Gene Epstein's Essay/Review of The Case Against Education, by Bryan Caplan
Early in my career as a college instructor, I adopted a radical grading policy that I felt would be fairer to my students, while helping to preserve my own sanity. I hated that cowed look on the faces of my captive audience as I stood in front of a class. It also seemed unjust that passing my courses should be a prerequisite to a degree, that was in turn a prerequisite to a decent job, that for most students would have very little to do with introductory economics, even assuming many of them retained the material the day after the final.
So on the first day of each class, I announced that all present would get a grade of C merely for signing up. As my concession to the system, those seeking a higher grade would have to do the work and prove themselves.
The sign-up rate for my courses soared in response, with no one snitching to the administration about my subversive practices. About 10% of enrollees ever showed up for class. But while the empty rows of seats bothered me, those who did attend seemed engaged. I eventually quit college teaching, vowing never to appear again before an unwilling audience.
Was I just an uninspiring teacher with uniquely apathetic students? In The Case Against Education, George Mason University economics professor Bryan Caplan’s persuasive indictment of his own industry, Prof. Steven Pinker is quoted on his teaching experience at America’s most storied institution of higher learning. “A few weeks into every semester,” writes the eminent psychologist and polymath, “I face a lecture hall that is half empty, despite the fact that I am repeatedly voted a Harvard Yearbook Favorite Professor, that the lectures are not video recorded, and that they are the only source of certain material that will be on the exam.”
Pinker adds: “I don’t take it personally; it’s common knowledge that Harvard students stay away from lectures in droves, burning a fifty-dollar bill from their parents’ wallets every time they do.”
At Harvard, three-quarters of undergraduates score 98th percentile or higher on the SAT’s. Elsewhere, apathy is also the norm. According to data cited by Caplan, 25-40% of college students don’t show up for class, even though attendance is taken in some courses with a direct bearing on the final grade. What share of the rest would bother to show up if that weren’t the case? As for high school students, for whom cutting class is a serious offense, two-thirds report being bored in class every day of the school year, according to a survey Caplan cites.
Whether Pinker’s absentees really are burning their parents’ money depends on what’s actually being sold. If, as Caplan painstakingly argues, students are mainly buying a diploma, then it’s money well-spent, especially when the sheepskin bears the Harvard label.
It seems fitting that Harvard dropout Bill Gates has called Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now his “new favorite book of all time.” As often happens when people grow older, the 62-year-old philanthropist is probably more interested in abstract ideas than he was at 19—when, by his own admission, he cut every class he had signed up for.
Caplan’s subtitle reads, Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money. He of course exempts those parts that teach essentials like reading, writing, and basic math, and professional and vocational programs that impart job-related skills in high demand. As for the rest of the curriculum: “Teach curious students about ideas and culture,” he suggests. “Leave the rest in peace and hope they come around.” He plausibly conjectures that more of them might eventually choose to participate in the life of the mind if it weren’t forced on them when they aren’t ready for it.
A witty and magnetic speaker, Caplan has promoted his book before skeptical audiences, interviewers, and critics at different venues, including the Soho Forum, the monthly debate series I direct and moderate. The encounters have raised questions worth exploring.
The core question Caplan addresses is why employers so richly reward high school and college degrees, when the content of the coursework has so little to do with the jobs employers offer. As one stand-up comic recalled in mock surprise after graduating with a B.A. in philosophy, “The philosophy companies weren’t hiring that year.” Yet college graduates earn substantially more than high school graduates, and the latter earn more than high school dropouts. Caplan builds on the work of other economists in estimating that 80% of schooling is not about skills useful in the workplace, but about “signalling.”
By earning a college diploma, you convey a message about yourself to employers—not just that you’re smarter than most, but that, compared to others, you have two other qualities employers value: conscientiousness, and a willingness to play by the rules. The diploma serves as evidence of these three traits. Perhaps the most decisive proof is the “sheepskin effect.” If college really does enhance human capital, you’d expect those who finish three of the four years to earn roughly three-quarters of the wage premium attributed to college; in fact, three years gets you less than half. Completing that last year counts for more than half—the sheepskin effect—because it crucially signals conscientiousness and conformity.
Employers don’t bear the cost of obtaining this information. That falls in part to parents and students, who hold a combined $1.5 trillion in college debt, and in part to taxpayers. In 1950, before the huge push to create government-funded higher education, a high school diploma was about as valuable for signaling as a college diploma is today. Now we spend hundreds of billions more for the same signal once provided by the high schools. All that money, Caplan argues, has yielded no discernible productivity gains. By analogy, since theater goers don’t see any better when everyone stands, they’re better off all staying in their seats; the effort of standing is a huge waste.
