Human capital or signaling? No, doing the Right Thing!

Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

Bryan Caplan has argued that students’ actions — not sitting in for free on classes and rejoicing at class cancellations — suggest a belief in the signaling model of education, rather than the human capital model.

Vipul Naik says, no, it’s about doing the Right Thing:

I don’t think they usually think of it as “education is useless, but I’ll go through it anyway because that allows me to signal to potential employers that I have the necessary intelligence and personality traits to succeed on the job.” Instead, I believe that people’s model of school education is linked to the idea of karma: they do what the System wants them to do, because that’s their duty and the Right Thing to do. Many of them also expect that if they do the Right Thing, and fulfill their duties well, then the System shall reward them with financial security and a rewarding life. Others may take a more fateful stance, saying that it’s not up to them to judge what the System has in store for them, but they still need to do the Right Thing.

Caplan might call that signaling conformity.


  1. CMOT says:

    Let’s be honest and call if a Cargo Cult.

  2. Handle says:

    This describes precisely zero percent of the people with whom I’ve spent my very ample time in school. Instead, I see Caplan’s bimodal dichotomy into cynical signaling box-checkers and hoop-jumpers on the one hand, and genuinely passionate lovers of learning and the life of the mind on the other.

    You see the same thing in the world of work. There are the time-servers who are doing the minimum it takes to squeak by, cutting corners where they can, celebrating unexpected days off, counting the days until retirement, etc. And then there are the go-getters who may not really care about their vocation, but are trying to brown-nose, make a good impression, get the promotion, etc. in order to get money and status but who, if they won the lottery tomorrow, would immediately quit. And finally there are the folks who truly love their profession and can’t believe their luck that they get paid to do what they do, which they would do for subsistence wages, and which would also be their hobby. Indeed, they keep right on doing it until they either die or are forced into retirement.

    Nobody looks at the motivations of the pool of workers and mentions ‘karma’, or ‘doing the right thing’. What a ridiculous and absurd psychological theory. And lots of students look at school as ‘mandatory work’ as an annoying step on the path to doing what they really want to achieve in life, instead of ‘enjoyable self-development’ that is good for its own sake.

  3. Spandrell says:

    Really? This describes me and everyone I knew at college.

    Who is that serious and conscientious to really think about signaling at 18 years old? I sure wasn’t. We went to college because that’s what people do. The signaling thing does come up, but later when you need to rationalize what the hell you’re doing studying all that stuff.

  4. Alrenous says:

    I don’t see how they’re in conflict. What does a cynical Hansonian hypocrite hoop-jumper feel like from the inside? Feels like Doing the Right Thing.

    The proportion that can consciously hoop-jump at that age is about the same as can consciously pursue their passion.

  5. Toddy Cat says:

    I’m not sure about any of this, but I do know that any idea coming from Bryan Caplan has to be assumed false until proven true. The guy is like a compass pointing south. He may be right about this, but that’s not the way to bet. Personally, I went to college to party, to meet girls, and because my parents wanted me to, and I think that I was pretty typical of my generation. Maybe kids today are different.

  6. Handle says:

    What a fascinating variance of experience. Either we have a genuine case of “reality segregation” or we’re interpreting the terms differently, especially “do the right thing” and “signaling”.

  7. T. Greer says:

    Handle’s got it. Change “doing the right thing” to “just following the plan” might be a more accurate way to phrase things. People go to college because that is just what you are expected to do.

  8. Aretae says:

    And by “Caplan might call that signaling conformity,” you mean “Caplan has called that signaling conformity,” right?

    Props to Alrenous for the winning comment.

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