Student From Hell, Part One.

Even bad guys can sometimes feel remorseful. I speak from experience here. For example, I sometimes feel a few twinges of regret over the last college course I took.

Before I start my sad tale I want to make one thing clear. I have no problem with terrorizing people. In fact, terrorizing people is what I am all about. I got to be me, you know?

But there is such a thing as too much of good thing, even if the good thing is me…

Anyway, I always knew that apes like me weren’t supposed to go to school. But I had some problems at the time I started taking college courses. You see, my boss at the time was making me go around picking up cigarette butts every single morning of the work week. I might have been able to swing the tedium if I had been doing the work all by myself. But instead, I was stuck with a crew of humans.

Well, I was getting bored out of my little mind and I had to do something before I made Stalin, Hitler, and Genghis Khan look like amateurs. With this weight on my shoulders I came up with the whacked-out idea of paying some of my own hard earned money to take some college courses. I figured that if I had some intellectual stimulation at night it might help me with the ennui in the morning.

I know, I know, it was dumb idea. But if you were the one picking up cigarette butts every morning you would probably do dumb things, too. As anyone who knows what entry level college courses are like could have guessed, the first two classes that I took were as boring as all get out. But though I did not know it at the time, I had it pretty good in the first two classes.

After all, my first two teachers were cool people with lots of real world experience as well as the usual ivory tower degrees. I gather from people who have managed to put up with more college than I have that this is pretty rare for entry level college courses.

But no matter how good the teacher is, they still have got to go by the lowest common denominator in class of thirty or so punks. Sometimes, if the teacher is what the cry babies like to call a “tough” teacher, they go by the average of all the denominators. Frankly, there is not much difference between the two methods in your average entry level college course.

Long story short, I found myself paying good money for the privilege of being bored in the evening. And I still had to pick up cigarette butts the next morning to earn money to pay for the privilege of being bored in the evening. It was just was not working, you know?

In desperation, I took a class on macro-economics. I had always been kind of interested in economics, so I figured a class on economics would either cure me of my unnatural desire to take college courses, or interest me enough so that I could muster the strength to go on.

Needless to say, it cured me.

My first clue that something was going wrong was the first homework assignment that the teacher handed out at the beginning of the semester.

We were to read the first chapter or two in our textbook (I don’t remember exactly) and answer two pathetic questions that simply required you to regurgitate the answers found in your textbook. Worse yet, you only had to write a paragraph for each question and you had to post your answers to a web site where all the students could see your answer. That way, those who did not even want to open their textbooks could just rework other people’s answers a little.

If you heard a bellow of rage echoing around the country a few years back that was me.

Not that I minded that last part; any fool who wanted to copy one of my answers was welcome to it. But it sure did not seem like the professor was planning on making people work all that hard and the thought that I was paying good money to a professor who was just going to….

Anyway, I started my campaign of terror right then and there. I want you all to read my answers to those two stupid questions and take warning: don’t bore the ape man.

P.S. – Excuse my sloppy writing in the answers below. I was kind of hot under the collar at the time. Besides, I was only supposed to write a paragraph or two, so the teacher did not give me much time to get it done. As I was getting towards the end I found that if I wanted to meet the deadline I had to turn it in quick-like. That is why it has such a pathetic ending among other failings……

Anyway, here are the two stupid questions and my answers……

Question 1. Should a country invest in education? Why or why not? How will investment in education affect a county’s production possibilities frontier in the future?

Question 2. If a country should invest in education which level should get the majority of the funds? Should High Schools and Elementary Schools get the funding or should higher education? Which will have the greatest effect on the PPF? Why?

At first glance, our second discussion question is self evident. Obviously, a country should invest in formal education (I say formal, because that is the type of education implied by the question). Implicit in the idea of formal education is the creation of human capital and increasing human capital moves the Production Possibilities Frontier outward. Since that is a very good thing, who would not want to invest in education? The only thing that interrupts our confident reciting of our text book is the question of how the resources should be apportioned between higher and lower education.

Unfortunately, no easy answers to that question can be found in our text book. Thankfully, our text books do contain this neat little curve called the Production Possibilities curve. All we have to do is imagine that lower education is at one end of the curve and higher education is at the other end of the curve. The answer then becomes clear. The more we spend on one form of education at the expense of the other, the higher our opportunity cost is going to be. Therefore, we should aim for an even handed approach.

However, if we take the question of the use and utility of formal education out of the realm of the theoretical and into the world of the real then we find that matters become more complicated. Our first problem is one of opportunity costs. Formal education may indeed move the Production Possibilities Frontier outward, but does it do so better than other ways we could expend those same resources? Second, we must not uncritically accept the assertion that formal education increases human capital. Only when we have examined both of those questions can we consider how we should apportion resources between the various forms of formal education.

Like most questions in economics, it is impossible to give a definitive answer to the question of whether formal education is the best way of building human capital. Furthermore, our goal for this course is to explore the basics of economics not various theories of education. However, many people in this course seem to assume that the only way to build human capital is in a setting where a teacher addresses a number of students in a class room and maybe does some lab work on the side.

