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The education bubble, Japanese style

It is widely acknowledged everywhere in the civilised world that universities are not a place you go to learn. It used to be that they were a “temple of wisdom” where only bookish people would go to learn real stuff. You needed some real brains to go there.

Now of course the ersatz upward mobility created by democracy has pretty much broken that system. Now everybody has to go to college, because we are all equally smart. But we are not, and as much as we like pretending we are, being able to filter the smart from the dumb is still very necessary. Universities historically were a very good filter; dumb people just didn’t go there. But you didn’t need to go to University to prove you are smart. My father always tells me about the dozens of IQ tests he had to take when job hunting back in the 60s. You could also become an apprentice using some family connections, and if you were worth anything, over time your CV would show that.

That doesn’t work now; you can’t directly test your employees, and everybody today goes to some college or another. You have to. Gotta keep up with the Jones. So for a business today, a high-school grad pretty much means “dumb“. Who doesn’t go to college anyway? This chicken-and-egg conundrum has made university education a hell of a business.

But the fact remains that STEM grads aside, University is a waste of time. It’s a huge waste of time. You are losing 4 years or more of your most healthy, most active years. Not only doing nothing, but socialising in an artificial paradise full of horny co-eds, being taught idealistic bullshit that can only fuck up your expectations.  As Houellebecq said, compared to college, joining the workforce is like entering the grave. I can’t understand why so few people go mad after the transition. It’s unreal.

From which you can deduce that the optimal arrangement for society would be for companies to hire their employees before they have gone through their college years, but after the have gone through the university selection process. And that’s what Japan has been doing for some time.

Japanese companies hiring process is a very weird ritualised process. They (generally) only hire newly graduated kids, and they only open the hiring process for a set time every year. They first open “Explanation meetings” (説明会) in big cities where interested kids would go learn about the company and what it does. If you’re interested you would grab an application form and submit a handwritten application, if you went through you would go to an interview, or several if needed.

In the old days this process would start after graduation. Then companies competing for the best grads would start the process a couple of days earlier, then weeks, then months. As of 2011 the hiring process started at the middle of junior year, when you would be given an “assurance of hire”, and join he company after graduation, more than a year later. You can’t apply if you’re already a senior, and will lose your job if you fail to graduate later. Universities have responded by making the curriculum easy to finish in two and a half years, so you can focus on job hunting at the second half of junior year, and use your senior year to travel or whatever you fancy.

The general sense of it all is that all a company cares is that you are smart enough to get into college, and you have the minimum conscientiousness to graduate. They mostly don’t care about your studies, your grades, and feel no remorse in interrupting your student life at the middle of it. It is understood that the content of your education will be worthless. So why insist on college grads at all?

According to this post by Noah Smith (H/T Cheap chalupas), who resides used to reside in Japan,  the insistence on employees having a college degree is because kids learn to socialise at university, have some parties, date some girls, and that motivates people to work harder, which business value. Well, if businesses valued their employees having a life they would stop forcing them to do overtime and meaningless make-work crap. All the points he gives about University enabling you to meet smart and diverse people, which gives you perspective and makes you feel cool, are good arguments for why students choose to pay big money and time to go to university. But businesses don’t really give a shit. At most they think that a kid that chooses not to go college, i.e. a kid that gives up having 4 years of partying, drinking and banging, is a loser who is likely to cause problems further on. But if companies, and particularly Japanese companies gave a shit about the mental stability of their employees, Japan wouldn’t have the suicide rate it has.

Human capital in the making

In fact some companies are starting to push the process even earlier. If companies are hiring juniors, why not hire freshmen or sophomore all the same? Well that’s what Uniqlo, the fashion brand, has started doing this year. They will open their annual hiring process as usual, but they also accepted freshmen and sophomores this time. Those that pass the selection will work on some of their stores part time while at college, and simply continue full time once they graduate. So they start working at the same time as they start studying. Little partying is going to go on here.

Perhaps it’s true that companies don’t care about intelligence in abstract. They just don’t want losers in. And a kid who doesn’t go to college is weird. Creepy. The undeniable intelligence signaling, combined with the unrealistically fun and fulfilling environment that colleges provide, no sane kid is going to give up going to college for a head start in entering the workforce grave. That’s not cool. And that’s all there is about it, signaling social adjustment. Normality. Not human capital. Do people have more human capital after 4 years of leftist indoctrination, binge drinking and easy sex with empowered sluts? Give me a break. The industrial revolution happened without college requirements. The post war economic boom happened without college requirements.

