School and College: it’s more than just conformity and obedience

It’s intellectually trendy nowadays to downplay the importance and or significance of college. Some common arguments I see are:

“It’s just signaling”

“It’s just conformity/obedience”

“College is only good for measuring conscientiousness”

There is truth to all of these. But I still stand by the perhaps less popular assertion that college, especially for STEM but also the humanities from a decently-ranked institution, signifies intellectual merit, too, and this acts as a tailwind for success at many things outside of college, not just signaling to an employer how obedient or compliant you are.

This interesting article Tall Poppies caught my attention:

So ability (merit) and conformity (culture) are vital in filtering. This is evocative of standardized testing and technical interviewing as filtering mechanisms. Standardized testing is still controversial as it hasn’t been shown to be strongly correlative with success, at least in comparison to other quantitative measures like GPA average. Though they do become better predictive tools at higher levels of education. Similar to the halo effect, there’s a winnowing as individual data becomes increasingly arbitrary with each filter you pass.

What I am getting at here is that these filters are arbitrary from the beginning. You aren’t asking how meritorious an individual is, you’re asking how many hoops they are willing to jump through in order to be a part of your group. How likely are they to conform, and after they are in the group, (especially in the case of hazing) how likely they are to become dependent on it.

This is not necessarily true. As discussed in an earlier post, if the goal of education is just conformity/obedience or just job training, why do schools teach subjects like history, geography, algebra, or Shakespeare which are of zero applicability to those things? If schools just wanted to instill conformity, why is there the obsession with testing and achievement benchmarks? Why are the SATs such high stakes if they don’t signify anything important beyond just conformity? Taking the SAT is easy: there are no hoops to jump through nor pressure to conform or subjectivity. A holistic admissions process involves way more hoops than answering a multiple choice test.

Regarding GPAs, those are of low predictive value at the high end of ability. Getting a 3.5-4.0 GPA in high school is way easier, much more common than a top SAT score.

But isn’t the low correlation between IQ and job performance (around .2-.3) evidence that intelligence is of secondary importance to other factors? Not necessarily, for two reasons: First, ascertaining job performance is inherently subjective. It’s not like you can measure how well someone performs at work as accurately or objectively as something like standardized test scores. Second, job performance is conditional on being hired. The hiring process is the intellectual filter. So when a company like Google ascertains that the the predictive value of degrees is low, this is among candidates who were smart enough to still get in. A company that uses the Wonderlic test may determine that employees who score in the 35-45 range (out of a maximum of 50 points) do not do their jobs much better than employees who score in the 25-35 range, but still do way better than those who score fewer than 20 points, so low scorers are screened out.

Pundits are constantly bemoaning how college grads cannot write well, have poor critical thinking skills, are coddled, etc. Perhaps there is some truth to this, but do you think high school grads fare any better. Yet in spite of this, the college wage premium keeps widening. It’s hard to conceive that companies would collectively continue to pay such a huge premium just to ensure conformity or conscientiousness, or if college grads are so hopelessly incompetent, as the pundits insist. Multinationals, large companies are obsessed with maximizing profits to please shareholders and analysts; why would they willingly pay such a large premium to college grads if they are no better or even worse than high school grads.

Beyond just superficial things like signaling, college grads tend formulate better arguments and have ‘better’ opinions. This is hard to quantify in a scientific sense, but from what I have observed people with degrees tend to be better debaters and formulate better augments, and tend to know ‘more’ overall. This means their arguments are better-received, compared to someone like Alex Jones, whose mannerisms convey not being smart (even if he is).

But isn’t Alex Jones popular? Yes, but this brings me to my second point. As discussed in the post Losers, IQ, and the Lottery of Success, smart people (if we assume that college is a proxy for IQ, which it weakly is) are able to achieve rapid success through merit alone, whereas less intelligent people need a generous helping of luck, connections/outreach, and or timing. Alex Jones is hugely successful because he was first, starting his websites and radio show way back in 2000 when being a megaphoning-wielding conspiracy monger was a relatively unsaturated niche. But if someone tried to replicate his formula without the necessary intelligence, it would likely fail, and that’s why there is still only one Alex Jones even after many decades.