The author floats various radical proposals to end the zero-sum game, personally preferring the complete separation of school and state. Short of that, he suggests a massive rollback that would retain emphasis on basic skills, given the huge share of adults who are functionally illiterate and innumerate, and on vocational ed. If school no longer offered the signaling function, employers would have to resort to other ways of screening applicants, including internships and apprenticeships. Unlike educational systems in Europe, which separate blue collar from white collar at a relatively young age, talent from all classes would get early access to professional career tracks.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, the Manhattan Institute’s Chris Pope and Tim Rice point out that “courses required for a bachelor’s degree [have] little to do with medicine,” and urge that the U.S. follow the lead of Europe and allow young people to start medical training “immediately after high school.” They are, of course, quite right, but why stop there? Most K-12 courses have little to do with what most people do for a living, medicine included. So why not allow 13 year-olds to start professional programs and apprenticeships in virtually any field? Those who balk at the idea of being operated on by 19-year-old surgeons might consider that the immaturity of today’s teenagers has a lot to do with way society infantilizes them. We could probably infantilize 39-year-olds if schooling were required until age 40.
In an interview on the Cato Institute podcast Free Thoughts, Caplan recalled that Karl Hess, an outside-the-box thinker and libertarian, had arranged for his son to spend two weeks with 26 different acquaintances in 26 different fields. College, by contrast, offers exposure to careers like that of poet, musician, mathematician, translator, professor, and professional athlete, which combined make up the pursuits of less than 1% of the U.S. labor force.
At the Soho Forum debate, Caplan went up against Harvard economist and Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Edward Glaeser, who granted some validity to the signalling model, but argued that Caplan had greatly underestimated education’s contribution to enhancing human capital. Glaeser cited evidence that richer economies, both within regions of the U.S. and among countries around the world, spend far more of their resources on education than poor economies.
Glaeser acknowledged the possibility of reverse causation: Instead of more spending on education being a key factor in causing an economy to grow, economies that have grown may simply be spending more on education because they can afford it. But he countered that in countries such as Taiwan, China, Japan, and Singapore, increased spending on education must be a causal factor because it preceded a take-off in growth.
A competing explanation for growth, not mentioned by Caplan, is provided by the index of economic freedom compiled for more than 150 countries by the Fraser Institute, a free-market think tank based in Vancouver. Originally developed with the help of economist Milton Friedman, Fraser’s index measures factors such as rule of law, property rights, degree of regulation, openness to international trade, stability of money, and the size of government spending. They clearly influence economic growth, while the causal connection between human capital enhancement and most course content seems dubious. Spending on education actually lowers the economic freedom index, since it means more spending by government, and increased government spending is counted as a negative.
Rich countries have much higher indexes of economic freedom than poor countries, and for any particular country, a rising index is generally correlated with faster economic growth. Fraser picks up China in 1980, two years after the initiation of major reforms toward market liberalization. By 2000, China’s index of economic freedom had jumped by nearly 40%, and then by another 10% by 2015. Singapore’s index was already 12th highest in the world in 1970, and by 1995, had risen by 25%, to second highest—where it still remains, second only to Hong Kong.
On Free Thoughts, Caplan was told it sounded “elitist” and “inegalitarian” to give up on introducing young people to ideas and culture. He responded that it was probably more elitist to say that “everyone ought to appreciate Shakespeare,” rather than to admit that “some people are never going to appreciate Shakespeare.” At a Cato Institute event, he was charged with naively asserting that young people’s judgment could be trusted in these matters. He responded by recommending that they be asked every year, starting at age five, about their interest in history and culture. If the answer continues to be, “No, it’s boring,” then respect their choices.
On a more practical level, Caplan might have raised doubts about the value of the ideas and culture to which most students are exposed. We can optimistically support the worthy mission of NYU Sociologist Jonathan Haidt’s Heterodox Academy to increase “political and ideological diversity on...college campuses” without assuming that the swamp of tenure- and union-supported miseducation is about to be drained.
A friend reports that at the high school his son attends, the industrial revolution is portrayed as significant mainly for introducing child labor, a method of exploitation that had apparently never been practiced on farms. Academic misinformation of this sort isn’t just today’s norm. Back in the 1970s, economist George Stigler called “simply deplorable” the howlers recited by eminent historians like Arthur Schlesinger and C. Vann Woodward.
Left-wing indoctrination is not very effective in swaying minds, as Caplan happily reports, a failure he attributes to a combination of boring teachers and indifferent students. Young people would be better off skipping it altogether. And it’s not as though education has to come to an end once schooling ends. Online learning is “packed with great material taught by the best teachers on earth,” Caplan observes, and is available to just about anyone at any stage in life.
In an interview on his popular podcast EconTalk, Hoover Institution economist Russ Roberts faulted Caplan for not placing sufficient weight on the mind-enhancing benefits of formal education that are harder to measure. But in his book, he deals with the claim that “studying a subject improves you in subtle ways long after you forgot your explicit lessons.” He reviews the work of educational psychologists with a stake in proving that lessons learned in one context are often applied to others. The results have been disappointing. The idea that education teaches people “how to learn” or “how to think” independent of content is not supported by the evidence.
