Home > Uncategorized > What is education for?

What is education for?

May 19, 2016

Say you read something like this article. It’s about yet another failing for-profit college that saddles its students with large debt loads, delivers flawed – possibly useless – education, and graduates fewer than half their students, while making the founders super rich. It’s enough to make you wonder what education is for.

For that matter, I live next door to Columbia University, and for the past week, every day, there have been countless graduations with the requisite ceremonies on campus. Some of them are for things like Columbia college, to be sure, but others are much more confusing. There are countless “cash cow” MA programs at Columbia, with at least 3 in finance alone (one based out of the stats department, one from the math department, and one from the business school). And, whereas we “care about diversity” in many of our college programs, in many of these they are utterly dominated by Chinese kids who get specific STEM versions of student visas that allow them to stay in the U.S. for some months after their program ends.

What’s the actual point to all of this? And I say this as a former director of a post-bac journalism program myself.

And look, I definitely think we taught our students something in that program. But I’m still wondering why exactly we send people to school in such numbers, where 50 years ago we simply didn’t.

Here are some theories, each of which I could make the case for if I were in the mood:

  1. It’s a way to get these kids edumacated, for them to accumulate important knowledge. This is probably the least likely option.
  2. It’s a way to socialize our young people and help develop their networks and social skills, so that someday they can call on their friends to deploy insider trading.
  3. It’s a way to rank all people in the world for future employers.
  4. It’s a way to give day jobs to people who do important research.
  5. It’s a way to give day jobs to people who dedicate their time to gaming the US News & World Report college ranking model.
  6. It’s a way for foreign kids to get American educations and then American jobs.
  7. It’s a way for colleges to make money and enlarge their brands and endowments.
  8. It’s a way for companies to avoid training their workers and force them to pay for training before they get offered a job, now that unions have been decimated and nobody stays with a company for more than a few years.

Am I missing something? And is one of these any better an explanation than any other?

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. May 19, 2016 at 8:00 am

    Education is for becoming fully human.


    • Josh
      May 19, 2016 at 8:46 am

      The title of the blog conflates time at university with education.

      Cathy’s blog is really talking about time at an elite university is about. Jon is answering what education should be about.

      One implication of 3 is that it increases inequality. People speak about education as being an equalizer. Universal, high-quality pre-K and elementary through secondary schooling — if we had it — would serve to equalize society, but our system, as it stands, increases/institutionalizes inequality.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Guest2
      May 20, 2016 at 8:59 pm

      An early paper by John W. Meyer and Brian Rowan has a very different answer.

      Click to access MeyerRowan_AJS_1977.pdf

      Also at jstor.org, Legitimating Myths and Educational Organization: The Relationship Between Organizational Ideology and Formal Structure / by David H. Kamens / American Sociological Review / Vol. 42, No. 2 (Apr., 1977), pp. 208-219.

      As mentioned below, Bryan Caplan has a book in-process on education as “signaling”.
      Chapter 1: The Magic of Education
      Chapter 2: The Puzzle Is Real: The Ubiquity of Useless Education
      Chapter 3: The Puzzle Is Real: The Handsome Rewards of Useless Education
      Chapter 4: The Signs of Signaling: In Case You’re Still Not Convinced
      Chapter 5: Who Cares If It’s Signaling? The Selfish Return to Education
      Chapter 6: We Care If It’s Signaling: The Social Return to Education
      Chapter 7: Nourishing Mother: Is Education Good for the Soul?
      Chapter 8: The White Elephant in the Room: We Need Far Less Education
      Chapter 9: We Need More Vocational Education
      Chapter 10: Four Chats on Human Capital, Signaling, and Life Well-Lived

      Lastly, a new paper shows that students with debt are less likely than their counterparts without debt to accumulate assets in the years after leaving college, according to a new study. The research linked debt with borrowers, compared to others, having lower net worth, fewer financial and nonfinancial assets, and homes with lower market values.


