Education Isn’t Entirely About Economic Utility


As some of you may know, I’ve been working on a large-scale random assignment experiment of the effects of school tours of an art museum on students and their learning.  We spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year on school field trips and billions more on art museums, but we have relatively little rigorous evidence on how field trips and art museums affect students.  Soon we are going to have a lot more information.

Since the world of art and museum education is new to me, I’ve been trying to learn about how people in that field think about what they are trying to accomplish and what kind of evidence they present to justify the resources required.  Some  people try to justify the place of art in education by claiming that art positively affects achievement in math and reading — subjects whose importance is a matter of broad consensus.  Unfortunately, the evidence linking art education to improved math and reading achievement is generally weak and unpersuasive.

Why do people bother trying to justify art in terms of math and reading achievement?  Math educators don’t try to frame their accomplishments in terms of reading or vice versa.  Why do people in art try to frame the benefits of their field in terms of other subjects?

The problem is that a good number of  policymakers, pundits, and others who control the education system seem to think that the almost-exclusive purpose of education is to impart economically useful skills.  Math and reading seem to these folks to be directly connected to economic utility, while art seems at best a frill.  If resources are tight or students are struggling, they are inclined to cut the arts and focus more on math and reading because those subjects are really useful while art is not.

This economic utility view of education is mistaken in almost every way.  Most of what students learn in math and reading also has no economic utility.  Relatively few students will ever use algebra, let alone calculus, in their jobs.  Even fewer students will use literature or poetry in the workplace.  When will students “use” history?  We don’t teach those subjects because they provide work-related skills.  We teach algebra, calculus, literature, poetry, and history for the same reasons we should be teaching art — they help us understand ourselves, our cultural heritage, and the world we live in.  We teach them because they are beautiful and important in and of themselves.  We teach them because civilized people should know them.

Most parents understand that education is not entirely about imparting economically useful skills.  Yes, they want their children to get good jobs but they also want to have their children develop good characters, appreciate the good life, and generally be civilized human beings.  Of course, different parents may want a different mix of economic and cultural education for their children and school choice would allow them to find the schools that offered the mix that suited their needs and tastes.

But policymakers, pundits, and others suffering from PLDD who control our increasingly centralized education system focus almost exclusively on economic utility as the criteria for making education policy decisions.  Math and reading test scores are the only clubs they have to beat their opponents in establishing their preferred policies.  And economic payouts are the only objective measures they can use to justify expenditures.  Parents don’t think about education this way, but they have less and less say over what happens in the rearing of their children to become what they hope will be civilized human beings.

Some policymakers, pundits, and other PLDD sufferers have noticed that not everything taught in math and reading is economically useful and want to fix that.  You have folks like Tony Wagner and the 21st Century Skills movement suggesting that we cut algebra because students won’t “need” it.  Instead, students would be better off learning communication skills, like how to prepare an awesome Power Point (TM).  And you have Common Core cutting literature in English in favor of “informational texts.”

Of course, the logical culmination of the idea of school as job-skills provider is that we would do away with school altogether and just have apprenticeships.  I see nothing wrong with apprenticeship but it is not what I or most parents view as an “education.”

People in the art world can justify what they do by arguing for art in its own right.  They can rigorously measure art outcomes, as we are in our random-assignment field trip study.  In fact, as part of our study we had 4,000 students write short essays in response to Bo Bartlett’s painting, The Box (pictured above).  It may be harder to code and analyze essays about paintings than to run another value-added regression on the math and reading scores that the centralized authorities have collected for us, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less important.  The purpose of education isn’t only what the centralized authorities decide it is and bother to measure.

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13 Responses to Education Isn’t Entirely About Economic Utility

  1. Greg Forster says:

    1) Aren’t reading and math outcomes associated with economic life outcomes? Or am I mistaken about that?

    2) If we say the justification for teaching something is that “civilized people should know this,” are there measurable outcomes associated with that beyond the mere acquisition of the knowledge? In other words, if the goal is to create a civilized person, does that terminate on the person’s acquiring the knowledge? Or would it be legitimate to expect to find better education (in that sense) producing people who are more civilized on other metrics and/or a more civilized society as a whole?