But who am I arguing against? Economists make a living of assigning simple and rational causes to complex phenomena. Inflation promotes consumption! Immigration causes economic growth! Cheap chalupas correlate with national happiness! Business want employees who party hard! Right. If this were a rational world, economists wouldn’t get paid. They’re no better than Byzantine theologians.


26 responses to “The education bubble, Japanese style

  1. Candide III June 12, 2012 at 19:41

    FWIW, Noah has left Japan several years ago, but you have a good idea here about signaling normality. Certainly normality is highly valued in Japan.

  2. _B_ June 12, 2012 at 20:16

    Have you read John Taylor Gatto’s Underground History of American Education? It is available here:

    He might say that the function of college is to put the finishing touches on the programming kids receive K-12. If K-12 provides a rigid environment to teach them how to carry out meaningless activities for a symbolic reward or out of fear of humiliating punishment, college teaches them how to produce meaningless pseudothought with hedonism for a reward. It is, if you will, A Brave New World to the 1984-like environment of K-12. If you have bright minds that have made it through the rigors of 12 classroom years without breaking, college demonstrates to them that there is nothing uncorrupt and that corruption is fun. That thought runs to either positivistic task completion (STEM) or postmodernist sophistry (everything else.) If you grew up in a cage and dream of escaping, the best way for me to break you is to demonstrate that the horizon is painted on a canvas, and college certainly does that.

    The Japanese, as much as I like them, are Martians, and I don’t know if it’s possible to learn any fundamental lessons from their society-it may be too basically different. As for the Byzantine theologians, at least the net result of their labors was not destructive of their nation (except for the iconoclasts.)

    • spandrell June 13, 2012 at 15:37

      I see where you’re going. I don’t think high school was any 1984 and colleges are getting less and less fun everyday, but yes it is a good way of putting it.

      Problem is the interesting thing about Brave New World is that Mustafa Bond was behind it and knew what he was doing.
      In this world’s Cathedral nobody is in charge and nobody knows what they’re doing.

    • spandrell June 13, 2012 at 15:43

      On Gatto’s:

      “The shocking possibility that dumb people don’t exist in sufficient numbers to warrant the millions of careers devoted to tending them will seem incredible to you. Yet that is my central proposition: the mass dumbness which justifies official schooling first had to be dreamed of; it isn’t real.”

      I understand the appeal of this theory, mainly that people will become smart if we repeal public schooling.
      This guy just needs to travel more. I’ve been around unschooled people, in several countries. They aren’t smart. Well yes they are smart as a crow who throws nuts in the street and waits for a car to crack them is smart. But they aren’t any smarter than schooled people are, and they happily use government services as much as anyone else.

      Schooling is bad for many reasons, but stopping it won’t usher in a new world of resilient, noble people.

      • bbtp June 13, 2012 at 18:07

        Gatto doesn’t seem to want to believe in HBD and he equivocates on the meaning of “dumbness.” There are some countries where mass dumbness exists among the high-IQ — clever silliness, Swedish “Sitzpinkler liberalism,” etc. — and then there are some countries where everyone has an IQ lower than room temperature. The first kind of dumbness may well be a product of indoctrination and control; the second is as old as humanity and as natural as sacrifice, cannibalism, and Lindsay’s “Mumbo Jumbo”.


      • _B_ June 13, 2012 at 19:11

        Look, when you go to an auto parts store, you don’t go there for pizza. Gatto is the product of a specific mileu and has certain foundational beliefs, and it would be unreasonable to expect a guy who taught in NYC public schools for 35 years out of idealism to suddenly embrace HBD. That being said, we can still learn many fascinating things from him about the history of social engineering in America. For instance, the first I’d ever heard about Lippmann and Dewey was from his book. He and Moldbug form a very synoptical set of perspectives.

        Of course, there is a bell curve of natural intellectual ability. But in the absence of this kind of “education” you don’t get what we have in the Western world, where dumb people are sullen and passive savages, and smart people are obsequious bootlickers. I’ve been to Afghanistan, dealt with Turkish nomads and Iraqi Yezidi mountaineers, etc., and even those who aren’t rocket scientists know how everything around them works and can figure out how to fix it. They know how to get food, water and electricity, how to deal with their women, how to raise kids, etc. They also are naturally reactionary, understanding the value of tradition and elders, and paradoxically value actual education in others. They also have dignity. The kind of debased, aggressive, Idiocracy-type self-satisfied entitled stupidity that you see among American proles, British chavs, NAMs, etc. is something which must be taught, as it makes them better dependents and easier to manipulate.

