The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money

The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money

Despite being immensely popular--and immensely lucrative—education is grossly overrated. In this explosive book, Bryan Caplan argues that the primary function of education is not to enhance students' skill but to certify their intelligence, work ethic, and conformity—in other words, to signal the qualities of a good employee. Learn why students hunt for easy As and casuall...

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Title:The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money
Author:Bryan Caplan
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Edition Language:English

The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money Reviews

  • Ryan Lackey

    Caplan makes an excellent case against the Education-Government Complex on multiple grounds — that the value of education is primarily (80%?) signaling vs skill, that the skills taught are largely irrelevant to most students, that students don’t get much skill or viewpoint change from their time in education, and more. In general I agree with him, although I do think he undervalues a class of quantitative, mathematical, scientific, and analytics skills to a large number of workers — things which

    Caplan makes an excellent case against the Education-Government Complex on multiple grounds — that the value of education is primarily (80%?) signaling vs skill, that the skills taught are largely irrelevant to most students, that students don’t get much skill or viewpoint change from their time in education, and more. In general I agree with him, although I do think he undervalues a class of quantitative, mathematical, scientific, and analytics skills to a large number of workers — things which one learns incidentally to STEM education but which could easily be taught in a more vocational or even primary school to high school context.

    Making any kind of argument against education is extreme wrongthink; I’m amazed even a tenured professor is able to do this in modern America. In addition to touching on issues of inherent intelligence and social class, the “education makes sense for women as a place to find mates, even if they don’t intend to remain in the labor market” is probably difficult to admit.

    He does seem to think employers wouldn’t use IQ tests if they were allowed; while the Supreme Court ruling prohibits tests with “disparate impact”, there are enough state and other concerns that firms seem to shy away from tests.

    Overall, a great book and interesting argument.

  • Byrne

    Bryan Caplan’s new book has provoked a storm of criticism, from both laypeople and fellow economists. Fortunately, Caplan has taken the time to rebut his opponents, point-by-point. He put these rebuttals into a book called The Case Against Education, and I recommend his critics read it.

    Before I get going, I should admit that I'm biased: I'm a college dropout who has a white-collar job. If everyone thought like Caplan did, I would make a lot more money. On the other hand, it's not like this bias

    Bryan Caplan’s new book has provoked a storm of criticism, from both laypeople and fellow economists. Fortunately, Caplan has taken the time to rebut his opponents, point-by-point. He put these rebuttals into a book called The Case Against Education, and I recommend his critics read it.

    Before I get going, I should admit that I'm biased: I'm a college dropout who has a white-collar job. If everyone thought like Caplan did, I would make a lot more money. On the other hand, it's not like this bias affects anything important: of all the ways I could spend time trying to get a raise, arranging a wholesale shift in our culture is not at the top of the list. Also, Caplan has a stronger bias in the opposite direction: he's a tenured professor. If everyone read his book and took it seriously, he'd lose his dream job.

    So motivations won't help you figure out who to believe. You'll have to figure out what's right, instead.

    Fortunately, Caplan makes that pretty easy! The book basically makes the case that:

    1. Education mostly signals traits, rather than building them. Specifically, school signals intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity, all of which employers want in their workers. The education wage premium is real, but most of it would exist even if we didn't have as much schooling.

    2. Education largely fails at its intended goals, both at training people with practical skills and enriching their lives.

    3. If you accept 1 and 2, it's pretty much guaranteed that society spends too much time and money on education. We should reduce or eliminate subsidies, and probably tax it, too.

    There's a fun meta component to this: one of Caplan's workhorse arguments is the absence of "learning transfer," or the ability to apply an academic concept in an unfamiliar setting. A class can spend weeks on trigonometry, but ask students to explain why Eratosthenes' trick worked and they'll stare at you blankly. And some of the people who read this book have the same problem: they'll buy into the idea that school doesn't instill the traits it takes credit for, but if you ask them to follow the obvious inference--that we as a society shouldn't spend so much money on school--then poof! the lesson is forgotten.

