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Sitting the 生員 (Shēngyuán) Exam

I just dropped the Fifteen-Year-Old off at her Local Public High School for her practice 生員 (shēngyuán) exam, her net step in qualifying for the imperial bureaucracy so necessary to give her options to choose a life that she really wants to live in our society. She won't necessarily ace this particular exam--unlike her brother, who was a shoe-in for 案首 status...

Excuse me. Wrong branch of the multiverse. Let me retune my set and focus in on this reality...

Ah. There we are...

Ahem...

I just dropped the Fifteen-Year-Old off at her Local Public High School for her practice standardized test, her next step in attaining the "meritocracy" so necessary to give her the options to choose a life that she really wants to live in our society. She won't necessarily ace this particular exam--AP World History--unlike her brother, who was a shoe-in for a 5. Her turn will come next year with AP Calculus AB--she has more of a pattern-seeing while he has more of an applicable-fact-nugget recalling mind. But both of them are, if I may boast as a father, very kind and thoughtful teenagers and scary-smart in their respective ways--and I say this as somebody who was once the best high school math student in all of Washington DC. (Which may not be saying that much: I learned the next year in my corner of the Weld dormitory that the best high school math student in all of Washington DC was about equal to someone who had been "undistinguished" in math at Moscow Science-Mathematics High School #2--who said his best subject was English. And then there were the stars of Math 55... people like Seth Lloyd... who can only be described as "transhuman"... intelligences vast, warm, and sympathetic... but I digress...)

She is not a shoe-in for a 5 because (a) her world history class was not an AP class, and (b) she does not have the single-minded focus on history, politics, and current events in her outside reading necessary to ensure a 5 in the absence of having covered the AP syllabus in her course. But she has a good shot. And, most important, practice makes perfect. To have done this before when it comes time to take a standardized test where it really counts is an important edge--one of the rules that is not written down anywhere. (One of the rules, moreover, that Princeton has done its best to hide via false fake propaganda for generations about how some of its tests are not achievement but instead "aptitude" tests.)

We economists have been staring in stupefaction and horror over the past generation as the college-high school wage premium in America has risen from 30% to 90% with little if any visible increase in college attendance rates. Incentives do not appear to be having the result in terms of increasing the supply of the educationally-skilled that we economists believe the natural order demands that they must have. There are four potential explanations:

  • Myopia--the (growing) up front, cash costs of college and the resulting debt incurred loom much larger in individuals' calculations than they should.
  • Aptitude--the ability to reap the economic gains we economists attribute to a modern American college education is in fact much more narrowly concentrated than we economists believe, because of how people's brains grew when they were young. Thus the marginal college student reaps no long-run surplus from attendance.
  • Fear--individuals falsely fear that the ability to reap the economic gains we economists attribute to a modern American college education is in fact much more narrowly concentrated than we economists believe, because of how people's brains grew when they were young. Thus the marginal college student falsely fears that he or she reaps no long-run surplus from attendance.
  • People don't know the rules.

I'm not sure what I mean by the last. But here is a first cut:

Back in imperial China, if your parents could afford it, and if you were male, you found a tutor to teach you by studying the Confucian classics. You learned the six arts--music, math, writing, ceremony, equitation and archery--the five studies--strategy, law, geography, agriculture, and taxation--and learned how to write your eight-legged-essays. You passed through 生員 (shēngyuán), 舉人 (jǔrén), and then 進士 (jìnshì). At the end you became part of the landlord-bureaucrat-literary intellectual class that ruled China: collecting taxes, collecting rents, advising the emperor, commanding armies, dispensing justice. Those were the rules.

What do today's Americans--the parents of those who are choosing not to go or not to make a great effort at college--think the rules are today? Back in the 1980s Bruce Springsteen in his concerts used to claim that his parents were still following him around the country, telling him that he could still go to college and become (from his father) a lawyer or (from his mother) an author. They understood the rules--the career strategy of trying to live the life you love by becoming a global rock star is not a realistic one, but there are lots of people to be sued and lots of books, manuals, and pamphlets to be written. How many of the parents of today's American fifteen-year-olds are going to do the same?

Lots of people are going to go see the "Sex and the City" movie this spring. How much does it teach anybody about what these people actually do for a living? They look decorative. They suffer from emotional angst. But Miranda has status and options not because she is decorative and perky with red hair and suffers from emotional angst but because of a nonhuman ability to deal with mind-numbing trivia and an iron butt. Samantha has status and options not because she is decorative, flirty, and... well, actually yes, but also because she has a mind for organizational detail and an ability to instantly direct what needs to be done to solve minor crisis of the day #376. Carrie has status and options not because she is decorative--none of her readers can see her, remember, except on the side of a bus--and suffers from emotional angst but because she is very good at putting the fabric of her life into prose on deadline in a way New York readers find interesting. Charlotte has status and options not because she is decorative and suffers from emotional angst but because she has the right manners, the right connections, and a very good eye for visually interesting art. John James Preston--well, it is never clear what he does at all, is it? He likes jazz. He smokes cigars. Cash is not a constraint at all.

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