        As for high school not being 1984-mine wasn’t because it was a school for the top percent of a major city’s public school students. It was fairly shitty, but more in the way that college is shitty. But the average K-12 school is 1984 in some ways-why do you think shootings happen sporadically?

  3. bbtp June 13, 2012 at 16:13

    Hiring for major American law firms is strikingly similar. On-campus interviews (OCI) are the main way people get hired. OCI takes place sometime between August and October (depending on the school; most schools are moving to earlier OCI) of 2L. That is, at the time that you do OCI, future employers know (1) your pre-law school history (2) your school (3) your first-year grades and (4) your journal membership (which is influnced by your grades as well.)

    Law schools have few to no electives in 1L. Everyone takes the same core curriculum — at most schools, this would be something like like legal writing, torts, civil procedure, contracts, criminal law, constitutional law, and property. Grades are on a forced curve. At the end of 1L, given the forced curve, knowing your grades allows an employer to know your approximate rank relative to the rest of your cohort.

    Unless you are shooting for certain elite positions, employers don’t care very much about your 2L and 3L performance. In 2L and 3L, you’re taking electives, some of which aren’t curved and all of whose students selected into that class, so the signal produced by grades is not clear compared to the 1L signal. Race and Law is going to draw a different, uh, type of student than Partnership Tax and Federal Courts. Getting an A- in Fed Courts means you beat lots of people who want to clerk. Getting an A in Feminist Jurisprudence means you showed up, wrote your paper, and remembered to scowl at the right time.

    If you get an offer at OCI, you’ll “work” for your firm as a summer associate the next summer. This means that you’ll show up, get paid a pro-rated first-year associate’s salary, go out to lunch at a nice restaurant every day, and do a few model work assignments. The purpose of summer associateship is basically to weed out weirdos, the untrainable, and people with really bad judgment. But at most good firms, the vast majority of summers get a permanent offer and come back to work for the firm after graduation.

    So, in short, law firms care a lot about which school you went to and how you did in 1L — so much so that you can usually tell what offers someone is likely to get just from that information. They also do a sanity check (a very expensive one — a summer associate pulls around $36k in salary, not to mention office resource usage and all those swanky lunches) to make sure they’re not hiring a lemon. They don’t care very much about anything else.


    • spandrell June 13, 2012 at 17:15

      Thanks for the info. That’s a lot of money.
      With those 36k they sorta pay for law school, I guess. They could save a lot of money just making law school a 1 year degree. Of course GDP would suffer.

      At least law school kids get the employers to go meet them. In Japan kids have to cruise the whole country dozens of times to do the same procedure 10, 20, 30, even 100 times, one for each company they might be interested in. All while having classes and exams scheduled. It’s grueling. Many just end up betting in all in some place close to home, and spend the rest of their lives there.

      • bbtp June 13, 2012 at 17:55

        I practice in structured finance, so I can truthfully say that virtually none of the content of law school is germane to my job. (Law school is oriented towards litigation, but top firms tend to be about half transactional, and transactional work is not taught in law school and probably unteachable there.)

        Top law schools are now charging $50k+/year in tuition alone, so the $36k you make as a summer associate, assuming a market-rate employer and a full 12-week summer program, while very welcome, doesn’t make much of a dent in your student loans. Of course, for the rare and fortunate students with scholarships, it’s all gravy. But law schools are profit centers, so scholarships are viewed by schools as a competition cost — maybe 15% of students at a good school have a significant amount of merit money.

        All this is from the “biglaw” POV, which applies to < 10% of law graduates. For those going to smaller firms, hanging a shingle, working for state government, etc., things are much worse. They have huge loans and, in many cases, no realistic prospects of repaying them other than government loan forgiveness.

        Great blog, I've been reading you for a few weeks now, btw.


  4. asdf June 13, 2012 at 17:00

    Work isn’t hard. Employers are more worried about screw ups then high productivity. Fixing problems is expensive. The exact rate the middle of the bell curve muddles through isn’t going to make or break a firm.

    Screw ups can come in the form of social as well as professional.

    • spandrell June 13, 2012 at 17:17

      The point being that if work isn’t hard we shouldn’t need to spend 23+ years and the equivalent tuition money in “education”. I understand how it works, businesses just want average kids and average kids today go to college, so college grads it is.
      But the whole thing is madness when you think about it.

  5. spandrell June 13, 2012 at 18:47


    Thanks for the compliments.
    There’s a weird strain of rightist HNU thinking, which strangely mirrors the left. So the left blames the right’s bigotry and discrimination for the inequality in the world, then some rightist blame the left’s overreach, moral corruption and statism for everything, the corollary being that the left half of the bell curve would go on designing Macbooks if welfare stopped and people went back to church.