    In fact, if I could level one criticism at the book, it would be that Caplan doesn't go far enough. He says college is still a good deal for good students, and statistically, that's true. But let's temporarily grant his argument and say that college signals IQ, conscientiousness, and conformity. There are (he concedes) other ways to signal the first two. You could solve Project Euler problems, write a novel, join the army, be a snappy dresser who shows up on time and answers emails before 5am, etc. But you can't prove conformity except by doing what everybody else does to conform.

    Conformity is important to employers. But is it getting more important, or less? And is it more important for the good jobs, or the not-so-good jobs. A very conformist bond trader is not going to make any money. A conformist product manager or engineer isn't going to help your startup land the killing blow against Kmpttr or ThatOtherCompany.io. Fast food companies hire lots of conscientious, conformist workers--but they roll off assembly lines in Shenzhen and display menu options on a touchscreen. Education is a 40-year bet on the future of the labor market. Over that time period, do you really want to bet against robots?

    Personally, I loved the book's style. It's basically an FAQ with all of the questions deleted. Caplanraises an argument, marshals supporting evidence, admits it when his confidence interval is wider than usual, and cites mountains of evidence. He's also full of good lines that made the book extra fun to read:

    >When students celebrate the absence of education, it's tempting to blame their myopia on immaturity. Tempting, but wrongheaded. Once they're in college, myopic, immature students can unilaterally skip class whenever they like. Why wait for the teacher's green light? For most students, there's an obvious answer: When you skip class, your relative performance suffers. When your teacher cancels class, everyone learns less ,leaving your relative performance unimpaired.

    > Both sculptors and appraisers have the power to raise the market value of apiece of stone.

    On the idea that schools teach students "how to learn" or give them an appreciation for high culture:

    >"We're mediocre at teaching what we measure, but great at teaching what we don't measure" is comically convenient... Should we believe teachers are better at achieving unmeasured afterthoughts?

    >Incidentally, the marriage market is probably the strongest reason to pay for expensive private schools. Going to Harvard may not get you a better job but almost certainly puts you in an exclusive dating pool for life.

    Seriously, the whole book is full of lines like this. Caplan makes a strong empirical and theoretical case against education, backs it up well, and presents it in style.

    This book won't affect public policy, though. Most people won't read it, and plenty of people who read it won't get it. It makes me wish there were some institution charged with encouraging young people to become lifelong readers, encouraging them to think analytically, and molding them into engaged citizens who work hard to advance good public policies. Oh well.

  • Daniel Lucraft

    Half way through this book I thought “ok I’m convinced, no need to go on about it”. By the time I finished it I felt as though every opinion I had on education had been reshaped.

    For instance, the other day I watched a YouTube video discussing how to use gamification to increase engagement in schools and help kids learn more more easily. This would have seemed like a great policy with no downsides to me before, but now seems like a way to dramatically increase the amount of learning and work kids

    Half way through this book I thought “ok I’m convinced, no need to go on about it”. By the time I finished it I felt as though every opinion I had on education had been reshaped.

    For instance, the other day I watched a YouTube video discussing how to use gamification to increase engagement in schools and help kids learn more more easily. This would have seemed like a great policy with no downsides to me before, but now seems like a way to dramatically increase the amount of learning and work kids have to do to appear impressive to colleges and employers, and they’re still going to forget most of it.

    Of course, this is the definition of a book that’s NOT going to change the world — because a politician would have to have the IQ of a cucumber to even ADMIT he’d READ this book.

    But as a reader you can still get out of it some personal lessons on the _precise_ personal value of education out of it, which is useful.

    The author is a libertarian, and this has led him to make libertarian suggestions for addressing the problem. Worrying about this is missing the point of the book, as there are plenty of alternative possible policies not related to libertarian ideas.

    (My favourite to consider would be for the UK government to reduce the length of a degree to one year, for all students. Perfectly in line with Caplan’s ideas, but not at all libertarian.)