  2. alex
    May 19, 2016 at 8:39 am

    Great list, some (actually, most) of them never occurred to me. A variation on “It’s a way to give day jobs to people who do important research” is “it’s a way for such people to promote their research agenda” and thereby increase their own stature. Teaching can help research – whether for mundane reasons such are making sure you go to bed at a reasonable hour to teach calc1, or to solidify your knowledge in your own field by teaching it, to getting your students help you with your research program, to getting your students to promote your ideas in their work after they graduate. Remember the faculty (in principle) design the curricula. I can think of at least one pure math faculty member at Harvard who’s stature has increased through his prodigious output of students – if he had been at IAS and done the exact same research but with no students, not sure he would have produced as much or had as many great ideas or caused the growth of branches in the field from twigs into trunks. (I know you are not predominantly talking about the pure math ph.d program at harvard in your post…I went off on a tangent, but it is rationally connected the topic at hand.)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Matt
    May 19, 2016 at 8:48 am

    #8 infuriates me. My friends that are in positions to hire people often complain that no one matches their exact criteria and expectations. When they say this, I flip out and ask why they don’t invest in their new employees. It is not the job of colleges (or even trade schools) to train someone for your company! If you want employees with a certain skill set, train them in that skill set! Yes, I am aware that is is expensive, but you get what you pay for.

    Liked by 1 person

    • May 21, 2016 at 7:03 am

      > If you want employees with a certain skill set, train them in that skill set! Yes, I am aware that is is expensive, but you get what you pay for.

      Cutting into quarterly profits means someone’s bonus would take a hit. Can’t have that. (Investing in employees in order to cultivate long-term success is so mid-20th century.)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. May 19, 2016 at 9:20 am

    50+ yrs. ago it wasn’t considered particularly important for women (1/2 the population!) to be college-educated, and even for men HS Diploma was the important thing, while college was still somewhat for the elite. Then we entered the era of being told that one MUST have a college degree to succeed (it was never true and is less true now, though of course dependent on specific field one wishes to enter… I never tire of reminding folks that Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone, Larry Ellison and others never completed college degrees).


    • May 19, 2016 at 11:31 am

      Shecky R, it is true that the rich tech entrepreneurs you list did not get degrees, but they did attend college. So they got some education. So perhaps the education is useful, but the degree is less important


  5. May 19, 2016 at 11:37 am

    Perhaps the reason more people are getting a college education now than fifty years ago is because the world is more complicated. There is more benefit to more education.


  6. Chris
    May 19, 2016 at 12:10 pm

    It’s a pro football team supported by near-slave labor; with some classrooms attached.

    More seriously (although college sports are deeply problematic), it’s also potentially an institution that provides young people numerous avenues of inquiry into life’s most significant questions: where do we come from, what kinds of values should guide our lives, where are we going, and how can we make our trip from now to then as good as possible.

    The tragedy is that, to the degree that we underfund schools and shift all the burden to individuals, we force them to forfeit long-range, intangible, and social benefits for immediate and fungible ones. So we get more business majors, and fewer physics majors; more technical writing; and less philosophy. That’s not to say that those pursuits are unimportant; only that we’ve drastically inflated their importance because we’ve largely forgotten that education is a social good and forced students to become incredibly mercenary about their educations.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. May 19, 2016 at 12:36 pm

    Bryan Caplan over at econlog will tell you that the point of education is signaling, namely “… education is a strong signal of pre-existing worker productivity.”



  8. Daniel
    May 19, 2016 at 12:42 pm

    The article at the top of the post is about a charter high school, not a “for-profit college that saddles its students with large debt loads.” As far as I saw, there was no mention of debt at all.


  9. dotkaye
    May 19, 2016 at 1:01 pm

    Two things to distinguish, what education should be for, and what it is currently used for.

    My feeling it is currently used for credentialing and vocational training (3,8) plus step 3, profit !

