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October 20, 2003
Education as peacock feathers

A week ago today, Friedrich Blowhard posted a piece about how women's fashion is maybe an exercise in sexual self-presentation. The point being, it's hard, and it's complicated. If you can excel at being fashionable, you are one formidable woman.

The tricky part with signaling is that it is easier, evolutionarily speaking, to cook up a fake signal of reproductive fitness than it is to actually deliver the goods. I think you’ll understand the pressure to “cheat” when you consider that reproductive fitness isn’t an absolute quality, but a relative one. Reproductive fitness is graded on a curve, and only a certain percentage of the population will get an “A” no matter how well everyone does on the final.

So the natural tendency among individuals evaluating such signals is to look for ones that are hard to fake. In 1975 Amotz Zahavi realized that traits that actually inflicted a penalty or a handicap to the signaler fit this bill perfectly. He used this handicap theory to explain why peacocks grew such enormous tails, despite the fact that this reduced their odds of survival: the fact that the peacocks are still around and functioning despite their grotesque tails signals to peahens that these guys were extremely reproductively fit. Such a signal can’t be faked; if you’ve got such a tail then it will handicap your individual survival whether or not you’ve got the genetic resources to bear up under this burden, so it's insane to fake it.

And this is how fashion fits into that:

How a woman dresses, for it to work both as a successful signal and a handicap in Mr. Zahavi’s sense, has to go beyond the fairly utilitarian matter of successful self-presentation. That's too easy. As a result, the notion of fashion has evolved, which forces a woman to look good while simultaneously not violating a rapidly changing set of arbitrary rules. With fashion in the game, a woman not only sends out face and figure cues – which are fairly easy to fake – but she also signals her knowledge of the rules of fashion and her strategies for coping with them – which requires a set of inputs that are much harder to fake. With fashion layered into the mix, men can now tell something about a woman's alertness to social conventions and the world around her, about her problem-solving skills and about the financial resources she brings to the game.

I've often thought that the dowdy, school swat girls, with blue but rather laddered stockings, often under-rate the sheer formidableness of the girls who look great but don't make any great thing of being clever. Doing make-up that good, every day, has long seemed to me to suggest managerial skills and qualities of persistence that bode well for the careers of the ladies in question. And I long ago learned to distinguish between the desperate desire to say clever things all the time and actually being clever. (Time and again, in public and in private, the smartest answer is: no comment.) So I agree with Friedrich about fashion. And I think the world does also, given how it gives quite important jobs to ex-glamour-pusses while shunning many of the brainy girls. They don't just get to be posh wives. They get to be posh all sorts of things.

But that isn't the education point I want to make here. The point of Friedrich's piece is that he's trying to explain why fashion is the weird thing it is, and in particular how very distinct it is from mere female beauty. And my central point is that I think this same theory, of self-sacrificial display, applies also to education, which is a similarly weird and arbitrary process, and which constantly enrages us all by being so very different from what would seem sensible and economical. What I'm saying is, to repeat the title I've chosen for this posting: education as peacock feathers. I think this explains a hell of a lot.

It explains, for instance, why education goes on for so insanely long, and for longer and longer as more and more people can afford to do it for longer and longer. People who two hundred years ago would have been half-way through their working careers are now still engaging in economically ruinous – yet also economically rational if you look at the incentives facing the individuals concerned – competitive display behaviours, which are of no direct creative benefit to anyone or anything. What the hell is going on? Peacock feathers. That's what's going on. Is literary post-modernism arbitrary and absurd? Latin verse composition? Total immersion in obsolete computer languages? Archaeology? Keynesian economics? … Peacock feathers.

You are proving with your long history of education and exam-passing, BA-ing and PhD-ing, that you have what it takes to do a real job, of equal laboriousness and of equal meaninglessness. An instantaneous test of mere cleverness wouldn't do it. Mere mental facility is not the point.

Education as peacock feathers also suggests something else about education, especially of the higher sort. It is, if not an inherently masculine preoccupation, at the very least skewed towards the male temperament and masculine preoccupations. Not so long ago it was the exclusive preserve of men, many of them unmarried and childless. Now, it is a way for men to prove their manliness, and to get mates as well as jobs.

You think I'm kidding? Do you think all this is sheer male chauvinist piggery? Well put it this way. Not so long ago I saw a romantic comedy on the TV where the man had done all the usual self-presentational things to the woman, and all was going swimmingly. They liked the look of each other and were doing each other nice little favours. He had collected her dry cleaning. She was smiling at him above and beyond the call of social duty.

