The Case Against Education — Bryan Caplan

The Case Against Education is a brilliant book that you should read, though you’ll probably reject its conclusions without really considering them. That’s because, as Caplan argues, most of us are prone to “Social Desirability Bias:” we want to say things that are popular and make people feel good, whether or not they’re true. Some true things may be socially desirable—but many false things may be too; the phrase “Don’t shoot the messenger” exists for a reason, as does the myth of Cassandra. We like to create scapegoats, and messengers are handy scapegoats. Simultaneously, we don’t like to take responsibility for our own ideas; and we like to collectively punish iconoclasts (at first, at least: later they may become idols, but first they must be castigated).

Caplan is an iconoclast but a data-driven one, and that’s part of what makes him unusual and special. And, to be sure, I myself am prone to the biases Caplan notes. Yet, as I read The Case Against Education, I couldn’t find many holes to poke in the argument. The book blends data and observation / anecdote well, and it also fits disturbingly well with my own teaching experiences. For example, Caplan notes that students find school boring and stultifying: “Despite teachers’ best efforts, most youths find high culture boring—and few change their minds in adulthood.” While “school is boring” seems obvious to most people, it’s also worth looking slightly more at why this happens. Many of the reasons Caplan gives are fine, but I’ll also add that “interesting” is often also “controversial,” and many controversial / interesting instructors will take heat for it, as I argue in “Ninety-five percent of people are fine — but it’s that last five percent:”

Almost no teacher gets in trouble for being boring, but a teacher can get in trouble or can get in trouble for being many values of “interesting.” Even I’ve had that problem, and I’m not sure I’m that interesting an instructor, and I teach college students.

It’s easy for outsiders to say that teachers should stand up to the vocal, unhappy minority. But it’s less easy to do that when a teacher relies on their job for rent and health insurance. It’s also less easy when the teacher worries about what administrators and principals will do and what could happen if the media gets involved or if the teacher gets demonized.

Despite the fact that no one actively wants school to be boring, the collection of forces operating on the school experience pushes it towards boredom. It seems very obvious, for example, that many people are very interested in sex and drugs, but those topics also excite many students and parents, such that it’s difficult to say much about them in school—and perhaps even more difficult to say things about them that are true, or complex and true.

As Caplan says, however, boredom is almost a feature, not a bug. Boring classes allow students to signal traits that employers value, like conscientiousness, intelligence, and conformity. Even if reading Ethan Frome is boring, being willing to tolerate Ethan Frome is important to people who would not themselves read Ethan Frome.

Caplan argues that most education is actually about signaling, not skill development. It’s interesting that we’ve not collectively been able to improve the education experience in the last two decades, when the Internet has opened up many new learning and signaling opportunities. Caplan has a theory for why the Internet hasn’t changed things: using weird counter-signaling efforts itself signals non-conformity and general weirdness (“‘alternative’ signals of conformity signal nonconformity”). So we’re stuck in a negative equilibrium.

He might be right. That being said, I wonder if we’re just seeing a lag: twenty years is a long time by some standards, but in the history of education it’s a relatively short time. The problems with contemporary education also seem to argue that many employers would be well-served to ignore the signals sent by degree and search for alternate signals instead. Google claims to be doing this, but I don’t know of any researchers who’ve audited or studied Google’s internal data (if you do, please leave a pointer in the comments).

The people who most need to read this book are probably educators and high school students. The former probably won’t read it because it punctures some of the powerful myths and beliefs that keep them motivated. The latter probably won’t read it because high school students read very few books, and the ones most likely to read The Case Against Education are probably also likely to gain the most from higher education. So it’s another of these books that’s caught in a readerly catch-22.

Here is a Claudia Goldin paper, “The Race between Education and Technology: The Evolution of U.S. Educational Wage Differentials, 1890 to 2005;” as one person said on Twitter, “I agree with @bryan_caplan that the wage premium from education mainly comes from signaling, rather than learning vocational skills. But – I also believe widespread, generalist, higher ed can be a very good thing (as explained in [“The Race Between…”]).”

I also wonder about this: “employers throughout the economy defer to teachers’ opinions when they decide whom to interview, whom to hire, and how much to pay them.” Do they? Do most employers require transcripts and then actively use those transcripts? It seems that many do look for degrees but don’t look for grades.

One question, too, is why more people don’t go into various forms of consulting; smaller firms are less likely to be interested in credentials than larger ones. I do grant writing for nonprofits, public agencies, and some research-based businesses. Zero clients have asked about educational credentials (well, a few public agencies have superficial processes that ask about them, but the decision-makers don’t seem to care). Clients are much more interested in our experience and the skills demonstrated by our website and client list than they are in credentials. And when we’ve hired various people, like website programmers or graphic designers, we’ve never asked about education either, because we don’t care—we care if they can get the job done. In restaurants, I’ve never stopped a server or hostess to ask if the chef went to cooking school. So smaller firms may offer some respite from degree madness; if there is a market opportunity for avoiding expensive college and the credentials race (for individuals), it might be there.

