Home > Economics - General > A snippet on screening

A snippet on screening

August 15th, 2012

One of the long-running disputes in the theory of education is whether students are actually acquiring knowledge and skills that will be useful to them and society, both in earning an income and in life generally (among economists this has the unlovely name of human capital theory) or whether the primary purpose is to sort out the most able young people and direct them into the best jobs (screening). I’m a strong advocate of the human capital view, but there have always been some troubling counterexamples, such as the supposed preference of the British Civil Service for employing people with a classical (Latin and Greek) education. While doing some work in the general field, I came across the fact that this actually ceased to be true nearly 100 years ago. I couldn’t use this in the piece I was working on, so I decided to post it here.

There are instances where the ‘screening’ model appears appropriate. At one time, for example, aspirants to enter the British Civil Service were well advised to take a degree in classics from Oxford or Cambridge, since this course was seen as a test of general intellect. This was a long time ago, however. From the 1920s onwards, the most preferred general education for aspiring civil servants has been the PPE (politics, philosophy and economics) degree, particularly that offered at Oxford. No fewer than six members of the current UK Cabinet, along with many senior civil servants and journalists, hold Oxford PPEs. The shift from classics to PPE is a clear indication that the actual content of education is more significant than the screening effect.

There are some big problems with such a political monoculture. But that’s a topic for another post.

Categories: Economics - General Tags:
  1. Benjamin O’Donnell
    August 15th, 2012 at 08:38 | #1

    In Australia (and the USA) law degrees seem to have served a similar purpose to that served by the Classics/PPE degree in the UK. Law also has “monoculture” problems, though this is somewhat ameliorated by the fact that lawyers generally have another degree as well – in Australia because almost everyone does combined law (BA/LLB, BEc/LLB, etc) and in the US because law is a graduate degree.

  2. Hermit
    August 15th, 2012 at 08:49 | #2

    I wonder if we shall again see the likes of Enoch Powell who before becoming a Conservative MP was a professor of Ancient Greek while in his 20s. He entered the British Army as a private and left as a brigadier. He must have had ‘born to rule’ stamped all over him.

    More seriously I wonder what is the point of incurring a HECS debt to do a basic undergraduate degree in arts, law or economics. I understand an IT qualification is not the meal ticket it once was. Youth unemployment (ages 15-24) in Spain is around 50% many of whom I presume are recent graduates. When the rest of the world stops buying boatloads of rocks from Australia perhaps graduate employment prospects will be grim here as well. It would be nice to have a crystal ball and see how many kinds of graduates we’ll need a decade from now.

  3. Benjamin O’Donnell
    August 15th, 2012 at 08:50 | #3

    Incidentally, I’ve often thought about an ideal High School curriculum. My entirely non-expert view is that you have a compulsory core and a periphery of optional subjects. The core would teach the skills that students need to function in modern society and to teach themselves what they need to know.

    So the core:
    - Maths (emphasis on statistics and financial maths);
    - Reason, rhetoric & writing (critical thinking (emphasis on spotting fallacies), how to give a speech, teach a class, participate in a debate, write a business letter, a newspaper column, a report, an essay, a short story, a poem, a blog post, etc);
    - computer skills (wp, spreadsheets, databases, presentation software, principles of coding, virus protection, etc)
    - research skills (internet research (how to use a paper library, how to judge the credibility of sources (dovetails with critical thinking), etc)
    You might combine some of them to get it down to three units.

    The periphery would be the traditional subjects, which would be used as material on which to practice the above skills.

  4. Ikonoclast
    August 15th, 2012 at 09:20 | #4

    I would question whether a complex phenomenon like education in modern society could ever be said to have a single primary purpose. To frame the question as one about “primary purpose” is to make a prejudicial and unjustified assumption right at the start of the enquiry.

    The above debate cannot leave aside basic primary education (literacy and numeracy) and intermediate secondary education (first elements of sciences, humanities and technical vocations), to focus solely on the education issue at the tertiary level. It is generally accepted, I think, that basic literacy and numeracy are needed by every citizen in an advanced society, which includes the advanced economy. It is clear that illiterate, innumerate individuals suffer grave disadvantages and that society itself suffers difficulty and inefficiency from pools of illiteracy and innumeracy.

    At the secondary level, the individual ought to acquire some level of “literacy” in the sciences, humanities and citizenship. At this level we must understand that we are educating a person not only for a working life but for general all-round citizenship in a complex, democratic, scientific, humanist and pluralist society. Any narrow, functionalist view of education – that it only exists to fit people to known job slots – will fail to develop the fully rounded citizen needed by and for a complex democratic society.

    A clear example of the damage wrought by failure to educate in and promote broad scientific literacy and an accompanying understanding of logical reasoning, fallacious reasoning and rhetorical ploys, is the inability of much of the public to analyse and reject the sophistry of denialism.

