The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money by Bryan Caplan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Bryan Caplan’s new book is a devastating and depressing take down of the education system. Caplan argues that the education system does little to educate and that most of the gains we see from education are not linked to what students may learn. If he’s right, then most of the current education system (K-12, higher ed) is a colossal waste. There are, nevertheless, important liberating elements (at least for me as a higher ed teacher).
There is a lot Caplan covers, and I won’t touch on most of it here. I’m going to focus on a few key things that struck me as the most important and interesting. Agree with his conclusions or not, Caplan presents us with an important argument about education with which we need to deal. Refreshingly, he’s very open with the data and even provides links to the spreadsheets for people to play with the data and assumptions themselves. One gets the sense he would love to be disproved about the disvalue of education.
First, the devastation and depression. The basic theme of the book is this: college graduates, on average, earn 73% more than high school graduates and Caplan wants to explain this earning premium. It needs explaining because, as he argues, very little of it seems to be tied to what college graduates learn in college. The view that the premium is tied to the training and skills learned in college is what Caplan calls the Human Capital view. You go to college, learn a bunch of stuff, and this makes it so you are more likely to be hired into a good job and earn more. Caplan argues that this conventional view is largely mistaken on a few counts: students don’t learn that much or remember much of what they do learn; and what they learn is not usually a skill relevant for the job. (If you are skeptical of this, read the book and evaluate his data and arguments.)
One of the things that has convinced me that the human capital view is not accurate is that college dropouts are not in a much better position (for hiring and earning) than high school graduates. For example, at ASU you need 120 credits to graduate. If you earn 119 credits but skip that last credit hour, your hiring and earning potential is just slightly better than the high school graduate with 0 college credits. That’s hard to square with the human capital view. You earned 99% of the degree and so if the college premium was due to what you learn you should be a lot closer to the college graduate than the high school graduate. Unless, as Caplan quips, we teach all the important skills in that last credit hour.
Caplan shows that a huge chunk of the college premium is just having the degree—not what you learn while getting the degree. This is the Signaling view. The college degree signals important information to potential employers about your employability: intelligence, conformity, and conscientiousness (discipline, work effort, punctuality). Crossing the finish line of the diploma takes some reasonable amount of intelligence. Going to (and graduating from) a traditional four-year college shows your willingness to conform to social norms and expectations. Lastly, it shows, at a minimum, that you were able to follow enough directions and show up to class on time enough that you were able to pass enough classes to get the degree. Caplan argues that these signals make up about 80% of the college earning premium.
One might say, ok, fine signaling is most of the premium, but education is still worthwhile because it broaden student’s horizons, awakes them to new possibilities, spurs the imagination beyond the mundane, and teaches them deeper thinking and conceptual skills that they can use to become better citizens and human beings. Caplan’s response: Wishful thinking. That’s want we education to be. It’s what for academics like myself and Caplan it partly was. It’s just not what it is for most people. For most students: they don’t want to be there and they aren’t prepared to be there. And even so, their horizons and imaginations don’t actually get broadened all that much anyway.
Caplan acknowledges that this sounds cynical and elitist. But, as he argues, it is about what the data shows. Maybe a different education system could fulfill the broadening horizons myth, but education in this world and in this structure doesn’t even come close. Based on my near two decades of teaching in universities, I’d have to agree. I like to think I’m expanding student’s horizons and improving their thinking; that I’m exposing them to new and exciting ideas. And there are a few students for whom this is true. But most just ask if it is going to be on the test and can we get out of class early. Maybe I’m just a crappy teacher or have mediocre students. But Caplan’s data suggests otherwise: no matter the teacher or the school this is the norm.
In this way this is depressing: what is the point of my job? Am I just wasting my time? But it is also liberating. It frees me to focus on the students and ideas in the here and now. It’s not about job prep or their future: it’s about engaging ideas with students who are interested right now. I can focus on what I find exciting and cool. The students who are also engaged can come along. Those who aren’t, aren’t really missing out on anything important to them. They can just move along the signal chain on to something that does interest them.
One of the counters to his critique that Caplan looks at is this. Sure, students aren’t going to use categorical syllogisms on the job or find much use outside of history for learning how to interpret original historical sources. But the abstract thinking skills they learn when doing these things is something that will be important in their lives and jobs. It’s hard to teach these abstract thinking skills directly, but they can be picked up by studying logic, history, chemistry, etc. Call this the abstract thinking argument. It’s an argument I’ve made in the past when trying to sell students on philosophy. Caplan looks at the education psychological literature and argues that there just isn’t any empirical evidence for the abstract thinking argument. I’m not that convinced he’s right on this.
Now, I haven’t look at this literature, but based on the what Caplan says about it, I’m not sure it works to show the abstract thinking argument doesn’t work. He looks at what is called “transfer of knowledge.” Do students who learn the scientific method, use the scientific method outside the contexts in which they learn it? In other words, do they transfer the method over from their chemistry classes to using it outside of chemistry? The evidence, Caplan says, is no, they don’t. And that might be true (I see versions of this in which students don’t use the writing skills they learn in composition classes in other non-composition classes such as my philosophy classes). But this seems different from the abstract thinking argument. The transfer of knowledge evidence seems to be about specific skills or methods. But I’m not sure it applies to learning abstract processes of thought like logical thinking.
Here’s an analogy. You learn dribbling in soccer and that isn’t applicable outside of soccer. But running as a skill is broad athletic skill that is used across many sports (and beyond). I am concerned that what Caplan has shown is that dribbling is not transferable but then using that as the claim that there is no evidence that running is transferable. If abstract thinking skills are more like running with wide usage, then Caplan’s evidence misses the mark.
The policy implications of Caplan’s book are intriguing. The most important one, I think, is the need to develop and encourage different pathways for students. There are students for whom the traditional college experience is perfect: they will succeed at it, enjoy it, and reap the benefits from it. But it is not and should not be the path for all. Apprenticeships, technical education, and vocational education are other options that would serve the needs and interests of many more people—and have greater payoff for the broader society and not just the individual who is better able to get a job and earning a living.
There is a lot in Caplan’s book that is worth looking at and thinking about it. Some of which is probably wrong. I surely don’t agree with all his arguments or interpretations of the data. What I think is most important about the book is that it calls for us to look at education as it is, not what we wish or hope it to be. If we want to get education to what we wish it could be, we have to deal with the reality of the current system and not pretend it is something else.
Caplan calls himself an educational whistleblower. His whistleblowing will, I hope, lead to more conversations, and more realistic conversations, about education.
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