  • Shawn

    Bryan Caplan’s new book is a devastating and depressing take down of the education system. Caplan argues that the education system does little to educate and that most of the gains we see from education are not linked to what students may learn. If he’s right, then most of the current education system (K-12, higher ed) is a colossal waste. There are, nevertheless, important liberating elements (at least for me as a higher ed teacher).

    There is a lot Caplan covers, and I won’t touch on most of it

    Bryan Caplan’s new book is a devastating and depressing take down of the education system. Caplan argues that the education system does little to educate and that most of the gains we see from education are not linked to what students may learn. If he’s right, then most of the current education system (K-12, higher ed) is a colossal waste. There are, nevertheless, important liberating elements (at least for me as a higher ed teacher).

    There is a lot Caplan covers, and I won’t touch on most of it here. I’m going to focus on a few key things that struck me as the most important and interesting. Agree with his conclusions or not, Caplan presents us with an important argument about education with which we need to deal. Refreshingly, he’s very open with the data and even provides links to the spreadsheets for people to play with the data and assumptions themselves. One gets the sense he would love to be disproved about the disvalue of education.

    First, the devastation and depression. The basic theme of the book is this: college graduates, on average, earn 73% more than high school graduates and Caplan wants to explain this earning premium. It needs explaining because, as he argues, very little of it seems to be tied to what college graduates learn in college. The view that the premium is tied to the training and skills learned in college is what Caplan calls the Human Capital view. You go to college, learn a bunch of stuff, and this makes it so you are more likely to be hired into a good job and earn more. Caplan argues that this conventional view is largely mistaken on a few counts: students don’t learn that much or remember much of what they do learn; and what they learn is not usually a skill relevant for the job. (If you are skeptical of this, read the book and evaluate his data and arguments.)

    One of the things that has convinced me that the human capital view is not accurate is that college dropouts are not in a much better position (for hiring and earning) than high school graduates. For example, at ASU you need 120 credits to graduate. If you earn 119 credits but skip that last credit hour, your hiring and earning potential is just slightly better than the high school graduate with 0 college credits. That’s hard to square with the human capital view. You earned 99% of the degree and so if the college premium was due to what you learn you should be a lot closer to the college graduate than the high school graduate. Unless, as Caplan quips, we teach all the important skills in that last credit hour.

    Caplan shows that a huge chunk of the college premium is just having the degree—not what you learn while getting the degree. This is the Signaling view. The college degree signals important information to potential employers about your employability: intelligence, conformity, and conscientiousness (discipline, work effort, punctuality). Crossing the finish line of the diploma takes some reasonable amount of intelligence. Going to (and graduating from) a traditional four-year college shows your willingness to conform to social norms and expectations. Lastly, it shows, at a minimum, that you were able to follow enough directions and show up to class on time enough that you were able to pass enough classes to get the degree. Caplan argues that these signals make up about 80% of the college earning premium.

    One might say, ok, fine signaling is most of the premium, but education is still worthwhile because it broaden student’s horizons, awakes them to new possibilities, spurs the imagination beyond the mundane, and teaches them deeper thinking and conceptual skills that they can use to become better citizens and human beings. Caplan’s response: Wishful thinking. That’s want we education to be. It’s what for academics like myself and Caplan it partly was. It’s just not what it is for most people. For most students: they don’t want to be there and they aren’t prepared to be there. And even so, their horizons and imaginations don’t actually get broadened all that much anyway.

    Caplan acknowledges that this sounds cynical and elitist. But, as he argues, it is about what the data shows. Maybe a different education system could fulfill the broadening horizons myth, but education in this world and in this structure doesn’t even come close. Based on my near two decades of teaching in universities, I’d have to agree. I like to think I’m expanding student’s horizons and improving their thinking; that I’m exposing them to new and exciting ideas. And there are a few students for whom this is true. But most just ask if it is going to be on the test and can we get out of class early. Maybe I’m just a crappy teacher or have mediocre students. But Caplan’s data suggests otherwise: no matter the teacher or the school this is the norm.