    “Denialism is choosing to deny reality as a way to avoid an uncomfortable truth. Author Paul O’Shea remarks, “[It] is the refusal to accept an empirically verifiable reality. It is an essentially irrational action that withholds validation of a historical experience or event”" – Wikipedia.

    The key words here are “refusal to accept an empirically verifiable reality”. By the end of secondary education, the great majority of students ought to be able to reason sufficiently to identify and understand the basic reasons for accepting empirically verifiable realities and rejecting fallacies which are logically and/or empirically refutable. They also ought to understand the basic limits of formal, logical and empirical enquiries and the reasons for proceeding carefully and philosophically outside this ambit. This is not too high a standard. I would regard it as a basic intellectual requirment for informed citizenship and thus needing to be substantially acquired by age 18.

    The narrow, functionalist view of education, if taken to extremes will fail as the future is uncertain and unpredictable. If we are educating only with a narrow, functionalist purpose in mind, then we are assuming we can predict the future. We are assuming that all the functional and technical tasks we now envisage as being important or becoming important will actually be important when that future arrives. This is something we cannot predict.

    Tertiary education can in any case be broad enough, deep enough and widespread enough to satisfy all of human capital theory, screening and targeting processes. There need be no reason why some functionalist targeting should not be done; after all the future shows qualities of both having some predictability and some un-predictability about it. There need be no reason why screening theories cannot be used to some extent but not for 100% of the recruitment target.

    Surely, the nature tendency of an entire population is to be eclectic, to have a broad range of hopes, abilities and interests. A partly uncertain future also requires an eclectic approach to education; keeping alive as many craft, art, scientific and philosophical traditions as possible (except for those clearly inimical to preserving and enhancing human life).

    Finally, I would caution against excessive “economic utilitarianism”; the view that economic utility is the only value we should be concerned with. The fact that our world view and social and economic choices are currently being dominated by the econocrats (as servants to the oligarchs) is doing great human and environmental damage.

  5. Freelander
    August 15th, 2012 at 09:36 | #5

    @Ikonoclast

    Good points. Education has a screening role but also a human capital role far beyond the accumulation of knowledge.

    BF Skinner got it right when he claimed “Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.”

  6. Freelander
    August 15th, 2012 at 09:48 | #6

    That said, there seem to be some new ‘disciplines’ in the university calendar where what would be left is magical thinking.

  7. Neil
    August 15th, 2012 at 10:44 | #7

    “he shift from classics to PPE is a clear indication that the actual content of education is more significant than the screening effect.”

    Wow that’s a bad argument. The shift can be explained by the hypothesis that the civil service thought that aspirants needed to know about PPE (the author’s preferred explanation) or by the hypothesis that the civil service thought that PPE was a better screen for whatever qualities they were looking for. Merely pointing to a phenomenon is not explaining.

  8. Freelander
    August 15th, 2012 at 11:21 | #8

    Seems often the devolution into a monoculture requires no further explanation than tribalism – like hiring like. Same college tie,same secret handshake, same special language, petty prejudices and so on. Bigotry has always been a powerful cohesive force. Shared bigotry, that is.

  9. Benjamin O’Donnell
    August 15th, 2012 at 11:43 | #9

    To be fair, economics and law are both disciplines that are widely applicable in public administration. Politics less so, but still helpful. And philosophy, taught right, is wonderful training in rigorous argument and analysis.

  10. Xevram
    August 15th, 2012 at 13:06 | #10

    I left school at 15 to go straight to full time work as an apprentice, my grades were OK, I just needed to go to work. I have now been working full time for some 36 years, apart from the odd year or 2 off for travel. I have worked in a big range of industry from printing to mining and tourism, plus owned and operated my own business a couple of times. I have lived and worked in Indigenous communities, here and overseas.
    I went back to higher ed a couple of years ago and have had no trouble whatsoever with the learning, content or anything else academic. It was really the academic ‘style’ of writing that I needed to master.
    In my humble opinion and based largely on my experience of working I think that the defined and oft quoted ‘Employability Skills’ are correct.

    Employability Skills:
    Communication
    Team work
    Problem solving
    Initiative and enterprise
    Planning and organising
    Self-management
    Learning
    Technology

    It takes more than a good teacher, a supportive family and good parenting to put ‘flesh on the bones’ of these skills, it takes the right sort of socieatal settings as well.
    I have 2 teenage sons and do my best to instill in them what I believe the skills mean, plus of course respect and good manners.

    Ikonoclast, I often read your posts and sometimes have trouble really understanding exactly what you are saying, but this (below), is exactly right in, my opinion.

