Teachers and the income ceiling

The teacher pay gap is a myth? Maybe. This one has a different spin than the typical unthinking “teachers are underpaid” articles (it argues they’re not, and yes there is data to support the assertion), which is why I point to it specifically, but I think both sides are underestimating an important point about flexibility and possibility in any given career; teaching has a relatively low pay ceiling and even if a given teacher wants to work twice as hard and make twice as much money, that’s really difficult and potentially impossible. High IQ and high conscientiousness persons in other professions, meanwhile, can maximize incomes to a much greater extent than teachers. For example, as a consultant there are various avenues I can explore to further raise my income, but if I taught high school I couldn’t. In big metro areas, too, there are also many more employers to choose from than most teachers can choose from, since there’s usually one district, or a handful in nearby areas; at the same time, high rents in many superstar cities make teaching less attractive, so the “teacher pay” story is also a story about land-use regulations that raise the cost of housing—it’s just never discussed in those terms.

Teaching has other challenges: bureaucracy is a real problem and so is low morale, perhaps related to bureaucracy. In most sectors, if you don’t like the bureaucracy at one company you can switch to another, but this is considerably harder for teachers, since most districts are local monopolies. Financial returns to IQ also seem to be going up and at the same time we’re making housing in many cities and first-tier suburbs out-of-control expensive—so teachers are really taking it financially, from both the cost-of-living side and from the payment side. I have heard through the grapevine, for example, that pretty much every new public school teacher in Seattle says the same thing about how she got there: “My husband got a job at Amazon and…” That’s no doubt an exaggeration, but how much of one?

To use myself as an example, my parents moved from California to a boring suburb when I was a kid, and they left California because the cost of housing was so high. I checked how much they paid for the house in the boring suburb; in inflation-adjusted terms, they paid about $350,000 in today’s dollars. The same house is estimated to be worth about $700,000 today, so the cost has just about doubled in real terms, but that suburb forbids townhouses in the vast majority of its land, so no one can buy the house, knock it down, and put two houses on the same lot. If that were legal, we’d not have the housing crisis we do in many high-productivity cities and their suburbs. If we could lower the overall cost of living, struggles around teacher pay would seem less dire. Oregon, for example, has legalized duplexes and fourplexes statewide, so it will offer a natural experiment in lowering housing costs.

Let’s return to the original link:

shortages exist precisely where expected in a nationwide labor market that pays an increasing premium for STEM and other specialized skills. When researchers have examined the teaching vacancies that districts say they have trouble filling, they find that elementary, English, and social-studies teachers are not the problem. In fact, the Department of Education found that 20 states and the District of Columbia produced over twice as many elementary-education graduates as they had elementary-teaching positions to fill. At the same time, some districts struggle to fill STEM and special-education positions.

It’s hard to measure teacher “productivity” and yet almost no one bothers trying. So the most productive teachers are incentivized to move somewhere they can be paid in line with their productivity, which can’t be at most schools. Talk about an adverse selection problem! We have problems in data and definitions in both health care and teaching; rarely have two fields absorbed so much concentrated thought and produced so little change. The data and definition problems make it much harder to evaluate quality, inputs, and outputs than in other fields, especially those related to manufacturing. In most businesses, a major goal is simple (profit) and measurement is comparatively simple. The output of high-quality teaching may not manifest itself for decades, and very little of the value improvement is captured by the educator. By contrast, if you build a better widget, there’s a decent chance you’ll be able to capture more of the widget value beyond the cost of production.

Because we’re not measuring, or able to measure, teacher quality effectively, most schools also seem to pay based on years of experience. Anecdotally, I’ve been told that it can be very hard to get hired by another public school after 10 – 15 years of experience, because then you’re too expensive and most schools would rather hire cheaper teachers. So this is another way of ossifying the labor market.

There’s also a narrative about teachers working a lot of hours per week, but Bureau of Labor Statistics data consistently show that teachers work 40 hours a week. One example, although I have seen many other similar ones. Anecdotes consistently run one way, and data consistently runs another.