    I like Noam Chomsky on what should be, in a better world:
    These are debates that go back to the Enlightenment, when issues of higher education and mass education were really being raised, not just education for the clergy and aristocracy. And there were basically two models discussed in the 18th and 19th centuries. They were discussed with pretty evocative imagery. One image of education was that it should be like a vessel that is filled with, say, water. That’s what we call these days “teaching to test”: you pour water into the vessel and then the vessel returns the water. But it’s a pretty leaky vessel, as all of us who went through school experienced, since you could memorize something for an exam that you had no interest in to pass an exam and a week later you forgot what the course was about. The vessel model these days is called “no child left behind,” “teaching to test,” “race to top,” whatever the name may be, and similar things in universities. Enlightenment thinkers opposed that model.

    The other model was described as laying out a string along which the student progresses in his or her own way under his or her own initiative, maybe moving the string, maybe deciding to go somewhere else, maybe raising questions. Laying out the string means imposing some degree of structure. So an educational program, whatever it may be, a course on physics or something, isn’t going to be just anything goes; it has a certain structure. But the goal of it is for the student to acquire the capacity to inquire, to create, to innovate, to challenge—that’s education. One world-famous physicist, in his freshman courses if he was asked “what are we going to cover this semester?”, his answer was “it doesn’t matter what we cover, it matters what you discover.” You have gain the capacity and the self-confidence for that matter to challenge and create and innovate, and that way you learn; that way you’ve internalized the material and you can go on. It’s not a matter of accumulating some fixed array of facts which then you can write down on a test and forget about tomorrow.

    These are two quite distinct models of education. The Enlightenment ideal was the second one, and I think that’s the one that we ought to be striving towards. That’s what real education is, from kindergarten to graduate school.



  10. JV
    May 19, 2016 at 1:33 pm

    #1. Education is a commodity
    #2. Globalization


  11. rob
    May 19, 2016 at 1:38 pm

    Education increases confirmation bias. Without self-critical and culture-critical components it contributes to intellectual polarization while it aculturates students into an educated class, itself biasing and in many ways culturally racist below the level of individual introspection. On the good side, it supports immigration through the pizza-industrial complex.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. May 19, 2016 at 1:43 pm

    Elite universities can be a sophisticated cash cow of course, but people are into it also because they are chasing prestige and jobs (none of which is necessary to succeed in life), and these institutions find a way to exploit their weaknesses. It’s really not much different than the optometrist telling us to come back for test every single year to prescribe them glasses for myopia, knowing full well (or maybe not?) that doing so can increase their myopia, thereby also increase their risks of developing more serious ocular diseases (e.g., glaucoma, retinal detachment).

    But then, you can’t fool people every time all of the time. With the advent of Internet and proliferation of information, it’s only a matter of time where online certification programs get a significant share of the pie. And for those interested in learning, there’s already a ton of resources out there mathwise (e.g., Khan Academy, Brilliant.org,,Socratic, modules, YouTube videos, eTextbook, udemy, Coursera). Is university useless? Far from it. But it’s becoming less relevant than before in terms of education — which can be practically free if you known where to find them and avoid the pitfalls.


  13. davidflint
    May 19, 2016 at 3:01 pm

    Why should there be one answer? There many stakeholders, eg students, parents, lenders, teachers, administrators, employers and the government. Each wants something, maybe several things.

    But who gets them and, frankly, which are worth having?


  14. Gordon.
    May 19, 2016 at 3:02 pm

    Education is for different purposes in different places. Times may have changed in the twenty years since this was relevant for me, but in the UK, it was expected that you would go to university to learn about something you were interested in (or to find something that interested you), and that you would learn what you needed to know to do your job at your job.

    If there was a connection between your degree and your job, it was probably through signalling. Getting into a given university was supposed to signal that you were at least modestly intelligent, and staying there long enough to graduate showed that you had some minimal ability to commit to something for longer than a week or two. Maybe.

    So, in my cohort of a couple of dozen graduate trainee investment bankers, I think that three of us had financial degrees. There were a couple of engineers and some maths/physics types; an Eng. Lit. PhD; at least one guy with a scripture undergrad, and so on. Nobody (at that time) had a professional post-grad degree… the perception was that you would go and get one if you were too useless to get a job, and needed a socially acceptable way to spend the time that you should have been working until you actually could be working. Alternatively, you might get one if you were American, since everyone knew that American undergraduate degrees were utterly useless, as evidenced by the fact that basically every American seemed to have one.

