Thursday, July 1, 2010

Selection bias and educational efficiency

Ordinary civilian education tends to be mostly garbage. I'll admit that I've enjoyed most of the classes I've taken, but I'm also forced to admit that few of them in any way contributed to my workplace productivity (especially my lower-division classes). Of course, the natural underlying assumption here is that education is a capital good, not a consumption good, which may or may not be entirely defensible. I suppose one could make the case that the reason people (and by people, I mean non-arts majors here) sign up for film studies classes is to become better rounded individuals. Granted, I'm not sure why or how this justifies public assistance, but hey, who am I to complain about educational subsidies? Still, it's tough to justify many of the classes I took to get where I am on a cost-benefit basis, and that's just counting the cost to me, which is a fraction of the total real costs.

Then I look back at the classes I took in the Navy. Of those, close to zero were useless in my professional development. Perhaps the HTFF (heat transfer and fluid flow) class I had for a couple of weeks towards the beginning of power school didn't add too much to my ability to operate and maintain the reactor on my boat, but that's really the only one that crosses my mind.

As you might imagine, the public choice questions associated with this phenomenon race through my mind. Most obviously, the Armed Services have budget restrictions they have to justify to Congress, plus the people who teach classes are uniformed service members whose incentive structures don't encourage overconsumption of frivolous education. This is a bit unsatisfactory though. On the margin, there should be some slopover. If the civilian model drifted into the military, we would see crypto techs taking sonar courses and machinist mates taking boiler tech courses. To the extent that such courses contribute to a service member's productivity and professional development, this happens, but no one in uniform takes classes just for fun, at least not in my experience. I could be wrong. What you won't find is a soldier taking a Gender Studies or Modern Dance class during working hours.

Not, until that is, this soldier makes the move from the enlisted ranks up to O-gang. Once on the road to gentlemanhood, we see all manner of useless transcripts, filled o'erflowing with no-value-added humanities courses, forgotten social sciences lectures, and discarded out-of-major notebooks (mostly filled with halfhearted doodles). Why the discrepancy? If you would have asked me while I was still in the Navy, I probably would have cynically noted that officers don't really add much to operational efficiency, at least not afloat. I don't think I agree so much with that sentiment anymore. It's true that the crew knows very well how to operate the boat, but there really is a lot of coordination work that officers perform: work that makes for an efficient fleet (I can't directly comment about the ground forces, but I suspect that many of the same dynamics are present there as well). Whatever the details, the DoD throws piles of cash at useless education for officers, so long as the courses are provided in a university setting. What gives?

I can't give a truly satisfying answer, but it appears that the Joint Chiefs value the signal that a degree generates. Add to that a generous helping of institutional inertia, and kablammo, we have a whole mess of butterbars wandering around knowing stuff that doesn't do a lot to help them kill the enemy more effectively.

There's also the possibility that a university experience could help provide some civilizing effect on new officers. I'm skeptical about this as well. The wardroom civilizes faster and more thoroughly than the quad. Hm.

I wish I'd have more policy suggestions here. Let's say that (and this is being generous here, people) half of the classes your average officer takes can be applied towards operational performance, this is still a MASSIVE waste of fleet resources. Mind you, this is not just in terms of direct expenditures like salary, tuition, books, etc., but in lost productivity. I have to imagine that there's some efficiency enhancement we could make here. Maybe something like juicing up OCS to include one semester of military-specific education (military history, for example) and one semester of electives (computer science or something). That, or maybe keep the current system but force-waive garbage courses (you know the ones I mean).

I don't imagine that if I were an officer, or even a former officer that I would support any changes to the system (other than maybe closing the service academies). Military members retire relatively young, and to enter the civilian work force with an abnormal degree means entering the civilian workforce with a broken signal: not an encouraging prospect. Practically, as long as the college degree remains a valid signal for the population at large, it will remain an important signal for uniformed servicemembers. Ho hum.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I wrote a comment, but blogspot ate it. This one will be shorter.

    If we accept that people use stories and narratives, then the purpose of humanities courses such as literature and gender studies is to learn the narratives people use and perhaps use them in your own life. Since officers, more so than enlisted men, are responsible for the way the men under them interact with each other, their morale, the way they motivate themselves, then knowing cultural narratives that those people think in (and you think in) will make you a better officer. I would venture this is why the army wants their officers to have a humanistic education.

    Asking people what courses have been useful or useless to their professional development is a difficult task. Sure, if you're an accountant then your accounting classes will be the most obviously applicable to you. You might not think your gender studies class was useful at all, but if that class makes you more able to understand your customers, create a welcoming workplace then you will be a better accountant (and potentially an easier person to get along with in general).

    Of course, some courses can be useless. And some people may be incapable of applying narratives they learn in their humanities courses to their interactions with other humans, just like some people are incapable of taking a derivative. I'm a fan of giving humanistic education the benefit of the doubt until I see compelling evidence to the contrary (and asking people to go over their transcript and pointing out useless classes isn't compelling).