Overall, however, it seems that the number of people trying to have a completely honest conversation around this topic is not high, and many who argue that we should pay teachers “more” don’t know what “more” looks like. We may also see lots of composition effect problems, in which people who can get higher wages or better working conditions leave and get them, while those who can’t stay at school districts and take what they can get, which is at least consistent with some of the teachers I had in high school, but that may not be desirable at the societal level.

Teaching demands starting where comprehension ends

How Craig Barton wishes he’d taught maths” is from Timothy Gowers‘s blog, and many sections are not unique to math; they apply to teaching almost anything. Like this:

I’m jumping around a bit here, but a semi-counterintuitive idea that he advocates, which is apparently backed up by serious research, is what he calls pretesting. This means testing people on material that they have not yet been taught. As long as this is done carefully, so that it doesn’t put students off completely, this turns out to be very valuable, because it prepares the brain to be receptive to the idea that will help to solve that pesky problem. And indeed, after a moment of getting used to the idea, I found it not counterintuitive at all.

In English, “pretesting” as such is often not possible, but it’s useful to attempt to gauge students’s knowledge and go back to wherever the student is confused—which may be very simple aspects of language, like parts of speech. I often had debates about this subject in grad school, when other grad students or professors would lament students’s weak grasp of “basics” or “fundamentals” like comma rules. The stern professors had a point, in that university students should know those things, but I would counter that, if students don’t know them, it’s useful to teach them, even in “advanced” classes. Sometimes students seem to have not been taught much of anything in high-school English classes. Many high-school English classes have devolved into discussions of feelings and vague hand-waving about a given book, and students emerge from them with few concrete skills.

To be sure, sometimes the opposite is true. While teaching in grad school, I had a series of students, all good writers, all of whom had been taught by a particular teacher in a particular high school, and she apparently really drilled students in close reading and essay construction, like someone out of “The Writing Revolution.” The results showed. I meant to send her a letter thanking her but never did. I would guess that she did a form of “pretesting,” albeit without multiple-choice questions, to ascertain students’s skill levels and then base each day in class on what students know. I used to do something similar at times, by doing quick yes/no questions based on raised hands, in order to get a sense of where students were. Now, reading “How Craig Barton wishes he’d taught maths,” I think I should have spent more time and energy on assessment.

In most if not all subjects, it’s not possible to teach (or learn) advanced topics without mastering fundamentals, so an instructor should go back to wherever someone lacks mastery and begin building up from there. If that doesn’t happen, students—in the broadest sense, even outside formal school—at most muddle through and at worst waste everyone’s time. It’s nice to see someone as eminent as Timothy Gowers coming to a similar conclusion.

The Case Against Education — Bryan Caplan

The Case Against Education is a brilliant book that you should read, though you’ll probably reject its conclusions without really considering them. That’s because, as Caplan argues, most of us are prone to “Social Desirability Bias:” we want to say things that are popular and make people feel good, whether or not they’re true. Some true things may be socially desirable—but many false things may be too; the phrase “Don’t shoot the messenger” exists for a reason, as does the myth of Cassandra. We like to create scapegoats, and messengers are handy scapegoats. Simultaneously, we don’t like to take responsibility for our own ideas; and we like to collectively punish iconoclasts (at first, at least: later they may become idols, but first they must be castigated).

Caplan is an iconoclast but a data-driven one, and that’s part of what makes him unusual and special. And, to be sure, I myself am prone to the biases Caplan notes. Yet, as I read The Case Against Education, I couldn’t find many holes to poke in the argument. The book blends data and observation / anecdote well, and it also fits disturbingly well with my own teaching experiences. For example, Caplan notes that students find school boring and stultifying: “Despite teachers’ best efforts, most youths find high culture boring—and few change their minds in adulthood.” While “school is boring” seems obvious to most people, it’s also worth asking why. Many of the reasons Caplan gives are fine, but I’ll also add that “interesting” is often also “controversial,” and many controversial / interesting instructors will take heat, as I argue in “Ninety-five percent of people are fine — but it’s that last five percent:”

Almost no teacher gets in trouble for being boring, but a teacher can get in trouble or can get in trouble for being many values of “interesting.” Even I’ve had that problem, and I’m not sure I’m that interesting an instructor, and I teach college students.

