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winter book forum 2018, part 2: what do people actually get out of college?

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This Winter, we are discussing Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education. The main issue: We invest a ton in education and it seems to do good. But is that because schooling acts as a filter or because schooling gives your concrete skills or better ways of thinking? If education is mostly a filter (the signalling model), we should probably cut back on education a lot.

In this post, I’ll discuss the types of evidence that Caplan reviews. His book is empirical in that the strength of the argument relies on what other researchers have found. A short blog post does not do justice to this work. For example, he asks – how much do people learn in college? How much do people use specific skills (like algebra) in the workplace? Is there any evidence that learning is transferable – that people acquire “critical thinking?” Each of these topics commands one’s full attention, but we can only skim through the best here.

As you can expect from the title of the book, the direct benefits of education are pretty sparse. Probably the most damning evidence are studies that show that people don’t learn that much in college to start with. Another important fact is that few people ever use the skills – the few they may remember  – in work. Thus, it is very hard to argue for the simple human capital argument – educations makes you better because you learn valuable things. This can’t be right because people don’t learn or retain much in college.

Two related points: In response to those who argue that education imparts critical thinking, he points to evidence that learning is actually domain specific. Learning one area doesn’t seem to help in most others. This is called “transfer learning” in psychology and it’s been rejected for a long, long time. Another fascinating point – if education improves you via human capital development, we’d expect your income to increase for every year of education you get. Instead, Caplan reports that studies of income show no increase in income until you hit 4 years of college – a classic sign of signalling – which economists call sheepskin effects.

Of course, no single study seals the deal and it may be that Caplan has misread some, or even a lot, of the studies. But is is unlikely he misread it all and it is consistent with the everyday view that formal education is not a particularly good way to impart skills. Thus, we should be very skeptical of claims that education is a great way to train people for the labor market. Next week: So what?

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Written by fabiorojas

February 19, 2018 at 5:01 am

sesame street jam

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Written by fabiorojas

February 18, 2018 at 5:15 am

foxes and hedgehogs in sociology (inspired by James Scott)

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I’m about halfway through James Scott’s Against the Grain, and it’s really an amazing book. Scott has admirably gathered research from a dozen different disciplines, telling a story about the founding of civilization, a question that has haunted humans as long as civilization has existed, and that has formed one of the central research poles of early sociology and early modern philosophy. It turns out a few things we assumed were true actually aren’t: sedimentism doesn’t automatically lead to states, and neither does agriculture. Even more importantly, early states weren’t necessarily in opposition to non-state actors: even if there was tension with “barbarians” who didn’t appreciate the forced labor to which they would often be subjected, the relationship between those in the state and those out of it was often one of mutual benefit, with, if anything, the state much more parasitic on the barbarians than the reverse.

James Scott is a political scientist whose work has been incredibly influential for a variety of other academic disciplines, not least sociology. His books Weapons of the Weak and Seeing like a State both provided pithy concepts (in the titles no less!) that have proven immensely influential.  In many ways, Scott’s interests are quite wide-ranging—from South East Asian peasants to the dawn of West Asian city states—yet there is an ongoing commitment that goes all the way back to Weapons of the Weak in looking at how marginal peoples interact with powerful organizations, nearly always the state.  The work manifests an anarchist sensibility which Scott enthusiastically endorses, and maybe that underlying political passion is what keeps the common interest moving.

Yet this has me thinking about academic careers, and in a few senses. First, why do we seem so suspicious of people with wide interests?  Part of the answer, I assume, is that we are suspicious of dilettantes: the purpose of academic research, we seem to think, is not to learn more about more, but rather more about less, with the hope that these crystalline insights will then be broadly applicable, going all the way down to come back up again.  Yet there’s no self-evident reason why “more about less” is a superior way to do academic knowledge, and a more materialist analysis would probably reveal the way in which the micro-specialization of academic knowledge helps to maintain a division of labor that creates more opportunity for distinction and, therefore, positions, departments, and broader organizations and institutions that can leverage resources and status.  And of course, the nature of academic organization and distinction is not a new thing to study.

Yet I’m also interested in how we sociologists think about Berlin’s distinction between foxes and hedgehogs. Are we interested in lots of things or one big thing?  That question could fairly be asked of sociology itself, and one of the attractions for many of us to sociology is that we can study lots of stuff, not beholden for all of our careers to a particular subject area or research interest. And indeed, this is one of the reasons area studies folks or historians are suspicious of sociologists jumping into a research question, using only secondary sources, not mastering the languages, all in the service of some theoretical question that, to the specialists, seems far too sweeping and sloppy. Historical-comparative sociologists have been sensitive to that charge for decades now, and many do the sort of research that would make historians proud: going to the archives themselves, learning the languages, engaging with the historians as well. That takes more work, sure, but it also produces more substantive research.