    In this way this is depressing: what is the point of my job? Am I just wasting my time? But it is also liberating. It frees me to focus on the students and ideas in the here and now. It’s not about job prep or their future: it’s about engaging ideas with students who are interested right now. I can focus on what I find exciting and cool. The students who are also engaged can come along. Those who aren’t, aren’t really missing out on anything important to them. They can just move along the signal chain on to something that does interest them.

    One of the counters to his critique that Caplan looks at is this. Sure, students aren’t going to use categorical syllogisms on the job or find much use outside of history for learning how to interpret original historical sources. But the abstract thinking skills they learn when doing these things is something that will be important in their lives and jobs. It’s hard to teach these abstract thinking skills directly, but they can be picked up by studying logic, history, chemistry, etc. Call this the abstract thinking argument. It’s an argument I’ve made in the past when trying to sell students on philosophy. Caplan looks at the education psychological literature and argues that there just isn’t any empirical evidence for the abstract thinking argument. I’m not that convinced he’s right on this.

    Now, I haven’t look at this literature, but based on the what Caplan says about it, I’m not sure it works to show the abstract thinking argument doesn’t work. He looks at what is called “transfer of knowledge.” Do students who learn the scientific method, use the scientific method outside the contexts in which they learn it? In other words, do they transfer the method over from their chemistry classes to using it outside of chemistry? The evidence, Caplan says, is no, they don’t. And that might be true (I see versions of this in which students don’t use the writing skills they learn in composition classes in other non-composition classes such as my philosophy classes). But this seems different from the abstract thinking argument. The transfer of knowledge evidence seems to be about specific skills or methods. But I’m not sure it applies to learning abstract processes of thought like logical thinking.

    Here’s an analogy. You learn dribbling in soccer and that isn’t applicable outside of soccer. But running as a skill is broad athletic skill that is used across many sports (and beyond). I am concerned that what Caplan has shown is that dribbling is not transferable but then using that as the claim that there is no evidence that running is transferable. If abstract thinking skills are more like running with wide usage, then Caplan’s evidence misses the mark.

    The policy implications of Caplan’s book are intriguing. The most important one, I think, is the need to develop and encourage different pathways for students. There are students for whom the traditional college experience is perfect: they will succeed at it, enjoy it, and reap the benefits from it. But it is not and should not be the path for all. Apprenticeships, technical education, and vocational education are other options that would serve the needs and interests of many more people—and have greater payoff for the broader society and not just the individual who is better able to get a job and earning a living.

    There is a lot in Caplan’s book that is worth looking at and thinking about it. Some of which is probably wrong. I surely don’t agree with all his arguments or interpretations of the data. What I think is most important about the book is that it calls for us to look at education as it is, not what we wish or hope it to be. If we want to get education to what we wish it could be, we have to deal with the reality of the current system and not pretend it is something else.

    Caplan calls himself an educational whistleblower. His whistleblowing will, I hope, lead to more conversations, and more realistic conversations, about education.

  • Sean Rosenthal

    Interesting Quotes:

    "Learning doesn't have to be useful. Learning doesn't have to be inspiring. When learning is neither useful nor inspirational, though, how can we call it anything but wasteful?"

    -Bryan Caplan, the Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money

    -----------

    "Popular support for education subsidies rests on the [fallacy of composition]. The person who gets more education, gets a better job. It works; you see it plainly. Yet it does not follow that if e

    Interesting Quotes:

    "Learning doesn't have to be useful. Learning doesn't have to be inspiring. When learning is neither useful nor inspirational, though, how can we call it anything but wasteful?"

    -Bryan Caplan, the Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money

    -----------

    "Popular support for education subsidies rests on the [fallacy of composition]. The person who gets more education, gets a better job. It works; you see it plainly. Yet it does not follow that if everyone gets more education, everyone gets a better job. In the signaling model, subsidizing everyone's schooling to improve our jobs is like urging everyone to stand up at a concert to improve our views. Both are 'smart for one, dumb for all.'"

