The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money by Bryan Caplan (Princeton University Press, 2018, 395 pages).
Almost every book on education policy (and I have read a great many of them) springs from the set of assumptions that education “experts” embrace: that schooling builds our stock of knowledge and skill, that it needs to be done mainly by government, that it makes us better human beings, and that we owe our prosperity to our great “investment” in education, kindergarten through college.
Among the tiny number of books that challenge the conventional wisdom about education, the latest and perhaps the most daring is Bryan Caplan’s Case against Education. Caplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University, is not, of course, against people’s acquiring skills and knowledge, but contends that our current system of education does a poor job of that, and at inordinate cost to taxpayers. He would like to see government subsidies for education stopped and believes that in an ideal world, education would be kept separate from the government.
Caplan puts his case starkly: “Most critics of our education system … miss what I see as its supreme defect: there’s way too much education. Typical students burn thousands of hours studying material that neither raises their productivity nor enriches their lives. And of course, students can’t waste time without experts to show them how.”
At this point, nearly all readers will be thinking, “Well, that is obviously wrong, since we know that college brings a handsome payoff to graduates. That college premium certainly shows that more years of education are valuable.”
Here is Caplan’s reply: “How could such a lucrative investment be wasteful? The answer is a single word I want to burn into your mind: signaling. Even if what a student learned in school is utterly useless, employers will happily pay extra if their scholastic achievement provides information about their productivity.”
How signalling works
Among economists who study the effects of education, there is a great divide between those who believe that education augments your skills and thereby enables you to do a better job (the “human capital” crowd) and those who think that education mostly reveals your pre-existing abilities and thereby enables you to get a better job (the signaling crowd). Caplan is firmly in the latter camp. He argues that the education premium that people enjoy for having crossed various educational thresholds is about 80 percent due to signaling and only 20 percent due to human capital improvement.
Education signals three broad traits: intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity. Employers of all kinds want workers with those traits. While it is possible for a person to acquire them in the absence of formal education, it’s almost impossible to let the rest of the world know that — and without such knowledge, few employers will take a chance on you.
Suppose you try to signal your employability in some way other than by getting educational credentials, say by dropping out of high school to prove the Riemann Hypothesis or something equally brainy. Unfortunately, even if you are able to convince some people that you’re a math genius with your proof, to most employers that actually sends a bad signal — your lack of conformity. Trying to get noticed without educational credentials rarely works. Consequently, Americans have become so fixated on those credentials that nearly everyone feels compelled to play the expensive “sheepskin” game.
How important is the signal compared with the education? Caplan points out that anyone can attend Princeton classes for free and learn as much as humanly possible, but nobody does that. That’s because if you aren’t officially enrolled, you can’t send any signal. Here’s the dilemma: “You can either have a Princeton education without a diploma, or a Princeton diploma without an education. Which gets you further in the job market?” he asks.
Going straight for the jugular vein of the human-capital theorists, Caplan argues that most students derive scant long-term benefit from their schooling, including college. He cites a mass of evidence showing that most students retain little knowledge or skill they were ostensibly taught. Literacy, numeracy, scientific method, reasoning — student achievement is remarkably poor in all. What students appear to learn most effectively are the things they work with steadily, such as statistics for those who are in quantitative fields — which is pretty much the same as learning work skills on the job. Too bad we can’t start with the on-the-job learning.
Caplan’s argument is that most people would be better off if they didn’t have to go through the years and years of formal education just to signal their readiness to begin learning what they really need to know. All those years of formal, state-approved education are mostly a needless prelude to the business of learning what you need to know to succeed in life.
Here I will add an illustration to bolster Caplan’s case, namely law school. As most lawyers will attest, the knowledge they use in their work is rarely anything they recall from law school. Rather, it was learned on the job. But they are not allowed to just apprentice into law firms any longer; first they must go through college and then law school. That entails huge social costs that don’t bring about any greater legal competence but merely drive up the fees lawyers must charge. The signaling to human capital ratio in legal education is probably around 99 to 1.
Defenders of formal education might grudgingly admit that students don’t retain much of the precise content they were taught, but obtain other benefits that make it all worthwhile. Caplan responds this way: “Most of what schools teach has no value in the market. Students fail to learn most of what they’re taught…. When you mention these awkward facts, educators speak to you of miracles: studying anything makes you better at everything. Never mind that educational psychologists’ century of research exposing these so-called miracles as soothing myths.” For instance, studying a foreign language you’ll never need supposedly builds your mental muscles, but Caplan says that you’ve just wasted time that could have been put to better use.
And finally there is the last line of defense, namely that education (particularly college) confers great social benefits. That is because graduates have lower unemployment, better health, are more law-abiding, are more civically engaged, and so on. Caplan easily overcomes the “social good” defense.
