Traditionally, a lot of education's value has been described as a signaling mechanism. As such, it's been analyzed based on ROIC or other such economic terms.
But Tyler Cowen makes a convincing argument that perhaps the value of education is in self-acculturation.
Men are born beasts. But education gives you a peer group, a self-image, and some skills as well. Getting an education is like becoming a Marine. Men need to be made into Marines. By choosing many years of education, you are telling yourself that you stand on one side of the social divide. The education itself drums that truth into you.
Similarly, if you become a Mormon or a Protestant in Central America, your life prospects go up. It is not that Mormons have learned so much more, but rather they have a different sense of self. They have a positive self-image about their destiny in life and choose a different set of peers. They also choose not to drink.
The beasts model differs from classic signaling theory. If education is pure signaling, just give everyone a standardized test in seventh grade and then close up the schools. But the process of self-image formation, at least for most people, is far from complete at that point.
That being said, education will look like what the signaling model predicts. It will be about subtle brainwashing, image, and learning markers of status. What the signaling model misses is how important those features are for your subsequent productivity.
Nerds will hate education and tend to embrace the signaling model. Their sense of self is often formed quite early, and they do not why so much time should be wasted in school. This is one reason why the signaling model is so popular in economics.
I remember dropping one of my cousin off at a school in Seattle. It was some school for training people to program videogames (the name eludes me), not a traditional university. He was headed there for his first year of schooling.
I didn't know him that well as we'd lived on opposite sides of the country most our lives, but on the ride over to the school, I chatted with him a bit about his interests in videogames. Like many boys, we'd both enjoyed playing videogames, but he'd taken it to a much greater degree, choosing to make that his life's work.
In one way, I envied him. To know what you want to do in life that young and to just go for it seemed liberating. On the other hand, I'd already graduated from college, and I couldn't help but feel concerned, even nervous, as we neared the campus.
I entered college with no clear idea what I wanted to do with my life, and I exited the same way. It felt like a feature, not a bug. I've always seemed to value entropy more than the next guy, and perhaps that's led me to chase novelty more than I should have. It remains what it is even today. That day, as I pulled into the campus and drove towards his dorm (it was more of a multi-room apartment), it was the certainty of what I expected to find there that scared me.
I walked him into his dorm room to meet his roommates. They were as I expected. Not the way they looked or dressed, though as soon as I saw them they were as I'd always imagined they might be.
Nerd isn't the right word, though it's not far off. Nowadays, we might give it a more positive spin: otaku. At Comic Con this year, Wil Wheaton was asked, by someone in the audience, to explain to her newborn Violet why it's awesome to be a nerd. He gave a great off the cuff answer, with this punch line:
Being a nerd is not about what you love. It's about how you love it.
My cousin loved video games. Maybe what I was really worried about the acculturation effects of what I imagined to be the homogeneity of attending what amounted to a trade school at such a young age.
Maybe I envied him for his certainty. I wonder what he's up to now.