    -Bryan Caplan, the Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money

    ----------------------

    "Now we're up to three broad traits that education signals: intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity. We could easily extent this list: education also signals a prosperous family, cosmopolitan attitudes, and fondness for foreign films. For a profit-maximizing employer, however, the extensions are a distraction. The road to academic success is paved with the trinit of intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity."

    -Bryan Caplan, the Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money

    ----------------------

    "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 us."

    -Bryan Caplan, the Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money

    ----------------------

    "Transfer researchers usually begin their careers as idealists. Before studying educational psychology, they take their power to 'teach students how to think' for granted. When they discover the professional consensus against transfer, they think they can overturn it. Eventually, though, young researchers grow sadder and wiser. The scientific evidence wears them down - and their firsthand experience as educators finishes the job . . .

    "Though some educational psychologists deny that education *must* yield minimal transfer, almost all admit that actually existing education *does* yield minimal transfer. The upshot: human capital purists can't credibly dismiss the disconnect between what we learn in school and what we do on the job. Relevance is highly relevant. If what you learn in school lacks obvious real-world applications, you'll probably never apply it. When a rare opportunity to use trigonometry knocks, it knocks too faintly to hear.

    "The clash between teachers' grand claims about 'learning how to learn' and a century of careful research is jarring. Yet common sense skepticism is a shortcut to the expert consensus. Teachers' plea that 'we're mediocre at teaching what we measure, but great at teaching what we don't measure' is comically convenient. When someone insists their product has big, hard to see benefits, you should be dubious by default - especially when the easy-to-see benefits are small."

    -Bryan Caplan, the Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money

    ----------------------

    "*Most* of what schools teach has no value in the labor market. Students fail to learn *most* of what they're taught. Adults forget *most* of what they learn. When you mention these awkward facts, educators speak to you of miracles: studying anything makes you better at everything. Never mind educational psychologists' century of research exposing these so-called miracles as soothing myths."

    -Bryan Caplan, the Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money

    --------------

    "The clearest lesson: dropping out of high schools is imprudent for virtually all shapes and sizes. Even Poor Students who loathe school should foresee returns near 5%. Other lessons: Higher education is a good deal for Excellent Students even if they despise school. For Good Students, though, deep-seated hostility makes higher education a close call. The flip side: College is a so-so deal for Fair Students who truly love school. Otherwise, higher education for Fair and Poor Students is a hail-Mary pass. Unless they get lucky, they can better prepare for their future by getting a job and saving money. The master's degree, finally, is an okay deal for Excellent Students who adore school. Everyone else, beware."

    -Bryan Caplan, the Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money

    ------------------

    "Incidentally, the marriage market is probably the strongest reason to pay for expensive private schools. Going to Harvard may not get you a better job but almost certainly puts you in an exclusive dating pool for life. Admittedly thin research on this topic confirms the obvious: one research teams finds that *over* half of women's financial payoff for college quality comes via marriage. There is nothing counterintuitive about the id that schools improve your spouse more than they improve you. If you go to Harvard, you'll *be* the same person, but you'll *meet* the elite."

    -Bryan Caplan, the Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money

    ----------------------

    "In Carl Sagan's awestruck words, each galaxy holds 'billions upon billions' of stars. Yet out of the galaxy's countless solar systems, we see but one with life: our own. How can the galaxy fall so desolately short of its potential? Astronomer Frank Drake publicized an elegant equation to clarify the matter. 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. Humanity has the technology to speak to other worlds only because our solar system has a planet able to support life, because life in fact arose on this planet, because life evolved into intelligent life, because intelligent life developed the technology of interstellar communication, and because we've yet to destroy ourselves. We'll never speak to an alien civilization unless another solar system satisfies each and every one of these conditions. No wonder the cosmos looks so lonely.