More years of education do not, for example, make people healthier as is often claimed by the education establishment. It is the case, rather, that people who are naturally inclined to healthy lifestyles are also drawn to education. It’s correlation without causation. Nor does education really lead to a decrease in crime. It might make the individual less inclined to crime, but doesn’t lower crime in general. Caplan’s argument is based on signaling. “Back in the 1950s,” he writes, “the average dropout stood at the 33rd percentile of achievement, so employer stigma against dropouts was mild. Today, the average dropout stands at the 10th percentile of achievement, so the employer stigma against dropouts is severe, making crime an appealing substitute for honest toil.”
Seals of approval
But doesn’t education (especially the standard four-year college), improve us by nourishing our souls? It is often said that college gives us “broad horizons” and introduces us to “the best that has ever been said or written.” Supposedly, without courses on literature and art and music and philosophy, Americans would just be so many uncultured bumpkins. Caplan doesn’t think that position holds any water. Students can and do take an interest in culture without having to sit through expensive classes that most find very boring. Moreover, the fine arts flourished in America before we started demanding that everyone spend at least ten years in school.
Our mania for mandatory education has not done the nation much good, but it has unleashed a serious bad — an arms race in credentials. They are the “seals of approval” that open doors for people who have them, or keep doors locked for those who don’t. As those seals have proliferated, Americans have had to devote more and more of their time and wealth to getting them. To get ahead of the pack, students now often have to earn master’s degrees to have a chance at jobs that not too long ago were open to good high-school graduates. Owing to that arms race, the size and cost of our education sector keeps growing, consuming resources that could be better used elsewhere.
The credential mania also creates a huge social cost for the people whom leftists usually say they are so ardent to help — the poor and handicapped. Because it’s difficult if not impossible for them to earn college degrees, they are kept from any chance at getting jobs they could readily learn. Those who don’t have college credentials are pushed into low-paying jobs that seldom have much upward potential. That’s very unfair. The damage to the life prospects of such persons is palpable, unlike the mythical “social benefits” we are said to enjoy as a result of pushing education.
Why we have such a fervent belief in education is a question Caplan devotes many pages to explaining. For one thing, almost everyone who studies or at least writes about education is a product of the system. “When we academics reflect on our own lives,” he writes, “school almost automatically seems ‘relevant.’ To see the labor market clearly, professors would have to contemplate the alien career paths of the vast majority of students who never enter academia.”
More important, though, the great belief in education stems from what Caplan calls Social Desirability Bias. Claims about the wonderful results of formal education create a pleasant glow inside most Americans. Few citizens and almost no politicians will suggest that increased educational spending might be wasteful. The educational establishment has been taking full advantage of that for many decades, growing like a tumor.
Will anything be done to arrest our education juggernaut? Caplan is not optimistic.
The combination of Social Desirability Bias and the education establishment’s lobbying power is an almost irresistible force. Caplan believes that we would be far better off if we had kept school and state separate, but there’s no prospect of that now. Online education, he argues, will at most have a small marginal impact on our overinvestment in education. The best thing we might actually do is to shift from pushing students into college and instead offer more vocational training and opportunities for people to work earlier in life.
“Ultimately,” he states, “the debate is between two kinds of vocational education. ‘Traditionalists’ want to train everyone for long-shot, prestigious careers like author, historian, political scientist, translator, physicist, and mathematician. So-called vocationalists want to train students for careers they’re likely to enter. The traditional route is painless for educators: teach whatever your teachers taught you. The vocational route is painful for educators…. To prepare youths for plausible futures, educators must feel the pain.”
That’s correct. We should stop putting the former kind of training on a pedestal while denigrating the latter. And if people had to pay for whatever kind of education they thought best, no doubt they would value it far more than the education they are mostly given today. Compare the way Eliza Doolittle approached her paid-for English lessons in My Fair Lady with the indifference so many American students show their nearly free (pre-college) educational credentialing.
Caplan even dares to say that for many people, working would be preferable to being forced to sit in school. His chapter “What’s Wrong with Child Labor?” is certain to cause hysteria in “progressive” minds. He argues that there’s no good reason to prevent young people from working and learning useful things as they do so. “When researchers compare working students to comparable nonworking students, work has a clear upside and no downside,” he writes. “Early job experience has durable dividends, boosting post-graduation earnings by 5, 10, or even 20% for at least a decade. The link between work and academic success is, in contrast, weak. The same goes for crime and other bad behavior.”
By forbidding work at a young age and mandating education, the government has created a toxic stew of horrible consequences. Calling this out is arguably the bravest aspect of this brave book.
Caplan is up front that he’s writing from a libertarian perspective. He states that he is against bossy government programs simply because people ought to be free to live their lives. His book invites readers to think about how much better off we would be if government would stick to a rights-defending and order-keeping role so that education — and everything else — could evolve naturally.
If the United States ever reaches a turning point where most of us reject the idea that government should mandate and subsidize certain kinds of education, Bryan Caplan’s Case against Education will have a lot to do with it.
This article was originally featured at the Future of Freedom Foundation and is republished with permission.