But the relationship only got seriously going when the woman's best friend at work had the man's CV faxed over to their office. (I don't know how they were able to do this, but somehow they were.) Only after the women had together scrutinised the man's CV and declared that also to be satisfactory did the relationship get seriously under way. Peacock feathers!

And I think education as peacock feathers may explain something else, which is the deeply held belief, certainly in Europe, which says that a total free market in education is a bad idea.

Free market ideologists like me rage away against nationalised education, and say: surely total educational freedom would make everything educational get done far, far better. But what if education being "done better" would simply mean longer, heavier, more elaborate, more ornate, more expensive, more ridiculous, more time-consuming … peacock feathers?

The point here being that education is felt to be one of those things where the interests of the individual peacock (so to speak) work against the interests of the peacock species as a whole. The individual wants to get ahead in the queue. But the species as a whole does not want all its individuals merely fighting each other inside one huge queue. It wants productive work to get done.

Other examples of individual freedom being regarded as collectively self-defeating are: suburbs, where everyone's attempt to live in the countryside destroys the countryside, and (the closely related matter of) individual car ownership, where everyone's ownership of a car destroys everyone's mobility by getting everyone stuck in traffic jams.

And how about also: medicine? If everyone bought all that they wanted of that, there'd be no end to the damn thing. Old people would consume all the wealth of the world on complicated machines to prolong their pointless old ages. Can't have that.

So, it's better for education to be quick and messy, and not too wealth-consuming and above all not too time-consuming a thing, otherwise it might get completely out of hand and overwhelm our entire society. Keep it nationalised, for all but the very rich, who can be allowed to waste their money on this foolishness without general economic melt-down. For the rest, education must be nasty, brutish and short, and it must remain so if social catastrophe is not to ensue.

Similarly, if the very rich want to waste their money on stately homes in the country, expensive cars and idiotic medical nonsense, that's okay. The countryside survives, and they don't buy enough Rolls Royces to clog up the roads. If they all impoverish themselves, fine, others can have a turn being the rich.

I think all that is wrong, but I surmise that this may be one of the many reasons why nationalised education is so infuriatingly popular.

This has been a long and rambling post. Apologies. Not long ago I wrote a piece, somewhere (here), about how the interestingness of an idea is inversely proportional to the fluency with which it is expressed, and I rather think this law may just have engulfed me. I like to think that I am threatened by it quite often.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:29 PM
Category: Education theory


"Education as peacock feathers also suggests something else about education, especially of the higher sort. It is, if not an inherently masculine preoccupation, at the very least skewed towards the male temperament and masculine preoccupations. Not so long ago it was the exclusive preserve of men, many of them unmarried and childless. Now, it is a way for men to prove their manliness, and to get mates as well as jobs."

I don't know the statistics for your side of the Atlantic, but over here women outnumber men at the bacheloreate level. Sorry, but I've not seen numbers for advanced degrees, but at the B.A. and B.S. levels in the U.S., women outnumber men, have outnumbered them for several years, and the difference may be increasing. People who picture there being more males in college than females are trapped in the 1950's or 60's. It would be interesting to see an analysis of this along the lines of the study you mentioned.

Comment by: Jim on October 21, 2003 03:20 AM

One reads a lot about how absurdly, ruinously expensive education at the better private universities is in the US and about how middle class families devote their entire resources for years to their kids' college funds. Doesn't sound so great to me.

On the other hand, ruinously expensive colleges are an incentive to get it over with and get out and start working.

Whereas in Germany, everybody lounges around in state universities at minimal expense to themselves or their parents until they're in their late '20s, thus vastly compounding the problems of a society where hardly anybody is actually doing productive work to pay for the very comfortable but totally unaffordable welfare state. (For men this may have something to do with avoiding extended holidays in Kosovo or Kabul rather than just pure lounging around - Germany does still have National Service / the draft, but I don't know the exact details of how it works and if you can avoid/delay it by going to university)

So the right answer is ... ?

Comment by: Alan Little on October 21, 2003 10:57 AM

I would like to hear from people who are also following the "55 grade point" minimum issue in the Charleston SC public schools. Basically the the school board grants an automatic 55 grade to all students whose true grade is between 0 and 54. All other students are graded with actual scores. To me this is the worst kind of educational system self congratulating. And, it means you can't tell the slackers from the real students when a diploma is handed out.

So when, I ask is the real day of reckoning; in college? the work force? or jail ? Is not the future logical extension of this flawed thinking a government mandate of employment, or employer provided remedial training? Maybe we need to create lifelong government employment for the little darlings.

If I was an employer or a university I would consider such a diploma as highly suspect. As a taxpayer I feel ripped off by the over paid career administrators. Vouchers now, more than ever!

Comment by: Randy on November 3, 2003 04:10 PM
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