The Case Against Education

An Interview with Bryan Caplan
The Case Against Education {
Ricardo B. Brazziell/Austin American-Statesman via AP, File

In his controversial new book, The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money, economist Bryan Caplan argues that the primary function of American education is not to enhance students' actual skill but to signal and certify the qualities of a good, conformist employee. RealClearBooks recently interviewed Caplan about the rise of credentialism, useless degrees, and why we need to rethink our entire approach to education. 

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RealClearBooks: What was your goal in writing The Case Against Education?

Bryan Caplan: My goal in writing The Case Against Education was to explain what I really think is going on in what is a really puzzling industry. There are stories about who’s training people for the jobs of the future, and then you look at most of what is being taught and it is so irrelevant to any child past, present, or future. You have to really wonder what the point is. And yet, you see that people with more degrees are making more money. So, bringing it all together I try to come up with a story and defend it that I think makes the most sense.

RCB: People tend to think kids should go to schools that help them get jobs and become successful adults. What do you think this picture gets wrong?

Caplan: First of all, it’s not entirely wrong, it’s just mostly wrong. People do learn some literacy and numeracy in school. But most of what you study in school predictably you’re not going to use after the final exam. You know that you’re not going to become a poet or a professional historian. And so, then there’s the puzzle about why exactly the study of irrelevant subjects would lead to a better career in fields where you don’t even use what you’re taught. And what I say is that most of this is what economists call “signaling.” You are jumping through hoops in order to impress employers. Even though it’s not directly relevant, still it’s a good way of convincing someone who might want to hire you that you’ve got the right stuff. The way I like to describe it is that to a large degree school isn’t really job training, instead it’s a passport to the real training which occurs on the job.

RCB: If education is mostly just signaling, what exactly is the signal that it sends to employers? And why do employers care about it?

Caplan: Let me do the second question first. Why do employers care that you have convincingly shown you would be a good employee? Because that’s just what they’re looking for! When you say it’s just signaling it’s not merely a meaningless jumping through hoops, it is a convincing jumping through hoops. It’s just like when someone says, “look I’m a great gymnast”, and you say “prove it” – and then they do some gymnastics. Not only is it not puzzling that signaling gets employers’ attention, that’s the whole point.

Now, what is it you’re showing them? I would say there’s really a package of things going on. Partially what academic success shows is that you’re smart. And that’s almost always a good thing to have on the job. But it’s a lot more than that. Another thing you’re showing is just that you’re hard working. A very smart person who’s super lazy will still do poorly in school. And lastly, I’d say you’re showing sheer conformity, just a sheeplike willingness to follow orders, do what you’re told, fit in. You can be super smart and super hard working, but if you are a defiant individual you still do very poorly in school and you’re also a bad employee. I love these defiant individuals, they’re some of my best friends, but still, a defiant person is going to be difficult to actually get useful work output out of. The way I think about it is defiant people often make great fun friends, but I don’t want to hire them. 

RCB: Do students learn more in high school or in college, or is it all mostly signaling? 

Caplan: It’s hard to say, but my view is that it’s probably very similar at all these levels. Every now and then I talk to someone who says, “Well in high school of course you’re learning useful stuff all day.” But – do you remember what you did in high school? What high school did you go to? When you look at the data, I’d say that the amount of time that people are spending on literacy and numeracy in high school is well under half, maybe 40% generously calculated. And college is pretty similar. In college, some people are doing things that are more vocational like engineers and computer scientists. If I had to really guess, I would say I think there is a little bit more of the signaling going on in college than in high school, but it’s high wherever you look – you can see people spending a lot of time on subjects that are highly unlikely to ever be useful after the final exam.

RCB: Most people assume that if kids are sitting through years of lessons on mathematics, literature, history and other subjects they probably learn something Why do you disagree?

Caplan: I think I agree that they learn something, it’s just a question of whether that something could possibly explain all the extra real-world success that people have when they do well in school. And that’s where I don’t think there’s any way that could be true. In terms of how could they be learning so little? First of all, what you’re teaching them isn’t very relevant usually. Even if they mastered it, they would never actually have a chance to use it. Then second of all people just forget a lot. Think of any subject that you had to study and haven’t used since then, well you’ve probably found most of it slipped from your mind. Last, there’s a lot of evidence from educational psychology that people are just very bad at applying abstract ideas to concrete situations unless they’ve been taught exactly how to do it. You can study trigonometry for years; it doesn’t mean that you’re going to be able to fly a plane. Logically you might say that you could use trigonometry to fly a plane, but human beings are just terrible at that kind of thing. Human beings need to learn by doing, not just by being lectured at and doing some problems on a homework sheet.

RCB: Is it possible that even if kids don’t learn much about math, for example, they learn important work-place skills like discipline?

Caplan: Not only is it possible, I think that’s true. It’s just a question of whether that comes close to explaining all the extra money people make who have more and better degrees. And the math doesn’t work. Here’s the thing: there’s a lot of estimates on how much a year of work experience raises your earnings, and that’s usually two or three percent per year of experience. And then if you compare the kind of experience you’re getting in school with work, there’s some similarities but there’s also some very important differences. School and work have some things in common like you have to sit down and be bored and shut up and follow orders in both cases. But on the other hand, work is about pleasing customers and getting the job done and school is much more about having everything be fair and equal and making people feel like they’re special and important. And so, there are also wide gaps between the two systems. I think it’s a generous assumption that if a year of school gives you half as much practical disciplinary training as a year of work, then a year of school should raise your earnings by like one percent or one and a half percent. And yet we see that the earnings gaps between college graduates and high school graduates are more like 70%. The idea is right, it’s just that you need to really look closely at the actual math to see that it can explain only a tiny bit, but it’s so far from a satisfying explanation.