It’s easy for outsiders to say that teachers should stand up to the vocal, unhappy minority. But it’s less easy to do that when a teacher relies on their job for rent and health insurance. It’s also less easy when the teacher worries about what administrators and principals will do and what could happen if the media gets involved or if the teacher gets demonized.

Despite the fact that no one actively wants school to be boring, the collection of forces operating on the school experience pushes it towards boredom. Many people, for example, are very interested in sex and drugs, but those topics also excite many students and parents, such that it’s difficult to say much that’s true about them in school.

As Caplan says, however, boredom is almost a feature, not a bug. Boring classes allow students to signal traits that employers value, like conscientiousness, intelligence, and conformity. Even if reading Ethan Frome is boring, being willing to tolerate Ethan Frome is important to people who would not themselves read Ethan Frome.

Caplan argues that most education is actually about signaling, not skill development. It’s notable how little we in as a society have improved education in the last two decades, when the Internet has opened up many new learning and signaling opportunities. Caplan has a theory about why: using weird counter-signaling efforts itself signals non-conformity and general weirdness (“‘alternative’ signals of conformity signal nonconformity”). So we’re stuck in a negative equilibrium.

He might be right. That said, I wonder if we’re just seeing a lag: twenty years is a long time by some standards, but in the history of education it’s a relatively short time. The problems with contemporary education also seem to argue that many employers would be well-served to ignore the signals sent by degree and search for alternate signals instead. Google claims to be doing this, but I don’t know of any researchers who’ve audited or studied Google’s internal data (if you do, please leave a pointer in the comments).

The people who most need to read this book are probably educators and high school students. The former probably won’t read it because it punctures some of the powerful myths and beliefs that keep them motivated. The latter probably won’t read it because high school students read very few books, and the ones most likely to read The Case Against Education are probably also likely to gain the most from higher education. So it’s another of these books that’s caught in a readerly catch-22.

Here is a Claudia Goldin paper, “The Race between Education and Technology: The Evolution of U.S. Educational Wage Differentials, 1890 to 2005;” as one person said on Twitter, “I agree with @bryan_caplan that the wage premium from education mainly comes from signaling, rather than learning vocational skills. But – I also believe widespread, generalist, higher ed can be a very good thing (as explained in [“The Race Between…”]).”

I also wonder about this: “employers throughout the economy defer to teachers’ opinions when they decide whom to interview, whom to hire, and how much to pay them.” Do they? Do most employers require transcripts and then actively use those transcripts? It seems that many do look for degrees but don’t look for grades.

One question, too, is why more people don’t go into various forms of consulting; smaller firms are less likely to be interested in credentials than larger ones. I do grant writing for nonprofits, public agencies, and some research-based businesses. Zero clients have asked about educational credentials (well, a few public agencies have superficial processes that ask about them, but the decision-makers don’t seem to care). Clients are much more interested in our experience and the skills demonstrated by our website and client list than they are in credentials. And when we’ve hired various people, like website programmers or graphic designers, we’ve never asked about education either, because we don’t care—we care if they can get the job done. In restaurants, I’ve never stopped a server or hostess to ask if the chef went to cooking school. So smaller firms may offer some respite from degree madness; if there is a market opportunity for avoiding expensive college and the credentials race (for individuals), it might be there.

Yet at the same time, I feel (perhaps wrongly) that school did help me become a better writer. “Feel” is a dangerous word—it’s hard to dispute feelings but easy to dispute data—yet I don’t know how else to describe it. When I read other people’s writing, especially other people’s proposals, I often think, “This helps explain why I have the job I do.” It’s possible to get through college and learn very little about writing. Occasionally managers will learn that I teach writing and say, “Why can’t college graduates write effectively?” An excellent question and one that requires 10,000 words of answer or no answer at all. But the alternative—not taking any writing classes—often seems worse.

