The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money by Bryan Caplan

★★★★☆ (4/5)

Think about all the school time you burned studying irrelevancies. Notice how often you asked yourself, “What do I need to graduate?” instead of “How can I maximize my learning?” Recall all the ways you gamed the system: cramming for exams, seeking lax instructors, skipping assignments because “I already have an A.” Count the times your peers asked, “Will this be on the test?”—but never “Will this be on the job?” Picture all the overqualified graduates you’ve encountered waiting tables and working in bookstores. You’ve seen a world of academic oddities with your own eyes.

Bryan Caplan’s book is a perfect admixture of contrarian views and incisive adventure into ideas that seem far too radical for any layman to digest.

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To even simply posit statements suggesting that the world needs less education and not more, or that government subsidies to education sector do more harm than good or (and my favorite) that education must be separated from the state, much like religion – at the face of it they might seem extremist approaches and considering the fact that the author is a self-proclaimed libertarian – well one might just give a deep sigh and throw the book away.

The amount of education you need to get a job really has risen more than the amount of education you need to do a job.

But, hold on. You take a breather and peel the onion, much like the author does, only to find out that the foundational realities of much what he argues for and against are grounded in universal scholastic experience of each and every individual in the modern era. Boredom and monotony are cornerstones of early education, and this is further exasperated by failure of true transfer of learning which would either mold character or teach essential life/job skills that one might utilize in the future.

Give an individual more education, and they get better offers so they’re more likely to want a job. Give everyone more education, and you ignite credential inflation.

However, I must confess. I did not agree wholly with a lot of the author’s claims. His contentions no matter how realistic were complemented by policy directives that one can’t help but label as ‘overtly idealistic’, requiring an overhaul of the entire state system and political ideologies around the world. Add to that a heavy load of statistics which Caplan used to reinforce his points, that mostly went over my head. But perhaps this in itself is proof of where education lacks – in inculcating learning that could be of use later on (case in point: my lack of statistical understanding).

Unfortunately, we have an innocuous yet infamous label for kids learning job skills on the job: “child labor.” Civilized adults recoil at the name. Children with joy in their hearts don’t belong in gray workshops, toiling all day long, cogs in the machine. They’re kids, not robots! Well, unless the gray workshop is called a “school” and the cogs earn zero wages.

The book largely delves into the education sector of United States but perhaps the gist of it could be applied anywhere in the world too. Lack of vocational training, failure to teach essential job skills, compulsory superfluous subjects that have little to no bearing on future quality of life (either through career prospects, family or social life, or individual life). These problems mar the intrinsic value placed on education, which in turn makes education itself just another conduit to churn disillusioned humans, working away mindlessly to serve and build profit for their employers, individuals who neither serve the society at large nor themselves.

Educational psychologists have also discovered that much of our knowledge is “inert.” Students who excel on exams frequently fail to apply their knowledge to the real world.

Modern day education is replete with stacked courses, rat race for grades and pursuance of meaningless degrees with the collective end-goal of appealing to employers. Caplan goes to great lengths to show how degrees just give abstract credibility to credentials alone instead of enriching lives. The credentials of education only signal intelligence, conscientiousness and conformity to the employers – and to my limited understanding this equates to modern day serfdom of the mind and soul.

Education signals not just intelligence, but conscientiousness—the student’s discipline, work ethic, commitment to quality, and so forth…education also signals conformity—the worker’s grasp of and submission to social expectations.

With plausible arguments the author shows how the inherent inertia of education is more detrimental to society at large, even if individuals can reap a few benefits on some level. When selfish gains outnumber and overpower societal gains, one must be compelled to think if priorities of any given state are set straight or not.

Rhetoric aside, educators are as narrow-minded as kids. Most of the items on the academic tasting menu have the same stale flavor—unsurprising since teachers typically teach whatever they were taught. When schools decry “narrow-mindedness,” their real goal is to replace students’ narrowness with their own.

Caplan seeks to resolve this stark difference through a mode of education which is largely frowned upon in the current era, either due to misunderstanding of the concept itself or social desirability bias. He is a great proponent of vocational education which builds upon essentials of literacy and numeracy with critical thinking, practical hands-on approach for skill-building and completion of transfer of learning which enables an individual to apply that which they’ve learnt to real life problems.

If education boosts compensation solely by raising worker productivity, society’s gain equals the worker’s gain. If education boosts compensation solely by revealing worker productivity, society gains far less.