    I’ve argued myself that postmodern schooling does make kids more useless than they used to be. But most wouldn’t be of much use anyway.

  6. spandrell June 13, 2012 at 19:24


    As I was saying to bbtp, I do agree that schooling saps out the natural resourcefulness that even dumb people have in traditional societies (i.e. those with real need). I wrote that a year ago.
    Still those traditionalist Afghan fighters wouldn’t amount to much in a computerised economy. And they will have to get one if they want not to get bombed by the global bully.

    Talking about Afghanistan, what do you think of this? Suicide is the first cause of death in the US forces in Afghanistan.

    PS: I’m disabling threaded comments so they don’t just die at 3 replies.

  7. asdf June 13, 2012 at 20:03

    Sonic Charmer phrases it the best:

    I’ve basically given up on trying to follow along with the Bryan Caplan-led discussion on Econlog over whether college is ‘signaling’. But I realized that I don’t even know who to root for.

    Look, the middle-and-above classes have a natural, understandable desire to bequeath an Advantage Stamp to their children with their wealth. (What else to do with wealth?) Naturally and understandably, they wouldn’t want to spend $200k’ish on the thing if the Advantage given by the Stamp depended solely on the actual talents, brains, and efforts of their kid. What good would that be? No, to have any value, the Stamp has to work on some baseline level, independently of the particulars of their actual kid. So it seems axiomatic that college is, at least in part, about ‘signaling’. If college didn’t have at least some signaling component the middle-and-above classes would just demand some other wasteful service or credential which did. They will go out and purchase some Thing that differentiates their kids from the others. It doesn’t have to be college but if it’s not they’re going to waste their money on something else.

    This dynamic may be what underlies the ‘occupy’ resentment, with its focus on student loans and lack of opportunities (read: six-figure high-status white-collar opportunities) for graduates; as the value of education has been diluted by federally subsidizing universal college attendance, many are finding the Advantage Stamp they thought they’d purchased (with borrowed money) to be not so valuable as they’d been led to believe. The frustration is understandable and it’s fair to point to the misguided campaign to universalize college as a culprit.

    But let’s say the Caplanites win this debate and halt that project. The demand for the Advantage Stamp would not go away. Either college is what currently serves this function, or something would have to take its place (and would be equally unshy in clamoring for public funding to purchase it). Would that thing be better for society than the four-year-summer-camps we’ve already set up? I’m not optimistic. At least college as an institution has some history going for it. Do we really want to find out what sort of Alternative Advantage Stamp will be cooked up (and then demand federal funding) by people like, say, trust-fundee Edward T. Hall III in Occupy laboratories?

  8. spandrell June 13, 2012 at 20:52

    I do. I’m a curious person.

  9. bbtp June 13, 2012 at 23:11


    Sorry, I can’t get comments to thread properly all of a sudden. GB2php, n00b, etc.

    No offense, but if you first heard of Dewey and Lippman from Gatto’s book, that’s not everyone’s situation. Gatto says in his prologue that, basically, human ability is unconstrained; people are dumb, but mainly because of school. This is the relevant page:

    “According to all official analysis, dumbness isn’t taught (as I claim), but is innate in a great percentage of what has come to be called “the workforce.” Workforce itself is a term that should tell you much about the mind that governs modern society. According to official reports, only a small fraction of the population is capable of what you and I call mental life: creative thought, analytical thought, judgmental thought, a trio occupying the three highest positions on Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Just how small a fraction would shock you. According to experts, the bulk of the mob is hopelessly dumb, even dangerously so. Perhaps you’re a willing accomplice to this social coup which revived the English class system…”

    A bit above, he calls old-fashioned dumbness “simple ignorance.” Well, if that’s your diagnosis, your treatment is going to be as relevant and effective as dosing a diabetic with powder of algaroth before getting out the leeches. I don’t know what his prescription for education is yet, but I’m confident that it won’t be modesty about the outcomes achievable in a nation full of 85’s, nor will he support trade-focused programmed instruction, which is the only hope for most of our dumber compatriots, who will likely otherwise wind up as criminals, dole-collectors, or in minimum-wage service jobs. In fact, I’m dreading the reveal — will it be unschooling? More art? Student-centered curriculums? Maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

    “I’ve been to Afghanistan, dealt with Turkish nomads and Iraqi Yezidi mountaineers, etc., and even those who aren’t rocket scientists know how everything around them works and can figure out how to fix it. They know how to get food, water and electricity, how to deal with their women, how to raise kids, etc. They also are naturally reactionary, understanding the value of tradition and elders, and paradoxically value actual education in others. They also have dignity. The kind of debased, aggressive, Idiocracy-type self-satisfied entitled stupidity that you see among American proles, British chavs, NAMs, etc. is something which must be taught, as it makes them better dependents and easier to manipulate.”