Caplan also conducts many fascinating thought experiments, of sorts, although perhaps “contextualizes common practices and ideas” may be more accurate:

The human capital model doesn’t just imply all cheaters are wasting their time. It also implies all educators who try to prevent cheating are wasting their time. All exams might as well be take-home. No one needs to proctor tests or call time. No one needs to punish plagiarism—or Google random sentences to detect it. Learners get job skills and financial rewards. Fakers get poetic justice.

Signaling, in contrast, explains why cheating pays—and why schools are wise to combat it. In the signaling model, employers reward workers for the skills they think those workers possess. Cheating tricks employers into thinking you’re a better worker than you really are. The trick pays because unless everyone cheats all the time, students with better records are, on average, better workers.

Makes sense to me. I sometimes tell students that, if they manage to get through college without learning how to read and write effectively, no one comes back to ask me why. No college offers partial refunds to the unemployable who nonetheless graduate. The signal is the signal.

Many of you will not like The Case Against Education too because it is thorough. Caplan goes through his arguments, then many rebuttals, then rebuttals to the rebuttals. If you want a book that only goes one or two layers deep, this is the wrong book for you and you should stick to the Internet.

Many books also fail to convincingly answer the question, “What should we do about the problem identified?” Caplan doesn’t. He argues that public spending on education (or “education:” as much of what seems like education should be called signaling) should be eliminated altogether, while simultaneously acknowledging that this is only slightly more likely than someone jumping to the moon.

Caplan fulfills many of the conditions of myth, but probably not enough people will read this book to truly hate him. Which is a pity: as I said in the first line, the book is brilliant. But socially desirable persons will reject it, if they consider it at all. And the education machine will press on, a monstrous juice press squeezing every orange that enters its maw. Once I was the orange; now I am the press.

One other answer to “What education does?” may be “to keep options open” and “provide a base from which to build later.” Without some writing and numeracy skills, it’ll be hard to enter many careers; while school may do a lousy job of building them (as Caplan demonstrates), if the alternative to school nothing (i.e. Netflix, hanging out, and partying), school may be a better option than nothing.

As for optionality, I think of my friends, many artistically inclined, who got to their mid or late 20s and around that time got tired of working marginal jobs, struggling to pay rent, working in coffee shops, crashing on friends’ couches, etc. Things that seem glamorous at age 20 often seem depressing five or ten years later. Many of them have gone back to school of various kinds to get programming or healthcare jobs. In the former case, math is important, and in the latter case, biology and some other science knowledge is important. Those who blew off math or bio in high school or college struggle more in those occupations. So maybe education is about keeping at least some options open—or more options than would be open for someone who quits school or begins vocational ed in 8th grade.

Finally, education might be an elite phenomenon. We educate everyone, or, more realistically, attempt to educate everyone, in order to get a relatively small number of elite people into position to drive the entire culture forward. The people at the pinnacle of the scientific, technical, artistic, and social elites got there in part because they had access to education that was good enough to get them into the elite spheres where it’s possible to make a real difference.

I’m not sure I’m in those elite spheres, but I may be close, and at age 15 I probably didn’t look like such a good bet. Yet education continued and here I am, engaging in the kinds of conversations that could move the culture forward. If I’d been tracked differently at age 15 that might not’ve happened. Yes, the process is horrendously wasteful, but it’s useful to give many people a shot, even if most people go nowhere.

To be sure, I buy Caplan’s argument, but I’ve not seen this angle pursued by others, and it at least seems plausible. I also don’t know how one would measure the “education as elite phenomenon” argument, which is another weakness of my own point.

