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.