    "In the right frame of mind, education statistics, too, inspire Saganian awe. Look at the lives of high school dropouts: their poverty, their joblessness, their attraction to crime. Compare that to the lives of college graduates with engineering degrees: their affluence, their devotion to their careers, their law-abiding ways. The distance between their lives is astronomical. Imagine the utopia our society would be after transforming every high school dropout into an engineer. Former Harvard president Derek Bok once quipped, 'If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.' With gains this massive, why fret about cost?

    "Because education's powers of social transformation are galactically overrated. The observed gap between, say, dropouts and engineers, is only one term in what could be called the Educational Drake Equation. For workers, education's social benefit equals the observed dropout-engineer gap, times the probability of successfully completing the education, times the fraction of the gap *not* due to preexisting ability differences, times the fraction of the gap *not* due to signaling.

    "Suppose the average engineer contributes, on balance, three times as much to society as the average dropout, but each of the other terms in the Educational Drake Equation equals 50%. Then education's true effect is the +200% observed gap, times the 50% completion rate, times the 50% not due to ability bias, times the 50% not due to signaling. Grand total: a mere +25%.

    "Why does my approach deliver unfashionably wretched social returns? Despite the gory details, it boils down to the Educational Drake Equation. I start with the same observed gaps as other education researchers. But my competitors - usually tacitly, occasionally explicitly - set every other term in the Educational Drake Equation to 100%. Everyone who starts school finishes, none of the gap is due to ability bias, none of the gap is due to signaling, and everyone works. This is like rounding all the terms in the original Drake Equation up to 100%, then announcing that our galaxy contains billions of advanced civilizations. Yes, the well-educated are model citizens - skilled, employed and law-abiding - but education is not a path to a model society. Indeed, plugging sensible numbers into the Educational Drake Equation shows the path to a model society starts with a U-Turn. Deep education cuts won't transform us, but we can work wonders with the billions upon billions of dollars we save."

    -Bryan Caplan, the Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money

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    "When I argue education is largely wasteful signaling, most listeners yield. Popular resistance doesn't kick in until I add, 'Let's waste less by cutting government spending on education.' You might think conceding the wastefulness of education spending would automatically entail support for austerity, but it doesn't. The typical reaction is to confidently state, 'Education budgets should be redirected, not reduced.'

    "Such confidence is misplaced. 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*. Time and money wasted on education could pave roads, cure cancer, cut taxes, subsidize childbearing, pa down government debt before our Fiscal Day of Reckoning, or allow taxpayers to buy better homes, cars, meals, and vacations.

    "Suppose I prove your toenail fungus cream doesn't work. I counsel, 'Stop Wasting money on that worthless cream'. Would you demur, 'Not until we find a toenail fungus remedy that works'? No way. Finding a real remedy could be more trouble than it's worth. It might take forever. Continuing to waste money on quackery until a cure comes into your possession is folly. Saying, 'There *must* be a cure!' is childish and dogmatic. Maybe your toenails are a lost cause, and you should use the savings for a trip to Miami."

    -Bryan Caplan, the Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money

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    "Deregulate and destigmatize child labor. Early jobs are good for kids and good for society. Parental oversight isn't a perfect way to root out abuses, but we rely on it in virtually every other sphere of life. Parents can make their kids devote their childhoods to sports and music - no matter how much they hate playing. Parents can sign their kids up for mountain climbing. Parents can take their kids to dangerous countries. Holding nonfamilial employment to stricter standards than mountain climbing is senseless.

    "Once child labor is legal, some teens will take full-time jobs. As long as they have their parents' permission, let them."

    -Bryan Caplan, the Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money

    ----------------------------

    "If education is a merit good, the Internet is the Merit Machine.

    "On reflection, this Merit Machine is swiftly making traditional humanist education policy obsolete. Once everyone can enrich their souls for free, government subsidies for enrichment forfeit their rationale. To object, 'But most people don't use the Internet for spiritual enrichment' is actually a damaging admission that eager students are few and far between. Subsidized education's real aim isn't to make ideas and culture accessible to anyone who's interested, but to make them mandatory for everyone who *isn't* interested . . .