Still, I’ve become more of an elitist because of my involvement in the educational system, which shows that most students are in fact bored and don’t give a damn. When I started grad school I thought I could help students become more engaged by changing the nature of the short journal assignments: instead of just writing for me, students would start blogs that they would read and comment on. Education would become more peer-driven and collaborative. The material would seem relevant. Right?

After a semester or two of reactions that ranged from indifference at best to massive hostility at worst, I stopped and went back to the usual form of short written responses, printed, and handed in. That was easier on me and on the students, and it still at least exposed students to the idea of writing regularly. A few may have continued the practice. Most probably didn’t (and don’t). I learned a lot, maybe more than students, and I also learned that I’m a weirdo for my (extreme) interests in writing and language—but my own time in the education system and my own friend set had to some extent hidden that from me. Now, however, it’s so apparent that I wonder what 24-year-old me was thinking.

Caplan helps explain what I was thinking; many people who go into various kinds of teaching are probably optimists who themselves like school. They’re selected for being, in many cases, passionate weirdos. Personally, I like passionate weirdos and misfits and the people who don’t fit well into the school system (I’ve been all three). But I seem to be unusual in that respect too, though I wasn’t so weird that I couldn’t fit into the convention-making machine. A good thing, too—as Caplan notes, it’s individually rational to pursue educational credentials, even if the mass pursuit of those credentials may not be so good for society as a whole. Correlation is not causation, as you no doubt learned from your statistics classes and still understand today.

Here is a good critical review, not wholly convincing in my view, but worth thinking about.

Ninety-five percent of people are fine — but it’s that last five percent

How Airline Workers Learn to Deal with Passengers” reminds me of something I’ve noticed about teaching and consulting: 95% of people are fine, but that last 5% can occupy disproportionate time and mental energy.* There’s a temptation to become somewhat armored against that last 5%, which negatively impacts interactions with the vast majority of normal, reasonable people.

A lot of public-facing professions seem to have this problem, including emergency medicine doctors, cops, retail workers, and public school teachers. Because the bottom 5% can be noisy and time-consuming, a kind of misanthropy can set in, as one begins to think the few represent the whole—even if, intellectually, one knows it does not. Mental, psychological, and emotional armoring can reduce one’s overall effectiveness; this is particularly obvious in teaching, in which person-to-person connection plays a stronger role than it does in consulting.

Something about the human mind seems to make one negative interaction stand out more than 10 positive or normal interactions. I didn’t realize this at first, so a small number of negative experiences affected me much more than they should have. There’s a kind of crowding-out effect going on. Now, when I have to deal with someone who is unreasonable or at least not representative of the whole, I try to actively, consciously remind myself that they don’t represent the whole. Behind every irrationally unhappy person there are probably 49 to 99 normal people who aren’t giving me unwarranted grief.

Colleges in particular have been in the news lately, and a lot of people have read stories about crazy social justice warriors or censorious students—like the Middlebury College thing or the Halloween costumes at Yale brouhaha. Sure, these stories are in fact outrageous, but, again, they’re also salient because they’re unusual. Because they’re unusual, they make the news (and these kinds of events do represent a problem, though the problem tends to be overstated).

Friends and acquaintances sometimes ask me about the activists students suppressing speech. Yeah, I do, a little, but not very much. The vast, overwhelming majority of college students, seem to want what college students have always wanted: to learn something; to get by; to get a job when they’re done; to get laid; to learn something about themselves and the societies they live in; to make friends; to individuate from their families. You could add other items. Many students feel a vague sense of worry about being excellent sheep, and that worry is itself a sign of intellectual health. Most students, if they’ve thought about free-speech issues at all, vaguely support it. But a minority of well-organized and angry activists can make a lot more noise and news than the silent majority! As Nassim Taleb says, “The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dictatorship of the Small Minority.” A motivated minority, especially given the college-complaint apparatus, can create a lot of bureaucratic hassle.