To sum it up, enlightenment promised by education is pseudo, half-baked indoctrination at best. The true cultivation of human mind and soul need not rely on outmoded, syllabus-based, book-reliant, tests and grading systems all of which is leading to costly losses to humanity. And rather than upending the entire system of education, the author proposes a few major tweaks here and there to not only contextualize the intrinsic value of education and knowledge transfer but to increase productivity and worth of individual life in order to improve lives on a collective level.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

Author’s Assertions

  • What I see as our educational system’s 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.
  • The answer is a single word I seek 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.
  • Ultimately, I believe the best education policy is no education policy at all: the separation of school and state.
  • Signaling models have three basic elements. First, there must be different types of people. Types could differ in intelligence, conscientiousness, conformity, whatever. Second, an individual’s type must be nonobvious. You can’t discover a person’s true work ethic with a glance. You certainly can’t ask, “How good is your work ethic?” and expect candor. Third, types must visibly differ on average; in technical terms, “send a different signal.” Deviations from average are okay. A signal doesn’t have to be definitive, just better than nothing.
  • It does not suffice to give everyone a test and hire people with the highest scores. . . . Doing well on a test is no guarantee of perseverance. The signal must be costly and grueling, otherwise it fails to sort out the best job candidates.
  • Keep the school library open so studious and intellectually curious kids have a tranquil place for free reading. Until college, every school I ever attended had a well-stocked library that was almost never open to the student body. Free play takes many forms. Why not turn the library into a bookworms’ sanctuary?
  • All things considered, I favor full separation of school and state. Government should stop using tax dollars to fund education of any kind. Schools—primary, secondary, and tertiary alike—should be funded solely by fees and private charity.

Education, Credentials, Job Skills and Signaling

  • As a result, labor economists bypass the crucial question: Is education, on net, a victim or a thief? Do intelligence, personality, and so on steal more credit from education than education steals from them?
  • The skillful do a good job. The successful have a good job. Despite its weak effect on skill, education remains the modern economy’s surest stairway to prosperity.
  • In our society, credentials define you in broad strokes, but years of education add valuable details.
  • How does cost shifting raise education’s social return? Supply and demand. Raising the price of school reduces attendance. The more attendance falls, the scarcer educated labor becomes, and the pricier it gets. Owing to signaling, the social benefit rises less than the selfish benefit, but social and selfish benefits still move in tandem. At some point, the education premium gets high enough to transform the marginal student into a good social investment.
  • Education is not a bubble, but stable waste. As long as traditional education receives hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars every year, the status quo will stand. Online education will slowly carve out a niche, but that is all.
  • Education signals more than brains and work ethic. It also signals conformity—submission to social expectations. This traps students in a catch-22: trying to unconventionally signal conformity signals nonconformity. In our society, you’re supposed to go to college if you value success.
  • Raising tuition doesn’t just make the workforce less skilled. It amplifies the inequality of skill: The poorer you are, the less you learn and the less you earn.
  • When education raises your income, economists call that “the education premium.” Part of the premium exists because school makes you more productive. That’s the human capital share. The rest of the premium exists because school makes you look more productive. That’s the signaling share.
  • A moderate reform is to stop requiring useless coursework. Make history, social studies, art, music, and foreign language optional. The main problem with this moderation: pursuing material you’re allowed to skip sends a favorable signal.

Some Harsh Truths

  • Despite the chasm between what students learn and what workers do, academic success is a strong signal of worker productivity. The labor market doesn’t pay you for the useless subjects you master; it pays you for the preexisting traits you reveal by mastering them.
  • When you skip class, your relative performance suffers. When your teacher cancels class, everyone learns less, leaving your relative performance unimpaired. When you skip class, your relative performance suffers. When your teacher cancels class, everyone learns less, leaving your relative performance unimpaired.
  • College science teaches students what to think about topics on the syllabus, not how to think about the world.
  • The discovery of wasteful spending does not magically reveal constructive alternatives. Prudence dictates a two-step response. Step 1: Stop wasting the resources. Step 2: Save those resources until you discover a good way to spend them. Not wasting resources is simple and speedy. Don’t just stand there; do it. Finding good ways to use resources is complex and slow. Don’t just do it; think it through. Remember: you can apply saved resources anywhere.
  • Longer school days do serve one socially useful function: they warehouse kids so both their parents can work. But more hours in school needn’t mean more hours of school.
  • The average student intellectually regresses roughly one full month during a three-month summer vacation. The older the students, the steeper their decline.
  • The final story appeals to global elite culture. Non-Western elites straddle two worlds: Western elite culture, and their own traditional cultures. After Western elites fell in love with education in the nineteenth century, they won over Western masses and non-Western elites. Non-Western elites, in turn, gradually spread the gospel of education to their own cultures.
  • The rise of the Internet has two unsettling lessons for them. First: the humanist case for education subsidies is flimsy today because the Internet makes enlightenment practically free. Second: the humanist case for education subsidies was flimsy all along because the Internet proves low consumption of ideas and culture stems from apathy, not poverty or inconvenience. Behold: when the price of enlightenment drops to zero, enlightenment remains embarrassingly scarce.
  • There’s a catch-22. Online education won’t escape the nonconformist stigma until it dominates the market, but it won’t dominate the market until it escapes the nonconformists stigma.

