Notes on The Case Against Education

The average cheesiness of my titles went through the roof in the last review, so there you have a plain self-explanatory title again.

I finished reading The Case Against Education a week and some days ago. As I went through the book I couldn’t note any major disagreement, with some very trivial ones detailed in the review I made of The Elephant in the Brain. The book is really great, and you must buy it.

The key idea of the book is that educacion as currently conceived is extremely overrated. The policy implication is that education ought to be totally or largely desubsidided, and possibly – if one has no moral objections – taxing it too for extra efficiency gains.(!)

This conclusion sounds surprising, as education is generally regarded as a good thing that helps people build up human capital, enabling them to get better jobs. On a closer examination, Caplan notes, this picture doesn’t quite hold: much of what is taught is not what one would use on a job.

One then may try to field different critiques, but Caplan has probably answered them all already. This was the case when Noah Smith tried to argue against his thesis.

One may argue that learning about X gives you broad skills about a different domain Y (X=ancient sanscrit or topological algebra and Y=critical thinking for example). Or one may say that education is a good in itself, that an educated population is a good thing intrinsically. Or maybe his findings are invalid in the presence of ability bias.

That is all answered in the book, so I won’t go over the answers ūüôā I’ll leave it to the skeptics of his thesis to try to poke holes in it.

Ultimately, the way education works is explained by resorting to signaling: gaining education is useful – as you thought – but not because it teaches you anything or makes you a better worker. It does those things too, but less than commonly conceived. Caplan’s split is about 20% human capital and 80% signaling. Education is useful because it signals three things to your future employers: conscientiousness, intelligence, and conformity. This is hard to signal with a short MOOC course, even if you do learn more in the MOOC.

The book goes about disentangling how signaling plays out in excruciating detail, considering the private and social returns of differring ammounts of education, from high school to masters, and for students who range between poor and excellent. There he finds really interesting results: That even in current conditions, even a BSc is a poor private investment for many students, and that a MSc is not worth it either. This may be different in countries that heavily subsidise education, but in those countries education premia are lower, so that would also have to be accounted for. I expect his broad conclusions to hold beyond the US though.

The thing I wanted to discuss here, really, rather than summarising the book, are the social realities around education. In the book, Caplan describes why his view is not the consensus yet: why academics don’t prefer the human capital view. But what about real life, what is going on?

(I): Muh Latin

The question “What do we think about education?” is not as helpful insofar as that “we” contains heterogeneous groups of people with regards to what they think of education. We have to ask the question for different people.

  • Regular students: They’d say that education gets you a job. You pick a topic you sort of like that you expect will be related to what you will want to do in the future and study it. You won’t remember most things you will learn, but you will gain broad general skills that will be useful, learn to work in groups, gain some domain knowledge about the field you want to get into. Plus, you are expected to go to uni. What will employers think if you don’t?
  • Good students: Same as regular students, but they remember far more, and they tend to value learning the material really well almost as an end in itself. These also tend to become academics themselves. They will put more weight on the learning side of things because they find it a more attractive intellectual challenge
  • Employers (Job interviews):¬† They want to hire good workers. A degree from a reputed university in some related field is a starter, as theythink that will screen out most false positives. Then, they can look at achievements, and personal projects to refine our opinion of a candidate. They don’t really care about the specific content of the course as long as the overall CV conveys the right idea.
  • Professors: They educate students and provide them with the skills they need to either become one of them, or to succeed in the job market. Sure, some courses may not be directly useful (e.g. English literature), but that is good to give students some exposure if they want to continue down the academic route, and if not they will gain “broad skills” that will help them outside of uni.
  • Culture hipsters: Education is important to get you a job, sure. But it is also an end in itself, argues the culture hipster: A life without the great classics, or an appreciation for art and music is a lesser life. These things are useless, but that’s the point: important things in life are useless as they are pursued as ends in themselves, not as a means of achieving something else. Students should be exposed to these areas of culture so that at least they have the chance to develop their cultural sensibilities.
  • Parents: Education will get their kids a good job and help them to rise to their maximum potential. And make money so they can stop mooching at home¬† lead their own lives.
  • Politicians: People love education. Parents love it because it gets their kids a job, and kids love it because it gets them a job. Plus the culture hipsters are happy if we support education too. More education is something no one opposes, so massive political support for it is a no brainer.

As you see, people talk about education in different ways. I posit no hidden motives here: it’s just that people have different preferences and have led different lives, and face different incentives. If anything, what could be going wrong in education is that people commit the typical mind fallacy, thinking that everyone is like them. “How can you not even know the difference between Monet and Manet, how do you even dare say Latin is dead and useless” thinks the cultural hipster. Of course, the cultural hipster will have little opposition due to social desirability bias (SDB):¬† Even saying “that those things are intrinsically nice to know, but not¬† for everyone” sends of a slighly bad impression about oneself as not caring as much about those things. Staying silent is usually the best move: you don’t lose anything. Sure, students will complain about it as they go through the boredom of subjects they don’t like, but they are powerless. And once they get out of school, they have no further reason to voice their opinion.

The fact that professors and good students don’t do this, finding intellectual tasks as more of a fun challenge may also foster SDB: If the smart kids and authority figures at uni and school honestly love education as a thing -relative to other students- and try hard to learn the material, then not knowing it definitely tells the others that you are not one of the clever guys. Also, after education, after all that hard work and lost years, one may have the desire to make others go through the same ordeal in order to get a good career. Like what you see in hazing rituals, some sort of weird Stockholm syndrome I’ve never understood at a deep level. People dislike them but then they are proud of having gone through them and inflict them on others.

