A mini-review of Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education

“It was not until years afterward that I came upon Tolstoy’s phrase “the snare of preparation,” which he insists we spread before the feet of young people, hopelessly entangling them in a curious inactivity at the very period of life when they are longing to construct the world anew and to conform it to their own ideals.” -Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull House

Bryan Caplan has long inspired me. We don’t share a political ideology, but his writing on child-rearing has often come at exactly the right moment for me. (His Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids helped me overcome a brief antinatalism phase, for instance.) His work on borders and immigration is less groundbreaking, but no less true, and in his forthcoming fun comic on the topic he and Zach Weinersmith will bring scholarly rigor and friendly advocacy to new heights. He’s obviously right that immigration restrictions are immoral and self-defeating—but no one is listening in this new age of nationalism. His latest book has fewer concrete ethical consequences—but it deploys evidence from educational psychology that has long puzzled me in service of a policy argument that has almost no chance of uptake, and so cements my view of Bryan as a careful and provocative scholar doing his best to tell the truth even when no one will listen.

Mini-Review

The argument in The Case Against Education is simple: most people don’t learn much of value to employers in their college educations. This is possibly also true even for some parts of K-12 schooling. Education instead is largely a mix of experience high-ability people would seek out on their own and an opportunity to distinguish oneself from other applicants in the resume rat race. The bulk of the book is a response to the various objections that are now forming in your mind.

You’d have to be pretty nerdy to be reading this, so the first step for evaluating the argument is to use a bit of empathy: forget your own experience in school, except the bad parts. I hated high school, but I loved college so much I took it as a career. Even then, I don’t remember a good deal of what I studied outside of my chosen field. And many of my fellow students were much less enthusiastic. So ask yourself:

  1. How much high school Spanish do you remember?
  2. Do you remember the titles—let alone the plots—of all the books you read in 11th grade English?
  3. What is ionization energy?
  4. Remember calculus? Can you solve a parametric equation today?

Perhaps you can answer half of these questions today without Google. That’s not a lot of retention. Whenever I get stuck in conversations on planes with people about the one philosophy class they took in college, they tend not remember much of the content. (“The cave, right?! Brains in vats? Veil of ignorance…. I hated that class.”)

Caplan summarizes well-established but little-known work in educational psychology on learning transfer which seems to show that mostly students don’t learn or retain much. Instead, a lot of education seems to combine three things, in some combination: an accumulation of habits, skills, and knowledge that we can call “human capital,” a costly and difficult signal that distinguishes us to employers, and a kind of consumption that is distinctive of high ability and high-income people.

I won’t say much about signaling as such: for Caplan, education provides future workers with an opportunity to create truthful, hard to fake resumes that demonstrate intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity. On his view, the time you spent acing classes you’ll never need proves you’re willing to play the game better than any personal statement could ever do. Of course that’s part of it… but how much?

The human capital model is the one we’re all thinking about when we recommend education. Education, we want to believe, makes you smarter, more capable, more knowledgeable, and more effective. Caplan seems to think that this is a relatively small part of what is going on in education. In the book he sometimes says human capital is 20% of education’s contribution to income, though he’ll also say it is 11% of the effect of education.

That’s because education is also fun, and especially fun for people who tend to earn high incomes because they are intelligent, curious, and conscientious. In that sense, education is like other high-class consumption goods: eating good food or taking fancy vacations, for instance.  In fact, the “fun” part of education rivals the signaling element. (He estimates ‘ability bias’ accounts for 45%, and signaling for 44%.) I’ve known many smart, curious people who retire from a successful career and go back to school. They’re not in school to learn and become more effective workers, but rather because education can be an intrinsic good with no instrumental value.

This is likely the case my progressive friends would make: you don’t study philosophy to be a better nurse or accountant or medical doctors—though there are ways that the critical thinking skills you learn may help you—you study philosophy because you’ve got questions about the nature of the universe, existence, death, justice, beauty, and truth. And the smarter and more successful you’ve been, the more you can enjoy learning about philosophy and literature. It’s an end-in-itself. Caplan seems to think that education as a high-ability consumption like backpacking in Europe or kite-surfing in the Caribbean—for kids wealthy enough to afford it on their own or retired adults looking to reflect on it all, but not for that time in your life when you’re trying to figure out your place in the economy.

I think we progressives should take Caplan’s argument seriously. But in some ways we already do: we’ve all read and shared articles like these: “Why American Colleges are Becoming a Force of Inequality,” and “Schools that accept ‘no excuses’ from students are not helping them.” Progressives are coming around to the idea that higher education is not a great leveler, and the segregated K-12 schools are increasingly a pipeline to prison rather than jobs for the least advantaged.

Our counterarguments often play up underfunding of state flagship universities, and so progressives often seek to double down on higher education with Bernie Sanders-style free college guarantees and increased spending. But at the same, we are increasingly aware of efforts to make schooling more regimented, disciplinary, and prison-like. We see that African-American and poor students are being shuttled towards “no excuses” schools while white and wealthy students find get play-based curricula, experiential learning, and above all a kind of caring and loving environment. Those experiences should tell us something.

Look forward to some future posts (or maybe someone will ask me for a real review) using my favorite sources: Michel Foucault, Paolo Freire, Pierre Bourdieu, Elizabeth Anderson, and John Dewey. But I put Jane Addams there at the top for a reason: it’s not just libertarians but one of the founders of progressive pragmatism who holds this view.

A review wouldn’t be complete without some criticisms: Caplan quotes Richard Arum and Jospia Roksa only once, and ignores their findings that the right kind of liberal arts education can increase critical thinking, problem solving, and analytic writing skills. He believes that this can only work for eager students, which are in short supply, and that most of the results of the Collegiate Learning Assessment can be confounded with IQ. His emphasis on IQ means that he also hasn’t properly evaluated the Foucaultian argument that schools produce large amounts of social conformity and conscientiousness, rather than merely measuring it. Finally, there is plenty of evidence that education plays an important signaling role for historically oppressed groups (women, African-Americans, and the formerly incarcerated). In fact, Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce just published this study, which is being reported widely with headlines like this: “Women need one more degree than men to earn the same average salary.”

Still, these objections don’t overcome the overall problems with education as it is currently practiced. Very often we see policy justification switches like the following: when the evidence from Quebec and Tennesse on early childhood education began to countermand the Abecedarian Project’s consensus view that universal pre-K could benefit poor children, advocates switched their arguments from the benefits to children to benefits to mothers’ employment. This kind of motte and bailey argument doesn’t have to be a total fallacy, since after all a policy can have many possible promising effects, some of which end up being disproven. But it’s more evidence against schooling as the accumulation of individual human capital.

(previously: What are the ruling ideas today? Is ‘College For All’; among them?Academically Adrift’s Methodological ShipwreckFor Education, Against Credentialism)

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