SoHo Forum debate: “All government support of higher education should be abolished?”

Last night I went to a SoHo Forum debate on education, with Ed Glaeser supporting government-funded education and Bryan Caplan opposing; I already knew most of Caplan’s case, from reading The Case Against Education.

By far the most interesting piece of (then unknown to me) data came from Glaeser, citing a paper or set of papers the examine national income growth from 1960 to the present (or 2010 or thereabouts) that find education seems to explain income growth but income growth doesn’t seem to explain education. I didn’t catch the names of the authors, but that sounds like one of the better pieces of evidence against The Case Against Education. I’ve been following reviews of the book and so far the critical arguments haven’t been good; most have already been addressed in the book, and the authors just missed them—or their pro-education worldview prevents them from reading and understanding.

To be sure, I’m sympathetic to criticism of Case; having worked for a long time in education I want Case to be wrong. But I cannot find any good arguments against it, either on my own or that others have put forth. Many people don’t like abstract symbol manipulation, despite the way that particular skill is fetishized in the education system. At the very least, putting forth more intelligent apprenticeship options is a good place to start.

Furthermore, I’ve long complained to friends that most of school is tedious and boring. For a while I’ve thought it’s boring because of whining risk:

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. Students who complain about school being boring get told that school is supposed to be boring. Students who complain about school being interesting (or “offensive,” or whatever) get much more attention.

But if education is really about signaling regarding conformity and conscientiousness, then boredom almost becomes a feature, rather than a bug. If one is willing to conscientiously do even very boring work, that’s a great labor market signal. If Caplan is correct school has been boring and will continue to be boring because no force pushes it not to be, except perhaps for the occasional idealistic teacher.

Still, I have a pet theory that education may really be about very high achievement among elites (who become scientific or artistic innovators) more than about mass education, the intellectual results of which Caplan does show to be… dubious. I don’t know how to test this theory and it is not original to me, although it takes new salience in light of Case. There’s an analogue to research here: most research is “wasteful,” but that’s because no one knows the answer till after it’s conducted; that’s why it’s called “research.” Most education may also be wasteful, but no one knows who is a waste to educate until it’s too late (up until I hit age 16 or so, I probably looked like a waste of scarce educational resources).

It’s always of interest to see someone in person who is only known on the page; I love, and often cite in propsals, Glaeser’s book The Triumph of the City, and in person he seems like one of those dapper titans of industry or now-extinct northeast, country-club Republicans of the ’50s.

Caplan posted his debate opening statement.

I didn’t think going in (and don’t think going out) that all forms of government support for education, higher or otherwise, ought to be abolished.


2 responses

  1. The most salient argument for college I’ve found is quoted below. The author, by the way, went on to write the ‘Animal House’ of his time, ‘The Plastic Age’ which was twice made into a movie. Sadly, the modern American university does less of the forcing to bloom earlier than to create hot house flowers.

    “The idea is, of course, that men are successful because they have gone to college. No idea was ever more absurd. No man is successful because he has managed to pass a certain number of courses and has received a sheepskin which tells the world in Latin, that neither the world nor the graduate can read, that he has successfully completed the work required. If the man is successful, it is because he has the qualities for success in him; the college “education” has merely, speaking in terms’ of horticulture, forced those qualities and given him certain intellectual tools with which to work–tools which he could have got without going to college, but not nearly so quickly. So far as anything practical is concerned, a college is simply an intellectual hothouse. For four years the mind of the undergraduate is put “under glass,” and a very warm and constant sunshine is poured down upon it. The result is, of course, that his mind blooms earlier than it would in the much cooler intellectual atmosphere of the business world.

    “A man learns more about business in the first six months after his graduation than he does in his whole four years of college. But—and here is the “practical” result of his college work–he learns far more in those six months than if he had not gone to college. He has been trained to learn, and that, to all intents and purposes, is all the training he has received. To say that he has been trained to think is to say essentially that he has been trained to learn, but remember that it is impossible to teach a man to think. The power to think must be inherently his. All that the teacher can do is help him learn to order his thoughts—such as they are. ”

    Marks, Percy, “Under Glass”, Scribner’s Magazine Vol 73, 1923, p 47


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