But even giving weight to the claim about hard-to-measure benefits, if young people were offered the alternative of experiential learning, the indirect benefits might be at least as great. Also, Caplan might have brought up the hard-to-measure harm brought by compulsory schooling: lingering resentment, impairment of curiosity, and a bad-taste-in-the-mouth that can result from being force-fed ideas and culture.
In Cultural Literacy, educational crusader E.D. Hirsch includes novelist Willa Cather as required reading for students, which must have caused Cather herself to spin in her grave. In a letter to an educator, she objected to having her books “‘assigned’ to students as part of the grind,” adding that “if young people read me, I would like it to be because they want to,” out of clear concern about nurturing interest in her work. Cather’s instincts seem better than Hirsch’s; her live-and-let-live approach could make cultural literacy more widespread rather than less.
Transcendent benefits, going well beyond the standard claims, have often been ascribed to a rigorous college education, perhaps no more forcefully than by the brilliant social critic Charles Murray. In his 2008 book, Real Education, the American Enterprise Institute emeritus scholar characteristically makes the non-PC argument that the lower 90% in academic ability are ill-served by being required to attend college. But they and everyone else would receive the cultural-literacy regimen of E.D. Hirsch. For the top 10%, he would impose a four-year college-level course of study that includes Plato, Beethoven, and Shakespeare to give them “the best possible chance to become not just knowledgeable but wise,” including the chance of attaining “humility” and “goodness.”
But does this one-size-fits-all approach offer most smart young people the best possible chance to attain wisdom and goodness? Plato, who had an ambitious educational agenda of his own, thought philosophy would get a “bad name” if taught to the under-30 set. And does educational attainment always yield positive results? It’s sobering to learn about the huge share of advance degrees among the Nazi elites; Beethoven was played at Auschwitz. President Harry Truman skipped college, and Ronald Reagan attended a backwater school. Would Murray regard them as inferior in wisdom to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, whose vitas are festooned with elite degrees? Recall William F. Buckley’s heartfelt quip that he would sooner be governed by the first two 2000 names in the Boston phone directory than by the 2000 faculty members of Harvard. And speaking of Harvard, this course of study might attract even fewer attendees than Steven Pinker’s lectures.
When Caplan appeared at the Cato Institute, questioners charged him with indifference to the real goal of education: “to create great citizens,” as one put it. His data show that, if the schools are trying to train people for citizenship, they are failing miserably. On the most rudimentary facts about American history and government, most Americans are quite ignorant.
Caplan might also have countered these challengers with a challenge of his own: Do they really think you can create great citizens in an environment that systematically denies free choice? On pain of being barred from well-paid professions, young people are compelled to spend precious years learning subjects that bore them. Charter schools deserve support for offering a wider range of choice, especially to poor students who have no alternative to their local public school. But even home-schoolers ultimately have to force their kids to conform to the requirements of the sheepskin effect.
At the Soho Forum debate, Caplan made a “principled argument,” appealing to libertarians by invoking the “presumption of liberty.” As he explained, “The burden of proof rests on the advocates of government intervention. If politicians are going to take our money without our consent, they should at least have solid proof that the money is very well spent.” The same presumption of liberty, and burden of proof, should apply to those who would would impose so many years of compulsory schooling on the young.
Egalitarians, who generally believe that money spent on schooling helps the poor, have accused Caplan of being indifferent to their plight. It’s of course true that poor people with talent can often benefit from a subsidized education that delivers high-paying jobs. But egalitarians still have good reason to support Caplan’s radical reforms.
In their 1979 book, Free To Choose, Milton and and Rose Friedman amply documented “the perverse redistributive effect of government expenditures on higher education.” Updated research would probably find the same redistribution from poor to rich. Childless people of limited means who haven’t gone to college, and those with children who don’t attend, are paying taxes that help fund the public universities attended by the children of the well-to-do; they also help finance enriched programs for the gifted and talented that disproportionately benefit the better-off. Roll this system back, and inequality would also be diminished.
For the talented offspring of the poor, abolishing high school and college diplomas as signalling devices will mean a far more level playing field. The rich can afford the costly years of schooling required to get a decent job; the poor can’t. True, Bernie Sanders proposes to fix the problem by making it all “free.” But then we revert to the earlier problem: The trillions required to make it free will in part be extracted from the poor who get no benefit from it. Also, without the needless hurdes of the costly system of signaling, a young person from a poor family might graduate from medical school at age 19, and be in a much better position to help support her parents and herself.
Then, too, funds freed up from paying for needless schooling can help finance more focussed instruction in literacy, numeracy, and vocational skills. Especially if the charter school movement continues to grow, poor people of limited skills would be helped most of all.
On EconTalk, Russ Roberts asked Caplan whether it gets him depressed to know that most students he teaches “cheer when class is canceled.” Caplan replied that the “two or three students” who care about the subject give the teaching experience meaning for him. He observes that if his radical proposals were implemented, he’d probably lose the tenured position he loves. He has written an important and convincing case for his own firing. But since schooling is our secular religion, he unfortunately has no reason to worry.