RCB: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg are examples of highly successful college drop-outs. If you have raw talent, then do you need to bother with the educational signal?  

Caplan: I’d say I think all three of those guys got super lucky. But I think there’s a lot of people with similar talent who just weren’t able to go and convince other people to give them a chance. Of course, starting your own business from your garage – almost everyone who tries that, no matter how awesome they are, fails because it’s just incredibly hard and you need the combination of talent and luck. What I’d say about them is that they are extraordinary individuals, but not just extraordinarily talented but also extraordinarily lucky. If there were a kid who could go to Harvard who said I’m not going to go and I’m just going to start a business out of my garage, I’d say, well good luck to you. I’d be quite surprised if it worked out. And as the parent of that child you’d probably be pulling your hair out and saying don’t be misled by the fact that you have these incredible stories of successful people who didn’t go to college. They don’t tell you the stories of the millions of people that didn’t go and didn’t succeed.

RCB: But even for less exceptional people, if you have raw talent is the signal less important?

Caplan: In a lot of ways, the signal is more important because you have more talent to get credit for. There has been some neat work done on what are the rewards for IQ over time. One of the main results of this is that if you have a four-year college degree then you get rewarded for your IQ quite quickly in life. But on the other hand, if you don’t finish that degree, if you only go to high school or even if you start college and then the drop out, it takes many years before you start seeing actual economic rewards for your brains. It really looks like if you have a lot of talent but you don’t go to college, then at first you just have a lot of trouble convincing anyone that you’re anything special and then you have to claw your way up repeatedly emphasizing that – look you might think that I’m not smart enough to do this, but I actually am, look I’m really great, come on look at what I’ve accomplished over the years. On average that does get you some benefits but it really looks like if you have a lot of talent you want to get the signals that are commensurate with that talent so that people actually believe that you’ve got what you’ve got.

RCB: If most of education is signaling, why has public education become so ubiquitous? Why would anyone want it?

Caplan: My first reaction is just that people don’t believe me. But what I think is really going is what George Orwell called double-think. If you just talk to an individual about what they’ve seen I find that almost everyone agrees with me. But as soon as you switch gears to big social theory like what’s the best education system and what should our education policy be, this is where people forget everything they’ve seen with their own eyes and just start talking about how great education is, and how vital it is, and how incredibly useful it is and wonderful. And what I see as the problem is that politics just tends not to calm assessments of what you’ve really seen but to flowery ideas and feel good slogans and that kind of thing. One of my favorite things in all of psychology is what they all social desirability bias. That means that when the truth is ugly, people don’t want to believe it. They certainly don’t want to say it. When you don’t say the truth and feel like the truth is horrible, you tend to just not believe it either. The most mundane example is, am I fat?  What’s the answer everyone wants to give to that question? Of course not. Sometimes you’re not fat, but sometimes you are, but even if you are people don’t want to say it. I think the same thing applies very generally in politics. People just want to give answers that sounds good.

RCB: Would we be better suited to change the curriculum so that kids could study subjects that are more relevant to them?

Caplan: I think that’s a really good idea. I don’t trust the education system to do it. To me the most obvious thing is that: you have about a third of American adults who are barely numerate or literate and yet they spent many hours studying things in school that were not at all related to reading, writing, and math. So, I think the obvious thing is, until they’ve got the basics down, don’t distract them with other subjects. Which against doesn’t sound very good because people want to say, “No no we need them to be great on everything.” It’s like, how about you learn to walk before you run… Teach them how to add and subtract and read properly. That’s one really simple thing – put a lot of time into mastering skills that are really essential for modern life. Once you’ve done that then there’s trying to expose people to plausible careers and give them some practice in different things. They can get an idea of what they like and what they are good at. Vocational education is really underrated. Countries like Switzerland and Germany have done really well with it and there’s no reason that other countries could not emulate their success.

RCB: 2020 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders wants to wipe out college debt. If you’re correct, is there a point of incentivizing more people to go to college?

Caplan: If the point is to make a bad system worse. We already do a tremendous amount to encourage people to go to college and I think that’s a great social mistake. Even in terms of the self-interest of the student what I would say is that: people who were good students in high school generally benefit from college, but the other ones on average do not because their chance of finishing is just too low. Couldn’t funding increase their chance of completion? The answer is yes, but only a small bit. So, it’s not enough to actually make it a good investment. Really what this is doing is turning what was previously a loan, which gives some incentive to get extra education, into a free gift. If you think that too many people are in college this is a really bad idea, but of course it sounds really good. Other critics will essentially say that most of the people that are getting student loans are from middle class families or richer, so this is a highly regressive transfer, and that’s true too. A lot of people are saying that, so that I want to say that it’s wasteful on top of it all.

RCB: What are the policy implications of your theory of education?

Caplan: Other than the vocational education that I talked about, the policy I’m most enthused about is general educational austerity – just less. People spend so many years in school studying subjects that are of such little value either in their future or in their present, and it would be better if people just stopped school at a younger age and started working. And I think the simplest way of doing is that to just have less education, spend less on it so that people stop at an earlier age. I know that this really upsets people. I’ve done many talks where everyone was on board with me until I said this. Everyone says, “Yes, yes, education is very wasteful, and there’s all this pointless stuff that people do. There’s no point to it.” And then I say how about we have less of this thing that you say is of no point and then people get very upset and start making arguments that they previously had already admitted were wrong – like, “Well you need this education in order to have the useful skills to contribute to the modern economy.” I thought we already agreed that it’s not really doing that. Now of course people will much prefer the idea of reallocating the money in a more fruitful way. What I say to that is: we know how to cut spending, it’s really easy, it’s clear cut. On the other hand, figuring out a way to spend the money in a fruitful way is really hard and requires a lot of trust in the system which we really shouldn’t have because it has wasted so much money for so long.

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