Thus the entire thing (education being as inefficient as Caplan says yet everyone likes it) is sustained by:

  • People with very strong preferences for education as a good in itself. These tend to end up in decisionmaking positions regarding education both in academia, the government, and the private sector.
  • No one having an incentive to change the system
  • Governments fueling the entire show
  • The (true) perception that education does teach some skills
  • The fact that education does help to get a better job
  • Illusion of control? (Teachers thinking they influence students more than they really do?)
  • Rationalisation of sunken cost? (We paid all this money for our education, it must have been for a good reason!)

(II): The poor tho

This has been raised a couple of time after the book’s publication.

The book itself is not specifically about policy, it tries to hammer down a few basic points and suggests some moves -chiefly defunding education- that could fix the problem explored. Once one has accepted the reality of educational signaling, however, one may pose the “what about the poor” question. Initially, one may be tempted to reply that slashing funding will deliver the same thing but cheaper, the wealthy will still go to more expensive places, the not so wealthy to less expensive places, and so on. Relative rankings stay fixed, abolute spending goes down.

But suppose you think that if you slash funding, some people won’t be able to afford education at all. In that case, only those above a certain threshold of income would get it. This would cause some talented individuals not to develop their full potential, as they can’t get their signalling done. But this is answerable in different ways:

a) Even if nothing is done, the “slash funding for all and then some don’t get education” is individually (for most) and socially better than “keep high funding levels and give everyone an education”.

b) If the argument is accepted, for those specific few cases, they can receive specific, means tested, subsidies.

c) Education is not expensive by nature. Education in essence requires a building and a number of teachers. Each teacher can teach many students. If you want to get fancy, sure, you can go to really high costs, but you can provide robust basics with very little. Some have in mind the idea that it was public education that educated the masses, that absent that illiteracy would still be rampant. But this is not true, as I argued in my Non-Non-Libertarian FAQ. The education of the masses was a societal, not state-led, development.

(III): Can education be replaced?

What does peak education look like? You might not like it, but it looks like vocational education.

In the model solution to the problem of education, funding has been slashed. Let’s imagine that this has caused universities to close, professor’s salaries to plummet, and surviving universities become less fancy. Hordes of highly paid tenured nerds migrate to jobs in finance, tech, and consultancy. But as a result, society is 2-4% richer.

Think about it: Only 5% of all employed people in the US are scientists and engineers. 0.54% are doctors, and 1.9% are nurses. 0.77% are lawyers. You could argue that for a few jobs you need a lenghty education, but for truck driver? salesperson?

And even for the engineering jobs, it is debatable that a university education produces better engineers than on the job training plus some courses, giving each approach the same amount of time: I actually bet that by the time the university grad is a junior engineer, the other who has never set foot on a uni will be a senior engineer already, and there won’t be much that the uni grad will be able to do that the other cannot.

So going back to the topic of this section: In this hypothetical society, almost everyone pays for their own education (taxes have ben lowered by the corresponding amount). It is affordable, but less fancy than now: There is less art, music, PE or foreign languages. Many universities have closed down and reconverted themselves into centres to teach actual job skills, overseen by employers themselves who try to ensure that what is taught is useful. Some universities, those older and highly prestigious, still remain, but they have been substantially downscaled. Youngsters are able to try and work as interns in different workplaces for years, ensuring exposure to different kinds of work. Some places pay their interns, others do not offer anything, and others require a payment to work there, depending on the intern’s experience and the learning curve for the job.

To me this sounds great – while I acknowledge it will sound dystopic to some! -: kids getting useful skills and sometimes even getting paid, much less time wasted on their side, less rote memorisation and exam-induced anxiety, and more income for all.





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4 Responses to Notes on The Case Against Education

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  3. kaleberg says:

    I don’t think this is true.

    Until the late 19th century, it was possible to hook a steam engine up to a bunch of gears, cams and wheels and build pretty amazing things, but by the late 19th century, it really helped to understand the basic principles when developing new products and improving old ones. There was a lot more knowledge around about thermodynamics, chemistry, physics and so on. For example, the original electric telegraph was a relatively simple, but the first transatlantic cable was a disaster. Getting a long, underwater cable to work required understanding electrodynamics. Getting a single telegraph wire to carry multiple channels required understanding resonance and filtering.

    There’s a reason that all those universities started popping up in the latter part of the 19th century. Industry needed them. Industry needed the research they did, and it need the people they trained to attack problems with a combination of basic principles and practical knowledge. Nowadays, university level learning is critical in all too many fields. Look at something like a disposable diaper. Yes, you could train a technician to keep a disposable diaper machine running, but designing a disposable diaper is PhD level work in physics, materials, biology and a host of other fields. Then there’s the matter of designing the continuous process machine.

    Universities have been associated with wealth and progress in the west since the twelfth century. They taught languages, logic, rhetoric, mathematics and a variety of other subjects, some with some sophistication and some at levels we now find laughable. The men they trained, however, had useful societal skills at a level higher than that of most people without such education. In fact, there was something of a bottleneck in European education that was only eliminated when the printing press was developed.

    I’m sure some of it always going to be about signalling, but so is a high Amazon rating.

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