Professors and other students often feel a kind of chilling effect, and one related to my essay, “How do you know when you’re being insensitive? How do you know when you’re funny?” Similar issues play out in many fields beyond teaching and consulting. One angry, unreasonable, or irrational customer or client drowns out a lot of generically happy or satisfied ones. Or consider “I was a landlord: This is what it taught me about people.” Landlords have to be prepared for worst-case scenarios, and that preparation bleeds into their everyday scenarios and interactions.

Teaching, especially at the K – 12 level, suffers from defensive posture problem. A teacher who tries to be honest and interesting risks the ire of his or her angriest, unhinged, or most ideological students (and, even worse, their parents). Almost no teacher gets in trouble for being boring, but a teacher can get in trouble or can get in trouble for being many values of “interesting.” Even I’ve had that problem, and I’m not sure I’m that interesting an instructor, and I teach college students. Students who complain about school being boring get told that school is supposed to be boring. Students who complain about school being interesting (or “offensive,” or whatever) get much more attention.

It’s easy for outsiders to say teachers should stand up to the vocal, unhappy minority. But it’s less easy to do that when a teacher relies on their job for rent and health insurance. It’s also less easy when the teacher worries about what administrators and principals will do and what could happen if the media gets involved or if the teacher gets demonized. It would be helpful for more administrations to make public statements like the University of Chicago’s, confirming a commitment to free speech and open inquiry.

Social media probably amplifies many of the problem traits described above by allowing the least-reasonable people to organize, scream, and (not infrequently) lie. I don’t know what, if any, solution exists to these problems, apart from most individuals to attempt to be as reasonable as possible and not succumb to the noisy but unhinged minority. Not much of a rallying cry, is it? No one, or almost no one, rallies for free speech and free inquiry.


* You can change the ratios some; I doubt the number of problem students reaches 10% in most scenarios, and I also doubt that the number declines below 2% (among professions that face the general public).

Why hasn’t someone tried to build or fund a very low-cost, very high-quality college?

As the title asks, why hasn’t someone tried to build or fund a very low-cost, very high-quality college? Or, if they have, what school is out there and has tried this?

It seems like a ripe strategy because virtually every (even slightly) selective school is pursing the same prestige strategy. Yet even as they do so, news about outrageous student loan burdens is everywhere and probably affecting the choices made by students. At the same time, college tuition has been outpacing inflation for decades—and everyone knows it. Education is a component of the “cost disease” that is afflicting other sectors too. The number of college administrators has grown enormously (though that may not be the prime factor behind public-school cost increases). Still, it used to be possible to work summer jobs and graduate with little or no debt; schools in the 1960s or 1970s don’t appear to have been dramatically worse at education than schools today, and in some ways they may have been better, yet today colleges are many times more expensive.

College costs and debts have soared, and at the same time the number of PhDs granted far outstrips the number of tenure-track and teaching jobs. Most universities and even many colleges care far more about research, much of which is bogus anyway, than teaching. Many universities don’t care about teaching at all, as long as the professor shows up to lecture, isn’t drunk, and doesn’t trade sex for grades. I hear many, many grad students and early professors lament the way their schools don’t care about teaching. So there’s a surplus of cheap PhDs out there who would desperately like to be professors. While professors who only teach two or three classes per semester complain relentlessly about all the “work” they supposedly have and how “busy” they allegedly are, it could be very easy to get professors to teach far more than they currently do at most schools, further reducing costs.

In short, the supply of faculty is there, and the supply of students ought to be there. So, with the setup above, let me repeat: why hasn’t anyone attempted to start a teaching-focused college with low tuition and extremely high-quality academics? I’m thinking of a school with a mandate to minimize the number of administrators and sports teams. One could even eliminate tenure, and thus ensure that PhDs hired today won’t still be on the payroll in 40 years.

This situation sounds like a community college, but I’m imagining a school that still draws from a national applicant pool and still maintains or attempts to maintain an elite or comprehensive academic character. Think of a liberal arts school but scaled up somewhat and with fewer administrators. If I were a billionaire I might try to do this; stupendously rich people loved endowing schools in the 19th Century, but that seems to have fallen out of fashion. Still, it worked then, so perhaps it could work now.

