The Education Myth that startups need more college jobs is a public policy dead end

Self-educated programmer Devin Helton just wrote a great post trying to guess how many jobs really require college? According to him, less than 15% of jobs can be plausibly said to need more than the classic high school education.

So how come everytime people try to come up with a way to react to the digital transformation, there is always someone to push for the Education Myth. Most policymakers seem to be considering that we lack university students, Phds, college graduates, etc. “Promoting higher education” is always high on the list of public policy proposals by candidates and leaders everywhere in the world.

Even Barack Obama famously said was that “in the coming decades, a high school diploma is not going to be enough. Folks need a college degree.”

Still, as we never had so much knowledge at our disposal, the reason why people would need to follow the classical University cursus is a mystery to me. And the reason why more people taking that cursus would be a public policy solution to the transition to the digital society is even more of a mystery.

And I am not the only one to feel perplexity.

Despite the enormous interest in the relationship between education and growth, the evidence is fragile at best” and “We do not find that exogenous shocks to investment in two-year college education increase growth” writes for example Harvard economist Philippe Aghion.

Following his research in 2005, Vivek Wadhwa also concluded that “there was no shortage of engineers in the U.S., China had excess supply, and India was in serious trouble.

There is an Education Myth.

It tells the story that the economy is dependent upon the masses having higher education skills. One of the best illustrations is Bill Gates who famously wrote that “America is facing a shortage of college graduates…By 2025, two thirds of all jobs in the US will require education beyond high school.” Which is funny given how famously he dropped out of college himself.

Still, as Bryan Caplan has it, “when you look at it, it’s often difficult to find anyone who uses more than Excel and eighth grade level mathematics”, even when speaking of engineers. Thanks to the progress of automation, it looks like there is in fact a deskilling process at work in our economy. Logically speaking, this should lead to less education needs, not more.

But people who promote the Education Myth misunderstand the meaning of “Education”. It’s not only a need for people and for companies, it’s also a right that appeared in the article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Déclaration proclaiming that “every person has a right to Education”. But we need to make a difference between education and instruction.

When people talk about the need for college degrees, they really speak about instruction, not education. They want workers with specialized skills, and they want the State to pay for it. Which it’s not the same thing.

As Bill Gates mentioned in his note, “The problem is that not enough people are finishing. More than 36 million Americans — a fifth of the working age population — have gone off to college and left without a degree.

Why do people drop out? The reasons are many, but I am certain it’s because they came for education and were only offered instruction. Who wants to spend 3, 5 or 8 years learning specialized skills that other people can also learn by themselves for free, in less time and through experience rather than teaching, a situation that’s especially true in Computer Sciences.

This position is probably best sum up by Peter Thiel: “Don’t outsource your future to a big institution. You need to figure it out for yourself.”

After doing his aforementioned research in 2005, Vivek Wadhwa came to the conclusion that “the situation is far more nuanced”.

In 2008, he analyzed that “technology company founders tend to be well-educated. There are, however, significant differences in the types of degrees these entrepreneurs obtain and the time they take to start a company after they graduate. They also tend to be more mobile and are much older than is commonly believed.” In 2009, he wrote a piece on how Ivy League Education is not that important.

So why the Education Myth? Because it creates a confusion between what’s good for you and what’s good for others.

In his essay “How to Think”, John Dewey asserted that Education must help “to cultivate deep-seated and effective habits of discriminating tested beliefs from mere assertions, guesses, and opinions.” But the most elegant description of Education is from Mad Man-era icon David Ogilvy: “a priceless opportunity to furnish your mind and enrich the quality of your life”.

It has no relation with the need to learn skills and to fill jobs for Silicon Valley industrialists.

Education is not to be confused with instruction. The value of the two is vastly different. In one case it’s an improvement for yourself. In another one, it’s an improvement for someone else.

Coming back to Vivek Wadhwa, he was right in saying that “the reality is that we are no longer preparing our children to work in factories”. But then, I don’t see why we would need to teach them a “wide assortment of technical skills”. As Henry Adams put it, “The object of education for that mind should be the teaching itself how to react with vigor and economy.And he added, “Harvard College was probably less hurtful than any other university then in existence. It taught little, and that little ill, but it left the mind open, free from bias, ignorant of facts, but docile. The graduate had few strong prejudices. He knew little, but his mind remained subtle, ready to receive knowledge.”

We need to leave the Education Myth that we need to push for more education to fill in for the new jobs of the digital revolution. There can be some reorientation but these are skills that should actually be more easy to teach than before.