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The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money Hardcover – January 30, 2018
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"Would-be students and their parents are rethinking the assumption that a good life is impossible without an expensive degree--not to mention the chase for college admission that begins at kindergarten if not before. [This new book] may help to let out a little more air."--Naomi Schaefer Riley, Wall Street Journal
"You probably won’t agree with everything he says . . . but his broadside is worth considering carefully given that the U.S. spends $1 trillion or so a year on education at all levels, more than the budget for defense."--Peter Coy, Bloomberg Businessweek
"It is an excellent book, on an important topic. Beyond such cheap talk, I offer the costly signal of having based an entire chapter of our new book on his book. That’s how good and important I think it is. . . . Caplan offers plausible evidence that school functions to let students show employers that they are smart, conscientious, and conformist. And surely this is in fact a big part of what is going on."--Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias
"A book that America has needed for a long time. If we ever reach a turning point where most of us reject the idea that government should mandate and subsidize certain kinds of education, Bryan Caplan will have a lot to do with it."--George Leef, Forbes
"Economist Bryan Caplan of George Mason University has crunched the data for years from every angle and argues devastatingly . . . that college is, for many of those who go there, a boondoggle."--Kyle Smith, National Review Online
"Excellent argument by Bryan Caplan, but missed something central: convexity of trial-and-error & heuristic learning."--Nassim Nicholas Taleb
"It's like the case against parenting's role in shaping children: I don't want to believe it, but the data force you take it seriously. Good book."--Charles Murray
"Like most fascinating authors, Caplan, too, has scrumptious contradictions. . . . Whatever the truth is, this book is recommended to parents, high school teachers, and college professors for gaining valuable insights into the dynamics of ‘useless’ education."--L. Ali Khan, NY Journal of Books
"[Caplan] is also frequently infuriating. But when he is right, he is very right. The Case Against Education, a book 10 years in the making, is a case of Caplan being right."--Charles Fain Lehman, Washington Free Beacon
"The Case Against Education lays the groundwork for readers to think anew about education, what it does and ought to do, what place it holds and ought to hold in American society. It ought to be a wake-up call for all Americans, especially those who seek to champion ‘education’ without explaining why it’s a worthy cause."--Ian Lindquis, The Weekly Standard
From the Back Cover
"Few would disagree that our education system needs reform. While most call for more--more government subsidies, more time in school, more students attending college--Caplan provocatively argues for less. The Case against Education urges a radical rethinking about why we've been unsuccessful to date--and why more of the same won't work."--Vicki Alger, Independent Institute
"Bryan Caplan has written what is sure to be one of the most intriguing and provocative books on education published this year. His boldly contrarian conclusion--that much schooling and public support for education is astonishingly wasteful, if not counterproductive--is compelling enough that it should be cause for serious reflection on the part of parents, students, educators, advocates, and policymakers."--Frederick Hess, American Enterprise Institute
"You doubtless asked many times in school, ‘When am I going to use this?' Bryan Caplan asks the same question, about everything taught prekindergarten through graduate school, and has a disturbing answer: almost never. Indeed, we'd be better off with a lot less education. It's heresy that must be heard."--Neal McCluskey, Cato Institute
"The Case against Education is a riveting book. Bryan Caplan, the foremost whistle-blower in the academy, argues persuasively that learning about completely arbitrary subjects is attractive to employers because it signals students' intelligence, work ethic, desire to please, and conformity--even when such learning conveys no cognitive advantage or increase in human capital."--Stephen J. Ceci, Cornell University
"This book is hugely important. The Case against Education is the work of an idiosyncratic genius."--Lant Pritchett, author of The Rebirth of Education: Schooling Ain't Learning
"Caplan deals provocatively and even courageously with an important topic. Readers will be disturbed by his conclusions, maybe even angry. But I doubt they will ignore them."--Richard Vedder, author of Going Broke by Degree: Why College Costs Too Much
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The essential argument concerns job skills and the fact that American education (including higher education) does not prepare students for jobs in the real world. Their coursework is still based on 19thc (and earlier) models in which individuals were trained to be clergymen, medical doctors or lawyers. That coursework is now largely dated, irrelevant, boring and out of touch with both student interests and the jobs that they might (realistically) seek. Everyone studies history but there are very few jobs for historians and the vast majority of students forget whatever history they might have learned in school. Thus, their time and tuition dollars are wasted; they suffer through tedious material and, now, in their adulthood, don’t know any history anyway.
So why go to college, when college does not, in most cases, prepare you for useful work? (Note that a great number of STEM-trained students do not end up working in STEM-related fields.) The answer lies in the nature of the labor market. Employers seek three characteristics in potential employees: intelligence, conscientiousness and the ability to conform. They want bright people who have demonstrated their ability to apply themselves, keep on task, do what is expected of them, take orders from superiors and operate successfully in an environment which might be dull, soporific and tedious. Being able to secure a high school diploma and/or being able to secure a college degree are central to that process. Formal education, which is completed, signals the student/ applicant’s abilities in this regard. What you learned is of far less importance than what you have demonstrated that you are able to do (in a setting that may well bear no relationship to the job for which you are applying). Professor Caplan estimates the amount of ‘return’ based on signaling at approximately 80%.