Points to Ponder

  • Higher education is the only product where the consumer tries to get as little out of it as possible.
  • Preparation inflates measured intelligence without raising genuine intelligence.
  • Imagine this stark dilemma: you can have either a Princeton education without a diploma, or a Princeton diploma without an education. Which gets you further on the job market?
  • On the popular Rate My Professors website, students grade their professors’ “easiness,” “helpfulness,” “clarity,” and “hotness,” not “marketable skills taught” or “real-world relevance.” If human capital purists are right, why do students struggle to get into the best schools, then struggle to avoid acquiring skills once they arrive?
  • Economists are so eager to argue education is underrated they neglect a strong reason to think education is overrated: reverse causation. Instead of “When countries invest more in schooling, they get richer,” the real story could be, “When countries get richer, they consume more schooling.”
  • Education that builds job skills is more socially valuable than education that merely impresses employers—even if both forms of education are equally profitable for the students themselves.
  • Ordering resentful kids to shut up and do their work may provide useful training for their future. Without students who hunger for knowledge, though, education lacks intrinsic value. In the real world, such students are sadly rare.
  • As education rises, workers—including the poor—need more education to get the same job. Where’s the social justice in that?
  • The rise of the Internet also undercuts the Machiavellian line that intellectual force-feeding ultimately blossoms into sincere appreciation.

On Vocational Training

  • All vocational education teaches specific job skills, and all vocational education revolves around learning-by-doing, not learning-by-listening.
  • Critics fear that vocational education bears a stigma. Specializing in auto shop tarnishes your image because society infers you “lack the talent for anything better.” Restated in the language of signaling: the vocational path sends bad signals about raw ability. In this scenario, vocational education enriches society more than it enriches vocational students. Society gains the extra productivity, but students capture the extra productivity less the stigma.
  • What makes vocational ed’s social return so ample? Status is zero-sum; skill is not. Conventional education mostly helps students by raising their status, but average status cannot rise. Vocational education mostly helps students by building their skills—and average skill can rise. Why are social returns especially ample for Poor Students? Because vocational ed trains these crime-prone students for productive work without igniting severe credential inflation.
  • In the for-profit sector, the U.S. Department of Labor allows unpaid internships only if “the employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern.” A bizarre rule. Why would a for-profit firm bother hiring workers from whom it derives zero immediate advantage?

Wise Gems

  • The Master said, “In ancient times, men learned with a view to their own improvement. Now-a-days, men learn with a view to the approbation of others.”—Confucius, The Analects 4
  • If a ninth-grader asks for educational advice, you should give a straight-up answer. Otherwise they won’t listen. Yet this is no excuse for intellectual laziness on your part. A quality advisor carefully weighs complexities and subtleties on the advisee’s behalf. That way, the counsel is not only digestible, but insightful.
  • The second ingredient: skillful pedagogy. Learning from enthusiastic teachers who have mastered their subjects uplifts the soul. Learning from uninspired teachers who parrot the textbook, not so much. Mediocre instruction is tolerable for practical training, but worthless for intellectual or artistic inspiration.
  • It’s called the Drake Equation. To simplify, the equation says the mind-boggling requirements for life must offset the mind-boggling opportunities for life.

Beautifully Constructed Sentences

  • By analogy, both sculptors and appraisers have the power to raise the market value of a piece of stone. The sculptor raises the market value of a piece of stone by shaping it. The appraiser raises the market value of a piece of stone by judging it. Teachers need to ask ourselves, “How much of what we do is sculpting, and how much is appraising?” And if we won’t ask ourselves, our alumni need to ask for us.
  • In politics, critical thinking is an act of charity. Objective truth has to beg for spare change to survive. Owing to these perverse incentives, almost any political idea that becomes popular tends to remain popular. Even if it’s false. Even if it’s always been false.
  • Such a double standard. When kids feel bored and resentful at work, we pity them as victims and call for regulation. When kids feel bored and resentful in school, we roll our eyes and tell them to suck it up.

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