Caplan at Chicago

I promised last week to post some further highlights and thoughts on co-blogger Bryan Caplan’s recent 2.5 hour session with Agnes Callard at the University of Chicago.

Here they are:

About 42:00 to 46:00: Bryan wisely suggests that students who have interests talk to the most interesting faculty at the college they attend and makes the point that even at low-level schools there are interesting faculty just dying to share what they know. He tells a great story about Soviet historian Richard Pipes. I’ve already told mine about an early interaction with the great economist Arnold Harberger.

Around 47:30: Bryan asks the students how many of them had a teacher before college who motivated them. We don’t see their hands but Bryan’s reaction suggests that many did. I couldn’t think of a single teacher, from Grade 1 to Grade 12, who motivated me about the material taught. The closest I came was Mr. Brian Parker, who noticed that it was April 1967 and I hadn’t even applied to college even though I was planning to attend in the fall. He hauled me into his office and we sat down and together we filled out the application forms to the University of Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba. I was accepted, with some of the remaining scholarship money, to both.

Somewhere later, I can’t remember where, when Bryan was talking about the strong pressure to get a degree even when one isn’t needed for a person to do the work well, I thought of a true story and I wonder how it fits his signaling model. The daughter of a friend of mine finished high school but didn’t go to college. Instead she joined the Navy for 4 years and came out of it as a pretty self-confident woman. She worked her way up in a firm and they said a number of times that her work was very good. But she hit a glass ceiling. No, not the female one, but the “absence of a degree” one. They told her that if she wanted to be promoted further, she would have to get a bachelor’s degree and that they would give her time off so that she could attend college part-time.

How does that fit Bryan’s signaling model? She sent a strong signal by lasting 4 years in the U.S. Navy. Once the firm had that signal and even admitted that she could do the next higher job, why put her and them at great cost so that she could get the job instead of simply promoting her? Were they simply on automatic pilot? Maybe, but I wonder.

1:09:00: No caste system and no underclass in Germany or Switzerland. And not a big prison population of young males. And the reasons why. I found this one of the most exciting and informative parts of the whole Interview.

1:22:00 to 1:24:00: Agnes Callard mistakenly says that people are “deprived” of the best things and Bryan corrects her: they aren’t deprived; they just don’t choose those things. Notice how Agnes still returns to the “deprived” language.

1:25:00: The impressive things people did in their teens 50 years ago. Why? They had time. They weren’t all going off to college.

I remember thinking something similar when I used to read the local newspaper regularly 15 to 20 years ago. I noticed the amazing story about a 12-year-old girl flying an airplane from coast to coast, and similar stories. One day when I was reading such a story, the reason hit me like a ton of bricks. All these stories happened over the summer, when the kids were free to, pun intended, spread their wings.

1:50:00: Back to Bryan’s point just above. Read bios of people from 50 years ago and see the amazing things they did while young. When I was 16 and about to start college, I read Sammy Davis, Jr.’s autobiography, Yes I Can. I found it very inspiring. Also, he started working at age 2.5. I’m not recommending that, but it did have huge upsides: he learned the world of work and built some serious dancing skills at an early age. In my education chapter in The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey, I talked about a question on Sammy Davis’s child labor that I asked a bunch of education scholars at a Hoover Institution conference in the mid-1990s.

Here’s the question I posed:

One of my heroes when I was a teenager was Sammy Davis, Jr. In his autobiography, Yes I Can, he tells of going on the road with his father and uncle as a performer starting at age two-and-a-half. Sammy Davis, Jr. never went to school. But in every state today, governments require attendance at school. They enforce that requirement by threatening noncomplying parents with prison sentences. My question for each of you is, if you were in charge back then, would you have been willing to send Mr. and Mrs. Davis to prison?

Three of them–Paul Petersen, Herb Wahlberg, and Williamson Evers–said they would not have been willing to send Sammy Davis, Jr.’s parents to prison. The other eight–John Chubb, Chester Finn, Jr., Eric Hanushek, E.D. Hirsch, Paul Hill, Caroline Hoxby, Terry Moe, and Dianne Ravitch–said that they would have sent his parents to prison. One of the eight, Dianne Ravitch, said, “For every Sammy Davis, Jr., there would be one thousand kids whose parents didn’t care.” The purpose of compulsory attendance, she implied, was to keep the parents in line.

1:51:00: Bryan’s tips sound like my tips to undergrads that I often give at the end of talks to undergrads: don’t automatically go to graduate school, law school, or an MBA. Many of your professors will try to lead you there, especially graduate school, but part of the reason is their own love for scholarship and the other part is that most of them don’t know much else about the world of work.

1:52:00: Low-skill jobs are NOT disappearing.

2:05:50: Bryan actually considered working at Target during lockdown. I get that.

2:10:00: When you’re reading a book or article, highlighting doesn’t work. I remember seeing a student from my class when I was over in the library just before class started. I went over to talk to him and saw that he was doing the reading for the class. I saw that he was highlighting. I had already graded enough of his work to see that he was not a strong student. So I thought I would try to build his morale by asking him a question in class, just 15 minutes later, the answer to which I had just seen him highlight. He had no clue. That was my ah-hah moment.