Yet at the same time, I feel (perhaps wrongly) that school did help me become a better writer. “Feel” is a dangerous word—it’s hard to dispute feelings but easy to dispute data—yet I don’t know how else to describe it. When I read other people’s writing, especially other people’s proposals, I often think, “This helps explain why I have the job I do.” It’s possible to get through college and learn very little about writing. Occasionally managers will learn that I teach writing and say, “Why can’t college graduates write effectively?” An excellent question and one that requires 10,000 words of answer or no answer at all. But the alternative—not taking any writing classes—often seems worse.

Caplan also conducts many fascinating thought experiments, of sorts, although perhaps “contextualizes common practices and ideas” may be more accurate:

The human capital model doesn’t just imply all cheaters are wasting their time. It also implies all educators who try to prevent cheating are wasting their time. All exams might as well be take-home. No one needs to proctor tests or call time. No one needs to punish plagiarism—or Google random sentences to detect it. Learners get job skills and financial rewards. Fakers get poetic justice.

Signaling, in contrast, explains why cheating pays—and why schools are wise to combat it. In the signaling model, employers reward workers for the skills they think those workers possess. Cheating tricks employers into thinking you’re a better worker than you really are. The trick pays because unless everyone cheats all the time, students with better records are, on average, better workers.

Makes sense to me. I sometimes tell students that, if they manage to get through college without learning how to read and write effectively, no one comes back to ask me why. No college offers partial refunds to the unemployable who nonetheless graduate. The signal is the signal.

Many of you will not like The Case Against Education too because it is thorough. Caplan goes through his arguments, then many rebuttals, then rebuttals to the rebuttals. If you want a book that only goes one or two layers deep, this is the wrong book for you and you should stick to the Internet.

Many books also fail to convincingly answer the question, “What should we do about the problem identified?” Caplan doesn’t. He argues that public spending on education (or “education:” as much of what seems like education should be called signaling) should be eliminated altogether, while simultaneously acknowledging that this is only slightly more likely than someone jumping to the moon.

Caplan fulfills many of the conditions of myth, but probably not enough people will read this book to truly hate him. Which is a pity: as I said in the first line, the book is brilliant. But socially desirable persons will reject it, if they consider it at all. And the education machine will press on, a monstrous juice press squeezing every orange that enters its maw. Once I was the orange; now I am the press.

One other answer to “What education does?” may be “to keep options open” and “provide a base from which to build later.” Without some writing and numeracy skills, it’ll be hard to enter many careers; while school may do a lousy job of building them (as Caplan demonstrates), if the alternative to school nothing (i.e. Netflix, hanging out, and partying), school may be a better option than nothing.

As for optionality, I think of my friends, many artistically inclined, who got to their mid or late 20s and around that time got tired of working marginal jobs, struggling to pay rent, working in coffee shops, crashing on friends’ couches, etc. Things that seem glamorous at age 20 often seem depressing five or ten years later. Many of them have gone back to school of various kinds to get programming or healthcare jobs. In the former case, math is important, and in the latter case, biology and some other science knowledge is important. Those who blew off math or bio in high school or college struggle more in those occupations. So maybe education is about keeping at least some options open—or more options than would be open for someone who quits school or begins vocational ed in 8th grade.

Finally, education might be an elite phenomenon. We educate everyone, or, more realistically, attempt to educate everyone, in order to get a relatively small number of elite people into position to drive the entire culture forward. The people at the pinnacle of the scientific, technical, artistic, and social elites got there in part because they had access to education that was good enough to get them into the elite spheres where it’s possible to make a real difference.

I’m not sure I’m in those elite spheres, but I may be close, and at age 15 I probably didn’t look like such a good bet. Yet education continued and here I am, engaging in the kinds of conversations that could move the culture forward. If I’d been tracked differently at age 15 that might not’ve happened. Yes, the process is horrendously wasteful, but it’s useful to give many people a shot, even if most people go nowhere.

To be sure, I buy Caplan’s argument, but I’ve not seen this angle pursued by others, and it at least seems plausible. I also don’t know how one would measure the “education as elite phenomenon” argument, which is another weakness of my own point.

Still, I’ve become more of an elitist because of my involvement in the educational system, which shows that most students are in fact bored and don’t give a damn. When I started grad school I thought I could help students become more engaged by changing the nature of the short journal assignments: instead of just writing for me, students would start blogs that they would read and comment on. Education would become more peer-driven and collaborative. The material would seem relevant. Right?