    • Reading and math test scores are predictive of economic success later in life, but not everything we teach in reading and math is reflected on those tests or necessarily predictive of later economic success. For example, most state standardized tests are just basic tests of computational skill. High school math, including algebra, trig, and calculus occurs after most state testing systems are done.

      I imagine we could develop measures of being more civilized. Like I said, I am not against rigorous measurement. I’m just against the notion that the only thing that matters and the only thing that should be measured is economic utility.

      Don’t get me wrong — I think economic utility is important. It just isn’t all-important.

      • Greg Forster says:

        1) Granted not everything taught in reading and math is economically applicable. But much of it is. By contrast, is anything taught in history, science or the arts economically applicable? I’m open to hearing that it is, but if it isn’t, then the behavior of policy elites is optimal given their chosen objectives – they push reading and math, and within reading and math they push the kind of reading and math they think will have more economic applicability. You seemed to be saying their behavior wasn’t optimal even for their chosen objectives (which I join you in challenging).

        2) I ask this question because I think the line between “economic utility” and “cultivating civilization” is more blurry than your comments suggest. I know you agree that economics is an important goal, but let me press you: isn’t a civilized population an important precondition of economic flourishing? I mean this not only with respect to inculcating virtues and values, although that’s one important point. Another important point is that people who understand how the universe works (which algebra, calculus and literature teach, as well as history, science, art, etc.) will be more productive and – especially – innovative.

      • Policy elites have the wrong goals when they focus exclusively on economic utility. Some of them falsely think that all math and English has economic utility when literature, poetry, and math beyond 8th grade generally has little economic utility for the vast majority of students. This shows that even their narrow focus on math and reading does not fit their theory of economic utility. Other policy elites recognize that not all math and reading has economic utility and are trying to change that fact by cutting the less useful bits in favor of more job-related skills. These folks, like the 21st Century Skills crowd and Common Core may be more consistent than other policy elites but are also mistaken and excessively narrow in what they think the goals of education should be.

        Your second point that economic utility and civilization are connected is true. But there is no reason to believe that algebra, calculus, literature, history, and the arts teach skills that are abstract but still economically useful, like creativity. First, the empirical evidence to support such a claim is generally weak. Second, and more importantly, economic utility is the wrong criteria for justifying these subjects. If we wanted to teach abstract job skills, like creativity, we might focus directly on creativity and cut out the middle man of learning all of that other useless stuff. Tony Wagner and the 21st Century Skills crowd says this directly by advocating for explicitly teaching creativity, collaboration, and something else that starts with C since alliteration is just about the most powerful argument these folks offer. We may get some abstract work-related skills from the arts, literature, advanced math, etc…, but that’s not why we do and should teach those subjects.

  2. [...] spearheading on how field trips to art museums affect educational outcomes, Jay Greene eloquently argues that we need to widen our views of the purpose of education. Or rather, that the professional class [...]

  3. My department coordinator – in the midst of navigating mandates from the state – has always reminded us that as teachers of literature we “are purveyors of culture.” As such, amidst calls for more “character education,” we must remind people of the inherent character education and ethics and morals and civilized living that comes from in-depth discussions about books such as To Kill a Mockingbird. Yet, I would assert that English classes can benefit much from informational texts as well. In terms of argumentation or style, I can find great educational value in op-ed commentary or books by writers like Malcolm Gladwell or Daniel Pink or Christopher Hitchens, etc.

  4. Matthew Ladner says:

    The tricky thing about the point Jay is making is that while true, all too many educators would like to imagine that exposure to the arts and culture is a substitute for the mastery of basic skills and knowledge, which if they had their druthers they would allow to go unmeasured.

    It is however not the goal of any education system that I know of to produce “cultured illiterates” if one believes there can be such a thing (color me deeply skeptical).

  5. [...] send our students to visit art museums as part of their education? Jay Greene and Greg both think that we should, and I do, too. But Jay and Greg disagree on whether we [...]

  6. Jim says:

    Gimme a break, folks…………This one is a no-brainer…….We ALL know that these essentials must be taught!…..No need for over-intellectional verbocity!

  7. [...] Education Isn’t Entirely About Economic Utility is an interesting post by Jay P. Greene. [...]

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