In conversation a couple of days ago, a friend mentioned that her younger sister planned to get an MFA in creative writing.
“No offense to your sister, but what’s the point of that?” I wondered aloud. “No one thinks someone is a good writer because they have a Masters degree in writing.”
“Yeah, I don’t really get it, either,” my friend said. “It’s much better to just read an actual writing sample.”
Then another friend pointed out that a creative writing program might actually – get this – help you learn to write better. It gives the participant an ongoing incentive to write, along with regular feedback from peers and teachers.
And that’s when I realized how fully I had bought into the signaling model of education, which says that education doesn’t actually increase productivity, but merely identifies people who had high productivity to begin with. Somehow it didn’t even occur to me that someone might seek a Masters degree for any purpose other than sending a message to future employers.
The reality, of course, is that education involves both signaling and skill-building, as well as pure consumption for people who just like school (or fear the workplace), with the precise mix differing from discipline to discipline. Intellectually, I know this to be true. But my first instinct was to assume near-100% signaling – which is odd, given the substantial amount I learned during my own graduate education. I’m not sure what this says about me.