After a semester or two of reactions that ranged from indifference at best to massive hostility at worst, I stopped and went back to the usual form of short written responses, printed, and handed in. That was easier on me and on the students, and it still at least exposed students to the idea of writing regularly. A few may have continued the practice. Most probably didn’t (and don’t). I learned a lot, maybe more than students, and I also learned that I’m a weirdo for my (extreme) interests in writing and language—but my own time in the education system and my own friend set had to some extent hidden that from me. Now, however, it’s so apparent that I wonder what 24-year-old me was thinking.

Caplan helps explain what I was thinking; many people who go into various kinds of teaching are probably optimists who themselves like school. They’re selected for being, in many cases, passionate weirdos. Personally, I like passionate weirdos and misfits and the people who don’t fit well into the school system (I’ve been all three). But I seem to be unusual in that respect too, though I wasn’t so weird that I couldn’t fit into the convention-making machine. A good thing, too—as Caplan notes, it’s individually rational to pursue educational credentials, even if the mass pursuit of those credentials may not be so good for society as a whole. Correlation is not causation, as you no doubt learned from your statistics classes and still understand today.

10 responses

  1. Well Jake, one thing is for sure, without education not a lot of people would be able/willing to read Caplan’s book, let alone buy it. Without education most would not get very far even reading this article with in-depth understanding. Without education your audience would shrink and you would be pretty much writing notes to yourself, which could get very boring. Without education we will have a much tougher time lifting ourselves out of the wage malaise we are in. To gain knowledge helps empower oneself to understand what’s going on around him/her so they can make better decisions. Tell me which population you prefer: an educated or non-educated one? I’d prefer the educated.


  2. Pingback: Thursday assorted links - Marginal REVOLUTION

  3. Big law firms and financial services companies most definitely look at quality of institution attended and at grades attained, and (for those with only a bachelor’s degree) intellectual respectability of major. They most certainly do not treat all degrees as equal. It is my understanding that universities and big tech companies do the same in their hiring. So that is four fields (admittedly all very elite) where superficial credentialing (i.e., just having a piece of paper called a diploma) is not what employers are seeking. Of the rest of the world, I know very little.

    Furthermore, the work that young lawyers do at law firms is very similar to what is tested on law school exams, i.e., they analyze factual situations and identify legal issues. So there is every reason to believe that law school grades are a good predictor of job performance.


    • So there is every reason to believe that law school grades are a good predictor of job performance.

      I’d be curious to see any studies that’ve been done on it!

      Google (and presumably other tech firms) says that it’s found degrees non-predictive:

      I wonder about the extent to which big law firms and financial services companies are just overpaying and leaving talent on the table, so to speak.


      • I would turn that around. The world is one giant study. When a whole industry converges on a solution, the most parsimonious explanation is that it is the optimal solution. If you study the history of biglaw, you will learn that Paul Cravath revolutionized the law firm world by instituting hiring based on merit, as defined by good grades at good schools. (As opposed to family background, winning person manner, athletic prowess, or whatever.) His firm prospered mightily, and others followed suit.


      • P.S. Whatever Google says, my personal observations (of friends’ children, and children’s friends) is that entry level hiring at big tech tends to people with good grades from top schools. I would bet the ratio of Harvard grads to (say) Fordham grads at Google is at least 10 to 1.


      • Is the combination of good grades and degree from a school with highly competitive admissions anything other than a filtering mechanism for a combination of high IQ, high conscientiousness, and high agreeableness? That is to say, is it important to firms what students have learned? I suspect that in law, medicine, engineering and finance having the knowledge base provided by higher education is important. I mean, if a knowledge base is necessary in the trades, why wouldn’t it be in the professions?


      • Well, it isn’t possible to (i) possess intelligence, conscientiousness, and pro-sociality and (ii) graduate from a quality institution of higher learning, without also acquiring reasonable writing, quantitative, and organizational skills. If you imagine someone from the Amazon rain forest who has the attributes described in clause (i) above but without the resultant skills, then no, he or she would not be useful to a law firm or financial services firm.


  4. 1. What a great review. Found it thru MR. Motivates me to buy and read the book.

    2. On Google hiring. A fascinating sidebar.

    My sense of things via friends who work there:

    They’ve threaded the needle here: chosen a fairly obvious hiring mechanism (choose really high IQ programmers who are not annoying) and avoided controversy by doing 2 things:

    a. Explicitly saying “yes, it’s cognitive ability, but NOT IQ.” Essentially they’ve invented their own version of a performative cognitive test, done in person, which allows them (importantly) to call it something besides IQ or SAT or other proxies.

    Undisclosed: how much their cognitive test correlates with IQ. A bet? Lots.

    b. Publicly describing several other components of hiring, in a way to distract from the potentially politically problematic focus on cognitive ability. Example: “Hey we don’t care about college degrees – look at our 14% who don’t even have a degree” (But perhaps do have 790 math SAT and were ADMITTED to elite colleges).

    It’s their own version of signaling, perhaps.


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