What students know that experts don’t: School is all about signaling, not skill-building

Bryan Caplan:

Parents, teachers, politicians and researchers tirelessly warn today’s youths about the unforgiving job market that awaits them. If they want to succeed in tomorrow’s economy, they can’t just coast through school. They have to soak up precious knowledge like a sponge. But even as adulthood approaches, students rarely heed this advice. Most treat high school and college like a game, not an opportunity to build lifelong skills.

Is it possible that students are on to something? There is a massive gap between school and work, between learning and earning. While the labor market rewards good grades and fancy degrees, most of the subjects schools require simply aren’t relevant on the job. Literacy and numeracy are vital, but few of us use history, poetry, higher mathematics or foreign languages after graduation. The main reason firms reward education is because it certifies (or “signals”) brains, work ethic and conformity.

It’s therefore sensible, if unseemly, for students to focus more on going through the motions than acquiring knowledge.