    A philistine could reply: 'Of course adults rarely bother studying ideas and culture online. There's no money in it'. But this chapter is not aimed at philistines, but at anyone who defends actually existing education as good for the soul. 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, remains embarrassingly scare."

    -Bryan Caplan, the Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money

    -------------------------

    "Frederick: Vocational education may be better economically, but you're cutting kids' childhoods short. Our society is rich enough to let teenagers delay the drudgery of adult jobs and adult responsibilities.

    "Bryan: What about the drudgery of *school*?

    "Frederick: It's all part of life.

    "Bryan: 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. The wise question to pose, for young students and young workers alike, is whether the pain is worth the gain."

    -Bryan Caplan, the Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money

  • Alex O'Connor

    3.5 stars. Tough book to rate: I really enjoyed reading the book. Kaplan is a very earnest writer and the book was a lot of fun to read. The book was well researched, and when he was guessing or making conjectures, he was very upfront about that. However, I really just could not agree with most of his findings. I think that liberal arts education does have practical value, and enrich the lives of those it touches. STEM fields are so essential, but honestly, could you imagine a world that art, en

    3.5 stars. Tough book to rate: I really enjoyed reading the book. Kaplan is a very earnest writer and the book was a lot of fun to read. The book was well researched, and when he was guessing or making conjectures, he was very upfront about that. However, I really just could not agree with most of his findings. I think that liberal arts education does have practical value, and enrich the lives of those it touches. STEM fields are so essential, but honestly, could you imagine a world that art, entertainment, music, and poetry were all thrown away and not taught because they are not economically viable for most? I will never make a living playing my viola, but it adds a great deal of value to my life.

    Libertarianism doesn't work, kids. That is the bottom line.

    I highly recommend people to read this book, though. It asks a lot of interesting questions that should be considered, even if we do not agree with the conclusions of Dr. Kaplan.

  • Don

    I read it so you don't have to. Some useful information for the current debate topic, but it was hard to take this libertarian screed against education too seriously. And that was before I got to the chapter that calls for relaxed regulations on child labor.

  • Alberto

    Terrible.

    I agree with the author that much of what passes for education today is in fact a complete waste of individual time and a misallocation of societal resources. The case needs to be made. But this book epically fails to make it.

    Much of it is simplistic, and the few good points are repeated ad nauseam. Mike Rowe does a much better job of making the case in a 30-second sound bite than this book does.

  • Dan Graser

    I consider it important to read genuine works of scholarship that present an opinion or position that is diametrically opposed to my own, especially as pertains to my profession in collegiate-level education. Thus reading a book called, "The Case Against Education," is an important activity in that it potentially will reveal facts and opinions that might not be comfortable to come to terms with but are nevertheless genuine and potentially position-shifting.

    However, this is anecdotal, frustrated,

    I consider it important to read genuine works of scholarship that present an opinion or position that is diametrically opposed to my own, especially as pertains to my profession in collegiate-level education. Thus reading a book called, "The Case Against Education," is an important activity in that it potentially will reveal facts and opinions that might not be comfortable to come to terms with but are nevertheless genuine and potentially position-shifting.

    However, this is anecdotal, frustrated, reductionist, extremist tripe that will change no one's opinions and will only serve to further entrench those on the many sides of the educational divide and create conflict where there is none. The positions arrived at are so extreme (complete separation of government funding from public education with no voucher system, relaxing child-labor laws, etc...) that even an independent with libertarian leanings like myself can't help but wonder what has happened to professor Caplan to publish such a work so divorced from reality and genuinely empty of helpful suggestions. This is not a step forward, it's an abandonment of responsibility to find solutions to the few genuine problems identified.