It may be that schools are really selling prestige and status, and consequently a low-cost, high-quality teaching school would be too low prestige and low status to attract students.

Still, and again as noted previously, pretty much every school, public or private, is pursuing the exact same prestige, admissions, and marketing strategy. With one or two exceptions (CalTech, University of Chicago—okay, there are a few others, but not many), they don’t even try (really or seriously) to distinguish themselves, and almost every school competes for the same BS college rankings. Such a uniform market seems ripe for alternate approaches, yet none are being tried or have taken off (so far as I know).

What am I missing?

* Maybe it was easier to start colleges in the 19th Century, when regulation was nonexistent and complex subsidies of various kinds weren’t available. In the 19th Century, many colleges were also founded with the explicit intent of saving students’ souls, so perhaps the lack of religiosity in today’s billionaires and/or most of today’s students is a factor.

* Current schools might just be too damn good at marketing for others to break in.

* Maybe there are efforts afoot and they’ve either failed or are too small for me to have noticed.

* Current schools are pursuing a complex price discrimination strategy, in which the sticker price is paid by a relatively small number of students, and much of the study body receives “scholarships” that are really tuition discounts. Maybe this system is more appealing to students and possibly schools than a transparent, everyone-pays-$5,000-per-year strategy.

* Students by and large pay with their parents’ money or pay with loans, so many an unbundled version of a school really is less attractive than one with lots of administrators, feel-good projects, fancy gyms, etc.

* Billionaires who might fund this are busy doing other things with their money.

* The number of “good” or at least weird and different students who would try such a school is not great enough (given the current cost of college and the number of students out there, I find this one hard to believe, but it isn’t impossible).

I’m guess that number four is most likely, but maybe there are other features I’m missing.

Circumstances under which going to law school can make sense

The reasons you should avoid law school are well known and I won’t repeat them here, but the other day I was explaining to a former student why she shouldn’t go to law school and she asked a perceptive question: Who should go? Under what conditions should a person go?

The answer is “almost no one” and “almost never,” but law school can be okay in a handful of circumstances:

* People who have already worked in law firms, probably as a paralegal but maybe under other circumstances, and who thus understand what the day-to-day life of a lawyer is like. That firm should have a job waiting and ready to go for the person before the person starts law school.

* People who have family (or close family friends) in law firms who can set the law school applicant up with a job straight out of school. If your uncle has a firm and wants you to take over that firm, law school can make sense.

* People with a very specific sense of what they want a law degree for and what they want to do with it—for example, people who desperately want to fight for voting rights, or immigrant rights, or something along those lines, and are convinced that those fights will be their life’s work, regardless of other challenges.

That’s really it; if I’m missing something, leave a comment or send an email. Law school mostly works for people who don’t need law school and only need the credentials that law school entails. There is a reason why most lawyers learned the craft on the job as apprentices, and law school only became a requirement in the post-World War II-era as a way of raising the salaries and status of then-existing lawyers.

Even going to highly ranked schools doesn’t make sense because, while you may get a big-firm job straight out of school, you’ll still be shackled to the work by student loan debt slavery, and you’ll still have to be a lawyer at the end (which most people don’t really want to do), and you’ll still probably not make partner (which means that you’re mostly working to line someone else’s pocket).

Don’t go to law school.

Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology — Kentaro Toyama

My review on Grant Writing Confidential is actually germane to readers of The Story’s Story, too, so I’ll start by directing you there. The book’s central and brilliant point is simple: for at least a century various people have imagined that better technology and the spread of technology will solve all sorts of social ills and improve all sorts of institutions, with education being perhaps the most obvious.

