Archive for the Schooling Category

School: The worst job you will ever have

Posted in Antipatterns, Behavioral Economics, Business, College, Economics, Education, Entrepreneurship, Public Policy, Schooling on July 14, 2010 by livefreeordeinonychus

I would like to preface this argument by explaining a bit about the inspiration for the post and trying my best to avoid a straw man argument. Mr. Webber was an excellent teacher that I had in high school. He embraced technology (much of the homework was submitted on message boards), had creative assignments (including constant 3-5 minute impromptu speeches), and brought a curiously logical and objective approach to grading and grammar, which is rare in English departments. Mr. Webber’s trove of anecdotes was comparable to Abraham Lincoln’s, and one particular maxim has always been in the back of my mind:
School is the best job you will ever have*.
At first glance, it’s a pretty sound argument – basically, if you approached your collegiate career the same way you’d approach a desk job, you would ensure a spot on the dean’s list. About 15 hours a week is spent in class, readings and assignments supplement another 25 hours per week, and you have a standard 40 hour work week. If you can isolate yourself from distractions and put in a full week’s effort, you will still have plenty of free time on nights and weekends, and be an scholastic star. You don’t have to worry about bills or the mortgage, or other worries of adulthood – the life of a student is simple, straightforward and full of rewards, right?

I disagree. In fact, I think that school is the worst job you will ever have. To put this in context: I have had some terrible jobs. In High Fidelity fashion, here is the bottom five highlight reel:
1) Dunkin’ Donuts – Making coffee and egg sandwiches at 6am (3 days, $7.25/hour)
2) Old Navy – Unloading the 5:00am delivery truck (9 months, $6.25/hour)
3) Coupe’s – Cleaning the bathrooms at a college town dive bar at 3:00am (2 years, $6.50 + tips)
4) Wal-Mart – Unloading trucks and stacking yogurts from 10:00pm to 7:00am (6 months, $8.15/hour)
5) CBS Rentals – Painting houses for 12 hours a day in the Charlottesville summer heat (1 month, $10.00/hour + OT)

I could easily make this a bottom 10, but I don’t want to beat a dead horse. My point is, I have had some terrible jobs – so why in the world would I say that school is the worst? Well, three main reason: objective job characteristics, incentives, and career context.

In Malcolm Gladwell‘s bestselling Outliers, he describes three factors that make a job ideal. “…three things–autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward–are, most people agree, the three qualities work has to have if it is to be satisfying. It is not how much money we make that ultimately makes us happy between nine and five. It’s whether our work fulfills us. (pp 129)” So how does school stand up to this rubric?
At any time in your academic career, you have between four and eight teachers/professors that micromanage your work day. Sometimes a student can pick among a handful of theses, or choose an elective – but if you think that is autonomy, your low standards should be a red flag as to exactly how authoritarian (can I coin the phrase xenonomic?) curricula actually are. Compare the life of a student with, let’s say, a software programmer at Google or, heck, an entrepreneur or venture capitalist, or even a freelance photographer. I would argue that the best work of my K12 career was one where I had almost no directives at all – unfortunately, that sort of project is the very progressive exception, not the rule, even at a very progressive school. At the same school, we were assigned a major, semester-long group project, where we could choose between soil erosion and acid rain. Snoozeville, USA. College was often even less liberal, with very superficial autonomy – like Henry Ford’s model T’s, any colour that [you want,] so long as it is black. Once I went out on a limb and proposed an independent study on economic policies of post-Soviet states. It was a great proposal, and it was denied. I tried to get academic credit for my Russian blog, denied. Despite it’s lofty attitudes on liberalism and progressivism, the institution is very close-minded, and their narrow views of value and study crush autonomy and self learning (soon I will post on my favorite didactic philosophy, unschooling).
What about complexity? Well, it may be there. The idea behind liberal arts, as I experienced it, is to dip your toes in 100 things and move on, which makes me think that running through a subject in such a way is shallow and formulaic. However, I will err on the safe side and say that collegiate life has the possibility of being complex. Congrats, academia, you so far have a 33%.
This brings us to the connection between effort and reward. The more time and effort that a student puts into their work, the higher the reward. That sounds perfect, right? It would, but it’s a messy system. Within a course, this might be true – I remember specifically it being true in Mr. Webber’s class. However, he didn’t teach every subject, and not every subject was evaluated the same way. At every school I’ve attended (two high school and three colleges, before I graduated last year), there were easy classes and there were hard classes. The amount of effort to get an A+ in pottery might be x, and the amount of effort to get the same grade in Organic Chemistry may be 50x. When students choose careers in Media Studies over Engineering, it’s not because they’re lazy, it’s because they did a quick cost-benefit analysis, and, sorry Dean Kamen, the long way around loses. If you think that Engineering might have a higher long-term benefit, you might be right, but you’re ignoring hyperbolic discounting. If you don’t know what hyperbolic discounting is, you’re probably damn good at it. In Seth Godin’s The Dip, he writes, regarding academic fields, “The low hanging fruit is there to be taken, no sense wasting time trying to climb the tree.” This is a very bad sort of connection between effort and reward. If I had the freedom to drop courses at Maggie Walker like I did at The University of Virginia, I might’ve said goodbye to 10th grade English after I got a C+ on my summer reading essay. It would have, maybe, been in my best academic interest (to get the best grades/honors/stickers), but not my actual best interest – to learn and have valuable experiences.