    As far as your list goes, I’m amazed that you didn’t put anything in there about sports, drinking, drugs or sex. Aren’t those what most people go to school to experience, in whatever ratio makes them happiest?


  15. Kathryn
    May 20, 2016 at 6:38 am

    Wow. A lot of cynicism here, and assumptions that everyone has, outside of college, access to and understanding of how to navigate the knowledge and tools required to do what they need to do to succeed. For the majority of college students in the US, college opens doors to the world of ideas instead of the world of manual labor. For those students, it’s #1 and #2 all the way, minus the insider trading implication.

    The colleges they go to (often public) are terribly underfunded and overtasked with bureaucracy. The only way those schools can afford any nice things at all (student research opportunities, lab equipment, bringing non-local speakers to campus, repainting crumbling hallway walls) is through the cash cows.

    Some of those students end up at fancy schools as well, in which case college is even more about #1 and #2–new and unfamiliar worlds of privilege they must negotiate–but even then the cash cow programs are often the ones that convince their families (who may not know anyone else who has gone to college, much less fancy college) that there will be a job for the student at the other end.

    That said, there’s a lot to be cynical about in modern higher education (#3, 5, 7, and 8 are absolutely true and distressing). Just want to make sure there’s some breadth to the discussion.


  16. OV
    May 20, 2016 at 1:09 pm

    Ms O’Neil, when you refer to “Chinese kids” do you mean the ones from the mainland China, Hong-Kong, Taiwan?


    • May 20, 2016 at 1:14 pm

      Mainland China. Relevant because in recent months, as there’s been economic turbulence in China, the MA programs have seen tons of cancellations in their accepted student rolls.


  17. May 21, 2016 at 7:14 am

    >But I’m still wondering why exactly we send people to school in such numbers…

    I think #2 is the main driver with #7 in second place.

    Worth watching: Noam Chomsky, “The Purpose of Education?” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DdNAUJWJN08&feature=youtu.be

    Worth reading: Robert Charette, “The STEM Crisis Is a Myth” and “Exposing the Roots of the Perpetual ‘STEM Crisis'”

    Links = http://spectrum.ieee.org/at-work/education/the-stem-crisis-is-a-myth and http://spectrum.ieee.org/riskfactor/at-work/tech-careers/exposing-the-roots-of-the-perpetual-stem-crisis-


  18. rob
    May 21, 2016 at 11:43 am

    It’s difficult to assess higher education outside ones social background since higher ed is all about privilege and prestige and these two play different social roles depending on class and ethnic place. I teach at the public university in New York, CUNY. My students are “non traditional”: overwhelmingly nonwhite, working women, many single moms, often successful in their careers already but who are seeking the experience of education. Many came to CUNY with narrow career goals but were transformed by both the experience and the education. The public ed experience and the elite private ed experience are worlds apart and face distinct challenges. Prestige and privilege may be oppressive myths of social structure, but they can also be liberating.


  19. Eta
    May 21, 2016 at 4:06 pm

    An interesting case study for you might be the “Achieving the Dream” program. This is a private foundation initially funded by the Lumina Foundation, itself funded when the student loan company USA Group, Inc. sold its assets to Sallie Mae in 2000. Achieving the Dream lobbies community colleges to implement a “culture of evidence” data-driven regime to track student outcomes; they currently boast 200+ community colleges (4 million students) in their network. The end goal is “student success” (defined as “a better chance of realizing greater economic opportunity”), but when studied a few years ago showed little to no difference in outcomes. It appears that ATD “coaches” meet with college management about once a semester and lobby for certain administrative-driven programs, and applaud the move to downgrade mathematics standards (e.g., removing algebra as a general education requirement for a degree) with something “more usable in the real workplace”. Discussion mostly excludes faculty members from the planning or program design; it is almost entirely administrative-focused, by a private company, with no accreditation or public input, for the sake of generating more degrees via big data (and supposed economic opportunity from those degrees).



  20. May 24, 2016 at 6:00 pm

    I started to write a comment, and then it got really long.



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