Geek_heresy2There are many other fascinating points—too many to describe all of them here. To take one, it’s often hard to balance short- and long-term wants. Many people want to write a novel but don’t want to write right now. Over time, that means the novel never gets written, because novels get written one sentence and one day at a time. Technology does not resolve this challenge. If anything, Internet access may make it worse. Many of us have faced an important long-term project only to diddle around on websites:

Short-term pleasure often leads to long-term dissatisfaction. That intuition underlies the psychologist’s distinction between hedonia and eudaimonia. Pleasure-seeking hedonism is questionable, but maybe long-term eudaimonic life satisfaction is good.

One sees these issues all over. Porn remains ridiculously popular (though some consumers of it are no doubt fine). Many people drink soda despite how incredibly detrimental soda is to health, and in my view how bad soda tastes compared to, say, ice cream. TV watching time is still insanely high, though it may be slightly down from its previous highs. There are various ways one can try to remove agency from the people watching porn while drinking soda and keeping one eye on a TV in the background, but the simpler solution is to look at people’s actions and see revealed preferences at work.

Most people don’t have the souls of artists and innovators trapped in average everyday lives. Most people want their sodas and breads and sugars and TV and SUVs and all the other things that elite media critics decry (often reasonable, in my view). Most people don’t connect what they’re doing right now to their long-term outcomes. Most people don’t want to be fat but the soda is right here. A lot of people want a better love life but in the meantime let’s check out Pornhub. Most people want amazing Silicon Valley tech jobs, but Netflix is here right now and Coursera seems far away.

And, to repeat myself, technology doesn’t fix any of that. As Toyama says of one project that gives computer access to children, “technology amplifies the children’s propensities. To be sure, children have a natural desire to learn and play and grow. But they also have a natural desire to distract themselves in less productive ways. Digital technology amplifies both of these appetites.” I had access to computers as a teenager. I wasted more time than I want to contemplate playing games on them, rather than building the precursors to Facebook. Large markets and social issues emerge from individual choices, and a lot of elite media types want to blame environment instead of individual. But each individual chooses computer games—or something real.

It turns out that “Low-cost technology is just not an effective way to fight inequality, because the digital divide is much more a symptom than a cause of other divides. Under the Law of Amplification, technology – even when it’s equally distributed – isn’t a bridge, but a jack. It widens existing disparities.” But those disparities emerge from individual behaviors. People who want to be writers need to write, now. People who want better partners or sex lives need to quit the sugar, now. One could pair any number of behaviors and outcomes in this style, and one could note that most people don’t do those things. The why seems obvious to me but maybe not to others. The people who become elite developers often say coding is fun for them in a way it apparently isn’t to others (including me). Writing is fun to me in a way it apparently isn’t to others. So I do a lot of it, less because it’s good for me than because it’s fun, for whatever temperamental reason. Root causes interest me, as they do many people with academic temperaments. Root causes don’t interest most people.

Let me speak to my own life. I’ve said variations on this before, but when I was an undergrad I remember how astounded some of my professors were when they’d recommend a book and I’d read it and then show up in office hours. I didn’t understand why they were astounded until I started teaching, and then I realized what most students are like and how different the elite thinkers and doers are from the average. And this is at pretty decent colleges and universities! I’m not even dealing with the people who never started.

Most of the techno-optimists, though—I used to be one—don’t realize the history of the promise of technology to solve problems:

As a computer scientist, my education included a lot of math and technology but little of the history or philosophy of my own field. This is a great flaw of most science and engineering curricula. We’re obsessed with what works today, and what might be tomorrow, but we learn little about what came before.

Yet technology doesn’t provide motivation. It’s easy to forget this. Still, I wonder if giving 100 computers to 100 kids might be useful because one of them will turn out to be very important. The idea that a small number of people drive almost all human progress is underrated. In The Enlightened Economy Joel Mokyr observes that the Industrial Revolution may actually have been driven primarily by ten to thirty thousand people. That’s a small number and a small enough number that the addition to or subtraction of a single individual from the network may have serious consequences.

This isn’t an idea that I necessarily buy but it is one I find intriguing and possibly applicable to a large number of domains. Toyama’s work may reinforce it.

%d bloggers like this: