We’ve seen a lot of failures and been involved with a few ourselves. The implication that “becoming an entrepreneur” is some sort of straight and easy way to success makes us want to rip our hair out (well, Sarah’s anyway). We also have serious questions about the idea of “becoming an entrepreneur” as a goal. Who does that? Don’t most entrepreneurs set out to make a product or provide a service or fill a Kirznerian niche? They have, in other words, a specific thing that they want to do. By doing it and succeeding at it, they become entrepreneur.

Setting out to “become an entrepreneur” without an entrepreneurial idea sounds, to us, a lot like friends who want to “be a writer” but don’t have any story ideas or writing experience.

They’re in love with the idea of literary cocktail parties and book tours. How many people who want to “become an entrepreneur” are in love with the idea of seeing themselves quoted in Forbes or giving TED talks about the secret to success?

And we don’t understand why praising entrepreneurship has come, all of a sudden, to go hand in hand with a knee-jerk anti-intellectualism that is the worst version of parodies of the American businessperson.

It’s actually possible to respect and praise entrepreneurship without denigrating the work done by intellectuals and academics.

The Razzle-Dazzle Them approach is persuasive. We can all see how university alumni watch out for one another and help provide opportunities and mentoring, and we can all appreciate the usefulness of a short-hand that says, “Hire me. I finish what I start.”

We would never say that education is not a signal. But we are equally unpersuaded that education is only a signal.

We have been both teachers and students, and we know that every day we make interesting and productive use of content we dismissed when we acquired it. That education provides a signal and a short-hand does not mean that is all that it does.

The Grecian Urn approach is probably, in today’s climate, the easiest to dismiss. We’re glad that we had the kinds of educations that equipped us to respond to the beauties of poetry and music and painting. But we’re willing to admit that the course Sarah took on Pindaric Odes hasn’t produced any measurable intellectual, spiritual, or material gains for her. (Not yet, anyway.) Nor has Steve’s course on the philosophy of space and time with all of its non-Euclidean geometries and paradoxes of time travel. (But boy he enjoyed writing about the Planet of the Apes movies!)

Not all knowledge is useful for all people. And insisting that everyone needs to learn Latin or that the world will fall apart if we are not all conversant with the Great Books is probably not the best way to defend the humanities.

We do believe that there are too many young people going to college today, due to a combination of misguided government subsidies, labor market interventions that make it harder to get work right out of high school, and a mistaken belief that the only path to a successful, financially stable career involves four years of college.  College isn’t for everyone, but neither is anything else.

So are we just going to Statler and Waldorf our way through this debate, throwing peanut shells at all concerned and not making any useful suggestions?

The stairway to success knows no bounds thus it cannot be shackled by one parameter, that is education. |Photo Courtesy:

The stairway to success knows no bounds thus it cannot be constrained by just one parameter, that is education. | Photo Courtesy:

Hell no. We’re as happy as all the rest of the 40-somethings out there to pretend we’ve got all the answers.

Here’s what we think.

  1. Life is full of unexpected surprises. Very few of us take a straight line through life where the plans we have at 18 are the plans we are living at 40. You should probably pack carefully for that trip—with as broad a set of experiences and tools as possible, and a mind that is as flexible and capable of improvisation as you can make it.                                                        
    You aren’t one thing. And whatever things you are, you’ll be different things later down the road.
  2. Fill your mental and physical toolbox with a wealth of tools and you’ll be more prepared to address those surprises.  A good liberal education is as much about this flexibility and about the ability to learn how to learn as it is about the particular content you acquire.
  3. Knowledge is always useful. Heinlein said that “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, co-operate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” Some of those are things best learned in an academic atmosphere. Some are not. The point is to take this intellectual and mechanical and spiritual curiosity as your motto.

    As Kipling said, “Run and find out.” Because you cannot predict when the stuff that you know will bump up against the stuff someone else knows and produce one of those great ideas, enduring friendships, or moments of happiness that we all live for.

  4. School is expensive. If you go, go hard. Go with a sense of the possible risks and potential rewards.
  5. Entrepreneurship is expensive. If you go, go hard. Go with a sense of the possible risks and potential rewards.
  6. Everyone is trying to sell you something. We’re educators. (Well, Sarah is sort of complicated, but she’s more like an educator than anything else.) We’ve chosen to do this with our lives because we believe education is important and valuable and useful and beautiful and fun, and because we are lucky enough to be able to make money from doing something we believe is important and valuable and useful and beautiful and fun. So of course we want you to think that as well—not just so we can make money, but so we can share the things we love. The same thing is true of the people who are pushing students to drop out and be entrepreneurs. They’re doing something they believe in, and they’re trying to make money from it. There’s no shame in any of us making money from what we do. Just know that this is what’s happening.

That’s what we think.

Oh. You wanted to know what we think you should do? You wanted to know if you should drop out? Razzle-dazzle ‘em? Study truth and beauty? You, in particular?

We’re libertarians. We don’t know what’s best for you. And we’re very suspicious of people who claim they do.

We think you ought to decide. And because the decision you make today may not be the decision you stick with in 5 or 10 or even 20 years, we think you ought to keep deciding as your life twists and turns and changes. We just wanted to give you a few more things to think about while you do.

Now get off our lawn.

This article was originally published on Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

Sarah Skwire is the poetry editor of the Freeman and a senior fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc. She is a poet and author of the writing textbook Writing with a Thesis. She is a member of the FEE Faculty Network. 

Steven Horwitz is Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY and an Affiliated Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center in Arlington, VA. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Fraser Institute in Canada and a distinguished scholar at the Foundation for Economic Education. .

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