    “Surely, the nature tendency of an entire population is to be eclectic, to have a broad range of hopes, abilities and interests. A partly uncertain future also requires an eclectic approach to education; keeping alive as many craft, art, scientific and philosophical traditions as possible (except for those clearly inimical to preserving and enhancing human life).
    Finally, I would caution against excessive “economic utilitarianism”; the view that economic utility is the only value we should be concerned with. The fact that our world view and social and economic choices are currently being dominated by the econocrats (as servants to the oligarchs) is doing great human and environmental damage.”
    Thanks.

  11. Freelander
    August 15th, 2012 at 13:36 | #11

    Good points. Those skills you learnt, the more important ones rather than job specific ones, seems you found readily transferable into a number of contexts. That’s what education is all about and that is the real value of an education.

  12. August 15th, 2012 at 21:49 | #12

    Pr Q said:

    From the 1920s onwards, the most preferred general education for aspiring civil servants has been the PPE (politics, philosophy and economics) degree, particularly that offered at Oxford. No fewer than six members of the current UK Cabinet, along with many senior civil servants and journalists, hold Oxford PPEs. The shift from classics to PPE is a clear indication that the actual content of education is more significant than the screening effect.

    This does not seem like a propitious example given that Great Britain, through the 19th Century, gained an empire and industrial and intellectual predominance when its officials and professionals had a screening education. And then, through the 20th Century, lost its empire and industrial predominance when its officials and professionals started to focus on “content”.

    Interestingly the evidence seems to show that elite universities do not add much professional value much beyond that already innate in the students they select. Dale and Kreuger showed that Ivy League universities do not enhance career earning power beyond that of generic colleges:

    [They] concluded that students, who were accepted into elite schools, but went to less selective institutions, earned salaries just as high as Ivy League grads. For instance, if a teenager gained entry to Harvard, but ended up attending Penn State, his or her salary prospects would be the same.

    In the pair’s newest study, the findings are even more amazing. Applicants, who shared similar high SAT scores with Ivy League applicants could have been rejected from the elite schools that they applied to and yet they still enjoyed similar average salaries as the graduates from elite schools. In the study, the better predictor of earnings was the average SAT scores of the most selective school a teenager applied to and not the typical scores of the institution the student attended.

    Raw intellectual processing power (general intelligence) will generally tend to overpower rote learning of this or that subject. Of course close students of Charles Murray’s work could have told you that anyway.

    This suggests that the traditional British screening approach might have been on to something, having evolved educational institutions to select for Rommel’s “clever lazy” types rather than the energetic swots that dominate contemporary institutions.

  13. Peter T
    August 16th, 2012 at 15:32 | #13

    Linda Colley points out that Latin and Greek were “human capital” in the C18 and early C19. Latin was the language of learning and the lingua franca of European learned society, Greek the common higher cultural heritage, and both inculcated one into the elite in ways that strengthened a sense of common feeling (at public schools, Oxbridge, Inns of Court) – so making, eg cooperation in parliament, county and central administration easier, diplomacy less antagonistic and learning more transmissible (eg Humphry Davies addressing the Institut de France during the Napoleonic Wars). One should not confuse “capital” with immediate financial utility.

  14. August 18th, 2012 at 13:58 | #14

    I am ambivalent regarding a syllabus composition: screening formats for potential ability versus cramming content for actual capability.

    Microsoft and google impose high-IQ brain twisting tests to screen for job applicants because they want employees who can think outside the square. Creative IQ tests are the new classics, abstract problem solving ability.

    OTOH both Germany and Japan bootstrapped their industrial revolutions by promoting content-heavy polytechnic tertiary education. With the result that their cars are still the best in the world.

    Possibly screening formats are good for selecting a creative elite whereas cramming content is best for schooling the regular folk.

    Still its hard not to look back at the great British public schools of the 19th C without a sense of nostalgia for the nobility, altruism and team spirit they generated. Ed West, the best columnist currently writing in the UK national press, reviews John Lewis-Stempel’s Six Weeks: The Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War, which looks at the character and conduct of British public-schooled officers in the trenches:

    It was the riskiest thing to be on the Western Front, leading charges at the German lines and patrols into no man’s land, and expected to always take any risk they asked of their men. And yet many were just out of school.

    In particular they came from the great public schools, where the Haldane Reforms had established Officer Training Corps in 1906, just as Anglo-German rivalry was intensifying, with the aim of providing skilled officers in the event of war. The public schools were also the natural place to recruit because, thanks to Thomas Arnold’s reforms at Rugby, the schools had become very successful not just at educating but forming young men with a strong sense of duty and self-sacrifice and with great attachment to their country, church and school.

    They were immersed in the Classics, and in poetry, and in noble ideas of chivalry. Sport, of course, was used by the public schools to teach teamwork, controlled aggression and leadership, all qualities that would train leaders on the field (which is why so many of the world’s sports were developed by English public schools).

    Undoubtedly we are better off without the kind of mentality that led to two World Wars. But, contemplating the desolate spectacle of contemporary elites, it would be foolish to deny that we have not lost something with the waning of classical culture.

Comments are closed.