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School ethic versus work ethic

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  • School ethic refers to the general work and life habits, as well as guiding principles and thinking patterns, that one develops as a student in school or college. Note that the term here is used descriptively for what most reasonably good students develop rather than for the narrower class of good study habits which only a few people manage to cultivate.
  • Work ethic refers to the general work and life habits, as well as guiding principles and thinking patterns, that one develops in the workplace.

Main takeaways

The relation between the school ethic and the work ethic is not strong. Both require conscientiousness, dedication, and conformism. Some people have argued that the work ethic requires greater levels of creativity and initiative than the school ethic, which is rigid and inflexible. However, there is considerably variation between different kinds of work in the level of creativity that is desired or useful and there is also considerable variation between different kinds of school in the level of creativity that is desired or useful, so that the differences between work and school in this regard are dominated by differences within either choice of environment.

The best way to prepare for a given type of environment is to immerse oneself in that environment. Thus, work is the best way to acquire the work ethic, and school is the best way to acquire the school ethic. Even better, try to acquire experience in a work or school situation as close as possible to the one you want to get good at.

Importance of determining the extent of similarity and difference between the school and work ethic

Implications in terms of the usefulness of the school ethic in the workplace

If the school ethic and work ethic are closely linked, then doing well in school, and spending more years pursuing additional educational degrees, would show a positive relation with how well one can adjust to the workplace (this would be a combination of selection and treatment effects). On the other hand, if the school ethic and work ethic are only weakly linked, then doing well in school doesn't prepare for or predict success in the workplace.

Implications in terms of the usefulness of the work ethic in school

If the school ethic and work ethic are closely linked, then people who have work experience should be able to study better and get more value out of school (again, both selection and treatment effects). For instance, people who spend the summer doing a job should be able to come back better learners than people who spent the summer in a recreational activity unrelated to school or work. This also has implications for people taking gap years.

Claims of aspects common to different types of work that are not part of the school experience

Bob Cordwell writes:

There's a lot of work-specific knowledge that you can learn in any job but nowhere else. Things like knowing when to ask for help and when not to bother people, keeping a professional manner even when you're angry or distracted, and reading between the lines of the praise-criticism-praise sandwich.

Claims of divergence between the school ethic and work ethic

In his post Carnegie on the School Ethic, Bryan Caplan quotes Andrew Carnegie:

Both school and work teach you to follow orders and cooperate with others. Yet they define and measure success differently. School elevates abstract understanding over practical results, passing exams over passing the market test, and fairness over dollars-and-cents. Educators who retort, "And that's why school is morally superior to work," are only proving my point. School inculcates many attitudes that, regardless of their moral value, stand in the way of on-the-job success.

See also Bryan Caplan's post Ignatius Reilly on Character and Education. He also links to a recruiting blog's take on Ignatius.