But what about people who want to study lots of things? I think a lot about Gary Alan Fine’s incredible productivity, and how he seems to go from thing to thing, looking at whatever he finds interesting. He would tell you there’s an overarching theoretical interest that unites all of his work (or just about all of it), and I think that’s right, but I wonder about why we seem to demand such an answer. What’s wrong with having lots of interests, apart from the fact that the more interests you have, the more it could start to be done shoddily?  This concern about shoddiness is usually what you hear, but people like Gary Alan Fine, Craig Calhoun, Rogers Brubaker, Ann Swidler, Randall Collins, and Orlando Patterson (among others) write about a stunning amount of topics, and they do so with a really high quality. All things being equal, do we think that’s better than scholars who laser in on a certain sociological topic and add as much to it as they can?  Most might answer that both foxes and hedgehogs are fine, but I’m not sure that’s how it plays out in search committees, tenure reviews, and award decisions. Yet, at least to me, there’s no self-evident reason why a certain way of being an academic is better than the other.

 

 

Written by jeffguhin

February 17, 2018 at 9:05 pm

defending free speech the right way: three cheers for gabriel rossman

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Recently, a UCLA conservative student group invited Milo Yiannopolous to speak at the campus. Then, UCLA sociologist (and former orgtheory guest) Gabriel Rossman wrote an open letter to the Bruin Republicans urging them to rescind the invitation, which they did. Excerpts from the letter, as published in The Weekly Standard:

The most important reason not to host such a talk is that it is evil on the merits. Your conscience should tell you that you never want anything to do with someone whose entire career is not reasoned argument, but shock jock performance art. In the 1980s conservatives made fun of “artists” who defecated on stage for the purpose of upsetting conservatives. Now apparently, conservatives are willing to embrace a man who says despicable things for the purpose of “triggering snowflakes.” The change in performance art from the fecal era to the present is yet another sign that no matter how low civilization goes, there is still room for further decline.

I want to be clear that my point here is not that some people will be offended, but that the speaker is purely malicious.

I could not agree more. Gabriel makes it clear that he is defending their right to have a speaker, but that it is unwise and unethical to invite this particular speaker. On Twitter, Gabriel also makes it clear that there was a lot of internal pressure to cancel this talk, and that the open letter was a secondary part of the story.

I want to add a few words about the defense of free speech, drawn from Gabriel’s letter. First, Gabriel avoids a common mistake – no where does he oppose the talk because he thinks that having the talk will somehow legitimize racism or undermine UCLA. Universities are hardy creatures and hosting a shock jock conservative will not have any appreciable effect on racism in the larger society.

Second, he focuses on wisdom – is this really the right thing to do? Does inviting Yiannopolous really promote truth seeking? This is the difference between hosting a “conservative performance art” event and a conservative intellectual with genuinely held beliefs that need to be debated. I think this is the difference between inviting Charles Murray – who provides evidence and is willing to debate – and Yiannopolous. One has controversial views, the other is a controversy machine. There is a huge difference.

Finally, this approach provides a broader defense of free speech and debate for all people. On a basic level, students and faculty have been given the privilege to invite who ever they want to campus. And that means some nasty people will be invited from time to time and we should support that right.

On a deeper level, we need a higher standard to decide which speech should be actively supported. If someone provides data and can treat others civilly in debate, we should be very tolerant. If someone shows a basic mastery of argument and analysis of evidence, they deserve a hearing. Conversely, if a faculty member is a scholar in good standing, we should be forgiving if they mis-speak in public.

We need to appreciate that the core of the university is not free speech.  Rather, free speech is a starting point. What real scholars do is select which speech merits a spotlight and an analysis and that’s a crucial activity.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 16, 2018 at 5:12 am

if you can buy a gun, you can get a divorce: comments on a recent talk by amy wax

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Last week, I was invited to attend a talk by University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax and present comments. You can view Professor Wax’s entire talk, with my response, at this link. The essence of Professor Wax’s comments are as follows. First, the traditional bourgeois family – as articulated in the mid-20th century – is a good thing. Intact families, rare divorce, and reduced number of romantic partners are good things, not just for parents, but for children as well. Second, the traditional bourgeois family has declined but is still retained by more educated people, especially educated Whites and Asians. In her popular writings, such as this Philadelphia Inquirer piece, Professor Wax also links the demise of the traditional bourgeois family to crime rates and other social trends.

My response was delivered in a few sections. First, I start with broad points of agreement. Yes, I do believe that Professor Wax has identified an important theme in the sociological literature on the family. Intact families are generally a good thing and it’s probably not just a selection effect. I also give to her for being part of a larger call to identify and retain the positive aspects of Western culture. Like Diedre McCloskey, who identifies the positive economic effects of bourgeois culture, Wax depicts the traditional family as having positive personal effects for people. That’s a good message.