Michael Scott: Ugh… who’s ahead in points?
Pam Beesly: Well, I think they’re even. At various times you gave Jim 10 points, Dwight a gold star, and Stanley a thumbs up. And I don’t really know how to compare those to…
Michael Scott: Check to see if there’s a conversion chart.
Pam Beesly: …I really doubt it Michael.
Michael Scott: Please just check.
The Office, “Beach Games” (Season 3, Episode 23)

At City Arts & Lecture, Gladwell said, “We thought we were erecting a meritocracy, but we’re not. We define a meritocracy arbitrarily.” He was speaking about Canadian Hockey leagues, but schooling is a comparable example. School, I think, has the world’s worst incentive system. Sure, you may be churning out essays on To Kill A Mockingbird or building a candy model of a cell, but those products are basically worthless. At work, I’ve been rewarded with higher pay, cash or gift certificates, time off, more responsibilities, etc, at school, I’ve mostly been rewarded, inconsistently, in gold stars. In first grade, Ms. Melendy told me that homework was mandatory, but did not effect our grades. Guess what I didn’t do? Crappy system of efforts and rewards.
The most important lesson you could draw from this discussion is that, in the context of your life, school will not be your best job. If it is, your life really sucks. I’ll call this the Glory Days fallacy:

I hope when I get old I don’t sit around thinking about it
But I probably will
Yeah, just sitting back trying to recapture
A little of the glory of, well time slips away
And leaves you with nothing mister but
Boring stories of glory days

This is just one example of a wider school of thought that you somehow peak around age 18-21, and that your best days are ones with few responsibilities and plenty of free time. On a recent trip to New York, my cousin summarized this idea quite well:

People say that your college years are the best years of your life, but really, every year should be better than the last. Each year you’ll make more money and be able to try different things. What’s most important is to find a company that can grow with you.

So, if you’re still suffering through school, don’t let it weigh you down. In The Dip, Godin also writes, “Just about everything you learn in school, about life, is wrong.” To concern yourself with the arbitrary system of incentives and the endless hamster wheels of schooling is to ignore what really matters. As Mark Twain put it, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” Don’t allow schooling to replace the education value that can be absorbed through your extracurricular experiences. In a similar spirit, Rory Sutherland described modern our modern system as ‘Placebo Education’. You pay around $100,000 for a sheet of paper and a handshake, and you feel better afterwards. Maybe you actually try harder because of this, or maybe you would’ve been equally successful without spending four years doing the world’s worst job (maybe you would’ve been more successful with four more years experience). Self-selection bias in college education is very well documented – so I theorize that we are giving this ‘job’ more credit than it is worth. Because we overvalue this system, people are more likely to ignore its’ faults, most notably deadweight loss, and we don’t recognize it for what it actually is: the worst job you will ever have. Why? Because of its’ characteristics, incentives, and value relative to the rest of your career.

*Full disclosure: Mr. Webber might have said it was the easiest job you’ll ever have, and not the best. Also, I think he might have simply been sharing this idea, which was told to him by his dad, or another teacher, so I don’t mean to attribute a theory to him incorrectly. I will share this post with him, and see if he might have any corrections. I’m fairly certain that he is not an adherent to the Glory Days Fallacy, but it is a sentiment which I hear far too often. I will update this post or write a sequel if new information becomes available.

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