    I do accept that there is a certain amount of conformity/credibility signaling, especially in higher education, as opposed to genuine educational credibility that a degree will provide. He puts this at 80/20, again an extreme take that seems to be based on a myopic view presented anecdotally with his own students and experiences with faculty colleagues. I also agree that vocational schooling should be seen as a fine option for those who at a younger age know the field they wish to enter, have a realistic path to gainful employment, and wish to do so in the most cost-effective manner possible. If you wish to do so, no one should think less of you. If you wish to enter a position you know requires a Bachelors degree, you should know what you're getting into. If you're entering a field that requires a Doctorate, you REALLY should know what you're getting into. There's no judgment there and you are responsible for the choices you make regarding your education and profession. When the deck is stacked against you but you have further ambitions, there should be something in place to assist those who are by no fault of their own and by accident of birth, placed at a disadvantage.

    So having indicated the few marginal spots of this scattershot tract with which I agree I'm tempted to leave it there in the interest of diplomacy...but I just can't help myself.

    P. 7: "History teachers are almost the only people alive who use history on the job."

    This is about the most incredibly stupid thing I have read about the use of history in humanity (not the Humanities, humanity). If you have never been required to think historically in your position then you are an exception, not the majority.

    P. 13: "Do students need to understand the market for marriage, the economics of the Mafia, or the self-interested voter hypothesis to be a competent manager, banker, or salesman? No. But because I decide these subjects are worth teaching, employers decide students who fail my class aren't worth interviewing."

    If you know these subjects are not helpful to your students, and are a tenured professor with quite a bit of freedom as to what you teach, why the hell did you choose these topics? This is not the fault of the "Ivory Tower" it's yours for being an idiot and choosing useless topics. Then on page 57 you say, "I strive to teach my students how to "think like economists," to connect lectures to the real world and daily life." You JUST SAID 40 pages ago that you explicitly do not do this! Which is it?

    P. 34: "Foreign languages are all but useless in the American economy. Thanks to immigration, employers have a built-in pool of native speakers of almost every living language."

    Nevermind the brilliance of suggesting not to train bilingual linguists because there are already bilingual linguists, he's decided to ignore all of the jobs available for American trained linguists everywhere outside the American economy.

    P. 53: Caplan shows a graph that accurate shows that students, over the course of four year studies in high school, undergraduate, and then graduate education respectively and individually, rarely leave after four years with much of a change in overall reasoning. Fair enough. However what the graph also shows, which he conveniently ignores, is that over the course of this education from high school through graduate studies, their reasoning scores more than DOUBLE!

    P. 79: "Identical twins with different educations DON'T have identical ability; the more educated twin is usually the smarter twin." Yup, and this completely undercuts the point you were making before this casual remark which represents dozens of fascinating twin studies on the subject.

    P. 120: "The vast majority of modern jobs use little math and virtually no science." Completely false and the study you cite does not say that, it suggests that the subjects covered in early math and science are not heavily used on a daily basis, not the general notion you spew here.

    P. 123: "We sit in class, learn some material, the get jobs teaching the very material we studied. Professors can acquire human capital by recycling our old professors' lecture notes."

    You can, I supposed, if you really are terrible at your job and operate in a discipline where nothing is ever contributed epistemologically.

    P. 180: "Children of college graduates enjoy far more academic success."

    True, and your notion of telling people who are academically in the middle of the curve to not attend college at all because of lack of gain on investment completely ignores any calculation of future generations' benefit (potentially huge) as a part of this calculation.

    P. 200: A bloated figure for how much the US spends on education but he is still correct, we outspend many countries who get far better educational outcomes. His solution, eliminate it all, thus ignoring any of the models that more successful countries have adopted. Extremist position with no basis in policy, brilliant stuff "professor."

    P. 216: If you don't believe me about his extremist position, here it is.

    P. 247: "High culture requires extra mental effort to appreciate - and most humans resent mental effort." Wow, condescending prick. And even if you buy into that notion at a uselessly general level, provide a solution as opposed to abandoning the idea. You state high culture is important and a better experience yet you have no interest in helping others to appreciate that. That's about as intellectually lazy as you can get, "professor."

    As pertains to the opinions expressed about the arts and music disciplines I will borrow a quote from a favorite author of mine when debating an ignoramus, "You give me the awful impression of being the sort of person who has never read an opinion counter to yours."

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