    I’ll see this and raise it. I’m from Eastern Europe and I have relatives who are actual peasants. I agree that peasants are much more functional human beings, on average, than urban trash. But it’s telling that, in my first language, the phrase for “urban trash” literally means “peasants in the city,” because peasants lose their bearings in an urban environment. It’s not because of their education — country schools aren’t much different from city schools in terms of curriculums (set nationally) or the expected conduct of students — it’s because people from villages need the structure of village life in order to function. They need gossip, collective knowledge about how to do tasks, the opportunity to learn simple skills through repetition, someone’s eyes on them always, and family reputation at stake. Deprived of that, they go to pieces.

    That’s not to say that Gatto’s an idiot or that I won’t finish his book, but I suspect he’s not thinking about the environmental shift from village life (for which people and cultures have been optimizing for thousands of years) to today’s unprecedented urbanism. Yes, there were large cities in past societies, but today we only need a few percent of the population to grow all the food, and countrymen no longer really live in villages because of the scale of modern farms.

    I don’t mean to suggest that the transition from rural to urban is the only factor at work here, but on the other hand, I don’t think that you’ll turn Afghanis into chavs by putting them in a strict, old-fashioned schoolhouse run by a schoolpop. (No schoolmarms in Afghanistan.)


    • _B_ June 14, 2012 at 20:14


      I think of dumbness as learned helplessness. The “seljaci” of Yugoslavia (did I guess right?) may look stupid when they try to apply their concepts of how things work to city life, because there is a mismatch. For instance, someone trying to apply a village concept of sewage disposal to a city tenement will get suboptimal results. But at least they have those concepts. Someone who spent most of his waking hours from age 5 to 18 being ordered to do meaningless shit by an education major has no concept of how anything in the real world works. It’s all a bunch of magic to them, and if it breaks, there’s probably a guy for that. Your kids are taught by someone else, the car is fixed by someone else, the plumbing is fixed by someone else, when your parents get old, you put them in a nursing home where someone else takes care of them, etc. The insecurity and alienation that this kind of existence breed are in large part responsible for the totally degenerate behavior of our lower and lower middle classes.

      Smart people who do highly intellectual, specialized work consistently underestimate the amount of manual work that is out there and needs doing. Every major city consumes an unimaginable amount of plumbing, construction, mechanical labor, medical menial labor, etc., etc. You don’t need an IQ in the top two quintiles to do most of it, and there are no robots which can do it. Even as these things become more automated, more opportunities for manual labor arise.

      Finally, I read the book at 18, and had not heard the names Dewey and Lippmann until then; nor was I familiar with Colonel House, Fabian socialism or the Oneida commune. Unfortunately, I am a product of the NYC public school system, and had to wait until a relatively old age to start educating myself. As you can see, though education probably can’t make someone smarter than their biological potential, it can certainly make them DUMBER.

  10. spandrell June 13, 2012 at 23:20

    I disabled comment threading myself, we’re all noobs here.
    I just felt the 3 post limit got old too fast.

  11. baduin June 14, 2012 at 14:39

    I must say that today’s comments are of outstanding quality. Modern social system is exceptionally destructive psychically – most of all for the lower classes.

    Higher classes are damaged in a different way and more functional, but they are no less insane. Here is a good example:

    Men require understandable society to survive. Modernity deprives them of that society, and replaces it with various mechanisms, which work much worse and leave them half-insane. Those mechanisms can be easily controlled, however, and the insane are easy to manipulate.

    • _B_ June 15, 2012 at 05:55

      The elegance of ascribing Western society’s ills to “diabolical Hebrews” is a bit wasted on me, unfortunately. The guy whose site that is doesn’t strike me as fundamentally different from any strident Grievance Studies Ph.D., other than being poorly funded.

  12. KK June 15, 2012 at 00:31

    Higher classes are damaged in a different way and more functional, but they are no less insane. Here is a good example:
    Are you referring to Mindweapons blog host or his correspondent (or both)? While I agree that mindweapon’s heart is in the right place, he doesn’t exactly come across as ‘undamaged’ in his blog posts.

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