This view ignores the fact that throughout human history the most common way of increasing human capital was through the means of apprenticeships. Indeed, such apprenticeships (for our purposes we will define apprenticeship as guided learning while producing goods and services) are still around. They are still common in much of Western Europe as a way of learning a variety of skills. Doctors in this country must go through a period of apprenticeship before being able to practice medicine. Much of the way in which the military trains its personnel would fit my definition of apprenticeship.

In fact, the higher you go in higher education, the more it tends to resemble apprenticeship in form and function. Think of how many classes at the lower levels of college are taught by student TA’s or how Ph.D students will help their professors with research projects. Even at the primary school level alternatives to formal schooling can be found. Primarily, in the growing homeschooling movement.

All this is just to point out that the resources we devote to formal education have a real opportunity cost. Not just in the sense that we cannot use the resources we devote to education to building houses or acquiring clothes but that we cannot pursue other means of building human capital as well as we might. Furthermore, we should not assume that just because formal education is the most commonly used method of increasing human capital in the developed world, it is also must be the best.

In fact, there is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that the opposite is true. In France, les compagnons (as the people who have been through the various guild apprenticeship programs are called) almost always find a job right away even though the unemployment rate among young people in France with college degrees is quite high. In Germany, the extensive apprenticeship program is usually given a large share of the credit for Germany’s post war economic success. Back here in the United States, homeschooling has been gaining growing acceptance because people who have been educated in this way tend to do well on any kind of test.

It is such anecdotal evidence that leads some people like John Holt to question the value of formal education. They tend to assert that all such learning actually destroys human capital. Among the sins they accuse formal education of are: Segregating people based on age and intelligence, thus destroying the social fabric. Squelching people’s natural desire to learn because the formal method of learning does not resonate with what they experience in their life. And crushing people’s ability to think for themselves because formal education puts the emphasis on finding the answers that the teacher wants. Indeed, if you listened to some people who follow John Holt’s way of thinking, you might get the impression that formal education was the root cause of all that is wrong with the world.

I believe that such an extreme view of formal education is an error. It springs from the mistaken belief that everything that is imposed by society is bad and that everything that comes from a person’s own nature is good. (John Holt owed a lot to Jean-Jacques Rousseau.) But if society does not impose a way of spelling the, then how will we be able to communicate?

That is not to say spelling “the” the way we do is any more morally correct than any other way, only that it is necessary to be able to communicate. Thus, many times, accepting the formal impositions of society allow us to be more productive and creative because we can share our ideas with others and receive their ideas in turn. Thus, sometime the right answer to give is the one the teacher wants. This distinction seems to be lost on the people associated with John Holt.

Having said that, I think that it is worth paying attention to what John Holt has to say, if only to counteract the equally extreme (but far more prevalent) view that formal education is an unalloyed good. John Holt may be wrong in his belief that everything imposed by society hampers intellectual growth, but today’s educators need to realize that our classroom based forms of education are failing to help students increase their creativity and their independent thinking abilities.

In the past, those failings were well disguised by the demands of the industrial economy, as doing the right thing on the industrial production line was more important than independent thought. But we are now in the post-industrial era where service jobs outnumber the old production line jobs and it is becoming increasingly clear that our old education model is failing us. To some, the answer is to throw more resources at the problem. But I believe that much of what we spend now is wasted, and to spend more would only compound the problem.

Our educational needs are more akin to the craftsman of 200 years ago than they are to the factory worker of 50 years ago. It would be wise to remember that people in pre-industrial era were not too stupid to figure out how to have one person stand up in a room and teach 30 other people. In fact, back 200 years ago they did do some teaching in the formal form.

In those days this was usually only done for subjects like writing, math, and reading that required standardized right answers. But it was also used for anything that the authorities wanted to control (think religious teaching). Yet for most of their educational needs they stuck to the apprenticeship form as the best way to train people for jobs that needed technical skill, creativity, and good judgment.

I believe that as our economy grows ever more service oriented that we also will also discover that a like form of learning will best suit our needs. In fact, I think that is the case right now and that it is only inertia that keeps us on our present course. That is not say that I think formal education does not have any use. As long as we have to read and write, and do other things where conformity across broad sectors is desirable, there will always be a need for formal education.

To sum up, I believe (although I have not rigorously made my case due to time and space constraints) that we spend way too much money on formal education. Of the resources our country does devote to formal resources, I think that most of it should go towards the primary level. What resources are spent on higher education should be in the way of preparing the ground work for an advanced apprenticeship (sort of the way that doctors do it now).

2 Responses to “Student From Hell, Part One.”

  1. […] The Ethereal Voice Front Page – Violence – Money – Knowledge – Art – Food – Fun Masthead Student From Hell Part One…. By Ape Man | December 27, 2006 – 7:42 pm Posted in Category: Money The Ape Man took an economics course and he insists on sharing the pain with the rest of us. Click Here to continue reading. […]

  2. […] Those who remember my post “Student From Hell Part One” already know the basic set up. I was stuck in an economics class where all the teacher wanted us to do was regurgitate the textbook. As a consequence, I was bored out of my mind. My only source of amusement was trying to contradict the textbook as much as possible. […]

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