People who otherwise have no branding, connections, timing, or luck can rise to preeminence in an otherwise crowded market through brain power alone, like Richard Hanania, Scott Alexander, Tim Urban, and others. Being smart is a major boost, effectively allowing one to cut to the front of the line. Podcasts are a very saturated medium, but Lex Fridman and Eric Weinstein both had near-instant success with theirs. Even for health & fitness YouTube videos, which is a super-crowded niche, I have observed that content creators with degrees and are smarter, such as relying heavily on studies or who talk about their degrees, tend to have more success and faster success. Same for the sex industry, in which prostitutes with degrees earn more.

One of the hidden benefits of college and especially academia, like being an adjunct or an assistant professor even if the pay sucks and there is student loan debt, is you get branding power, which you typically do not see with other professions.

Pre-2013 the career options for new grads was generally limited to the private sector, teaching, or maybe working at a nonprofit. But thanks to the popularity of YouTube, wealthy and smart celebrities such as Elon Musk, and the rise of so-called ‘intellectualism culture’, nowadays you see tons of otherwise no-name academics in science , math, sociology, political science, or economics carving out niches online, such as Substack, Twitter, podcasts, YouTube, selling books on Amazon, fundraising, etc. Videos about complicated, non-mainstream subjects such as the Riemann Hypothesis or the Langland’s Program generate up to millions of views, comparable to even music videos by top artists (the Langland’s video accrued over six hundred thousand views in just 2 weeks). Suddenly there was this huge demand for complicated stuff that a decade ago was ignored or neglected. The assumption was no one would want to watch a 30-minute physics or math video or a recording of a Warren Buffett shareholder meeting; clearly that was wrong.

Also, considerable ad revenue due to inflated CPMs, such as ads for Liberty Mutual and Grammarly (technical niches aimed at adults tend to pay much better than more mainstream or teen/youth niches). And also, sponsor plugs for VPNs.

Noah Smith, for example, was something of a failed academic but now runs a hugely popular econ Substack blog, by leveraging his academic credentials. Freddie deBoer earned a PhD in English, which gave him the necessary credibility and expertise to write viral articles and a popular and well-received book, The Cult of Smart, challenging the orthodoxy of education. And now he’s earning as much as even Silicon Valley engineers. Sabine Hossenfelder, a German theoretical physicist, has a hugely popular blog that has garnered over 8 million pageviews and a popular YouTube channel too. Stuart Ritchie is another.

Another notable example is Rob Henderson, who is a “…doctoral candidate in psychology at Cambridge and a faculty fellow at the University of Austin,” and “…studied psychology at Yale as an undergraduate.” His Substack is very popular and his articles go viral without marketing or connections on his part, because his credentials help him two fold: giving him invaluable credibility to write about matters pertaining to the social sciences, but also because having degrees is correlated with being able to write convincing, well-articulated arguments that go viral among other college-educated people who tend to have large social networks. As I have repeatedly said, excluding obvious counterexamples like celebrities, the size of one’s social network is correlated with IQ. High-IQ people like Eliezer Yudkowsky and Gwern have huge followings, but the average-IQ guy on Facebook with the private profile and grainy headshot photo taken in 2006 likely does not.

Beliefs may be a luxury, but credibility and attention are even more important and scarcer resource than luxury goods anyway (way easier to buy a BMW than create a viral blog, I can assure you). This is probably why the wealthy are not only buying planes and islands, but also spend so much money and time on social causes and creating a legacy, whether it’s running for office (like Michael Bloomberg), funding research (Bill Gates, James Harris Simons), or philanthropy (Warren Buffett, Bill Gates).

Also, just because something is popular does not make it viral, as I am fond of saying. There are math majors who are earning thousands of dollars a month on YouTube just by making math videos, an obvious example being the hugely popular channel 3blue1brown, which seem to go viral much easier compared to more popular or topical topics like fitness, politics, crypto, food, or funny cats.

Overall, the importance of standardized testing, both for college and primary school, suggests that quantitative ability is equally or more important than subjective or non-academic things like conformity or compliance. Given that people invest so much money in test prep, also suggests that these tests are important and signify a lot. Second, college-educated people seem to have a major advantage at many areas of life, even at things that are unrelated to academia.