Now, let me turn to more modest disagreements. A big one is rhetoric. In her popular writing, Wax links changes in the family to rap music, homicide rates and the fact that *some* Latinos are anti-assimilation. In her more scholarly talks, she links the traditional family to Western civilization in broad strokes. Given the importance of the topic, I think it is valuable to roll back the rhetoric a little. Also, I think Wax slips into a rhetorical mode that may not be sustainable. For decades, perhaps longer, social commentators have given us narratives of decline – the death of community, the lonely crowd, bowling alone. Her account one of a long string of warnings of decline, many of which don’t pan out.

I have more substantive disagreements. One is the libertarian response to Wax’s comments. Yes, it is true that as society experienced a moral deregulation in the 1960s, we had some bad side effects. And they are quite serious. At the same time, a liberal and free society allows people to make bad choices. In other words, if you can own a gun, or smoke cigarettes, you can certainly get a divorce. A second disagreement has to do with the size of the problem. Yes, studies of families often show a negative effect of family instability on children. But at the same time, the effects are often of middle range – maybe a third of a standard deviation. Sometimes more, sometimes less. I would say that we are right to be concerned and we should think about how to strengthen families. But I wouldn’t use the evidence to argue for an overall decline of American society.

I’ll end on policy and solutions. First, I think it is generally difficult to argue for a reversal of the “moral deregulation” of the 1960s. Why? There are institutions that provide traditional families but they are very expensive and their appeal is limited. For example, the Church of Later Day Saints is an institution known for promoting traditional families, but the cost in terms of time and financial resources is very high. This is not a criticism or endorsement of the LDS, but I merely note that creating a modern institution that really nudges people toward bourgeois families is very hard.

Finally, Professor Wax often alluded to the decline in birthrates and eroding pro-marriage norms. If that is an urgent concern, then why not consider immigration as one solution? The US can, and has, absorbed millions of Latin American immigrants who have larger families and tend to be more socially conservative than the average native born American. It’s worth thinking about.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 12, 2018 at 5:01 am

Posted in fabio, family, sociology

the elements

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Written by fabiorojas

February 11, 2018 at 5:01 am

winter 2018 book forum: bryan caplan’s the case against education

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This month, I will write a series of blog posts about Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money. Normally, I will summarize a book, then praise it and then offer some criticism. In this case, I will deviate slightly. A lot of people will criticize the book, so I will focus on describing the core argument and explain why sociologists should care about it. If Caplan’s main point is even partially correct, it has big implications that any educational researcher should care about. In this first installment, I’ll provide a little background and then lay out the main argument. Later this month, I’ll describe the nuts and bolts of the argument in more depth.

I’ve known Bryan for many, many years and I’ve grown a deep appreciation his style of thought. The way he approaches an academic topic is to first boil down the main claim. Then, he will massively research the claim to find out how much of it is true. When I say “massive,” I mean massive. He’ll read across disciplines. He’ll read flagship journals and obscure edited volumes. He’ll even email the authors of papers to make sure that he got their main point correct. Once he is done this obsessive review, he’ll summarize the main points and the then re-assess and redevelop the original claim. He re-estimates models and the draws out the conclusions, which often cut against common opinion.

The Case Against Education proceeds in this same way. Caplan starts with a simple idea that a lot of people believe in: education improves you and that is why it should be subsidized and supported. This basic idea comes in a few flavors. For example, in academia, economists believe in human capital theory – education gives you valuable labor market skills. Other people may believe that education improves you because it makes you a better citizen or it otherwise improves your critical thinking skills. Caplan then contrasts this with another popular theory called “signalling theory” – education doesn’t make you better, but it works as an IQ/conformity test. In other words, people who do well after getting an education aren’t better in any concrete sense. Rather, the college degree is a signal that you are smart to begin with.

Why the emphasis on the human capital/signalling distinction? The theory that you believe in has huge policy implications. If you believe that education gives you a lot of skills and benefits, then it may make sense to pay for a lot of education or to subsidize it. In contrast, you believe it is mostly signalling, it is a sign that you should scale back education.

Then, Caplan delves into hundreds of studies in education, economics, sociology, psychology and other fields to actually see if education actually makes you better, or if it is merely a hoop you have to jump through. For example, is it true that education makes you a better “critical thinker?” It turns out that there is psychological research on “transfer learning,” which means that learning a skill in field A helps you in field B. Answer? Nope, not much transfer learning. Is it true that college graduates learn alot? he reviews work like Richard Arum and Josipina Roska’s Academically Adrift, which shows that people don’t learn a lot in college. The list of debunked effects of education goes on and on.

As you can sense from my thumbnail sketch, Caplan (correctly, in my view) arrives at the conclusion that education doesn’t really make you better in any direct sense. If that is true, then much of education might be a costly and inefficient signalling game and maybe we should seriously consider cutting back on it and that entails a massive change in policy.

Next week: What education does and does not do to a person.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 9, 2018 at 7:15 am