Given the public investment in education and the vacuity of the process itself we should focus instead on those basics which will pay off in the world of work—reading, writing and mathematics—and channel our now-wasted resources elsewhere. The points are made in approximately 300 pp. of closely-reasoned text, with bar graphs galore and number-crunching aplenty.
While the author argues that he is not the philistine he may appear to be at first sight, he does argue that most students are philistines and that they have very little interest in the traditional elements of the liberal arts core curriculum. He sees the value in these areas of study but the students and the marketplace do not. Take, for example, the study of foreign languages. The simple fact is that there are very few jobs in the world for translators (vs. plumbers, mechanics and electricians, e.g.). Most students do not enjoy the study of foreign languages and almost never gain actual fluency in those languages. It is certainly true that an individual might study Italian in order to be able to read Dante, but how many such individuals are there in this world and to what degree should we bend our curriculum in order to somehow lure or persuade or encourage an individual or two to have such a goal?
The numbers are all on his side as is the experience of all faculties young and old. He says that when we teach we teach in the hopes of reaching three or four students in a class, knowing that the others are not interested in the material and will make no future use of the material. I believe that most higher ed teachers will agree with this and that they will also say that the problem has gotten worse and worse as more and more come to college out of the necessity created by credential creep.
In some ways I believe that he understates the problem. When he talks about required high school courses he talks about Latin and Greek, e.g. The liberal arts core which bores college students is now largely non-existent in ‘top’ colleges and universities. The introductory courses are largely taught by contingent faculty and graduate assistants, since tenure track faculty are neither interested in teaching them nor—in a day of hyper specialization--actually capable of teaching them. It is also the case that the courses taken outside of students’ majors are nearly always introductory courses, so that students stare at PowerPoint slides (or, preferably, have the teacher’s lecture notes emailed to them so that they need not attend class), memorize bullet points (or ‘study sheets’) for the exam and then promptly forget the material forever.
While he cites the Arum/Roksa study, ACADEMICALLY ADRIFT, and notes that students now spend a minimum of time studying and a maximum of time socializing he does not emphasize two facts: lax standards are the order of the day among the professoriate, lax standards which are pressed on them by corporatist administrators who seek to maximize tuition whatever the academic cost. These administrators are now largely bureaucrats rather than academic leaders and they are best served by a growth in ‘direct reports’ and ‘programs’ for which they can take credit when seeking their next job. Such non-line administrators as assistant vice provosts have increased by 91% in recent decades; non-teaching academic staff have increased by 240%. These individuals want to swell the ranks of tuition-payers at any cost. With regard to the faculty: two anecdotes. When I took my first serious course in the second half of the 18thc (an over/under course for undergrads as well as master’s students), the teacher had the registration staff hand out notes at the registration table, informing us that we should have read Boswell’s LIFE OF JOHNSON (1400 pp. more or less) by the first class. This represented perhaps 20% of the total course readings; now no one would dream of doing that unless the book was the only text in an entire course. Second anecdote: just before his recent death M.H. Abrams (the first editor of the Norton Anthology of English Literature) discussed the book with its current editor, Stephen Greenblatt. Abrams commented that a book that was once a standard text in freshman and sophomore survey courses is now used by advanced doctoral students to prepare for their comprehensive exams.
So how are serious, curious, dedicated students supposed to encounter material that was once the province of educated elites? “Most humans intrigued by abstract ideas and high culture are working adults. Instead of lamenting youthful apathy, passionate educators should redirect their energy to humans who are ready for enlightenment” (p. 261).
I wish he had pursued that argument in greater detail. For 17 years I had the opportunity to teach in the Liberal Studies Program at Georgetown. The program was designed for working adults who wanted to ‘read Plato’. It was expressly stated that there would be no vocational dimension to the program and that prospective students (who should be out of school for at least 3 years) should not expect to use it to secure employment or promotion. This was the largest liberal studies program in the country, with approximately 400 students (drawing from an area population of 4,000,000). It was the most memorable and gratifying teaching experience of my life. The students would routinely read the ‘recommended’ materials as well as the ‘required’ ones and saw their classes as the most interesting and engaging part of their week.
I will spare the reader other comments but urge you to obtain this book and give it your most serious attention.
My discomfort with Bryan Caplan's interpretation of this problem is that he manages to tear apart the system, something I see as necessary, while preserving the status of the most academically accomplished as innately more intelligent, something I see as unforgivable. He managed to shore up the value of his own signal while tearing down the system it's based on. I'm appalled that people will take his statistics and his interpretation as evidence that college is appropriate for those intelligent enough to benefit from "transformative education" while vocational training is appropriate for everyone else.
I've come to believe that most academic success is based on our need for respect and belonging. The people who get the furthest are the most motivated for its stamp of approval, and the most appalled at "ignorance". They tend to come from homes where education is framed as society's savior, and mistake its enormous reach as a sign of its benevolence. At least Caplan counters that old myth. The education system is filled with people who want good, meaningful lives and can't quite figure out what's missing. What's missing is a structure that supports the democratic ideals it claims to teach. Structurally, it's a self-serving, coercive system that claims a moral authority it has no right to, and serves goals it can't achieve. A compulsory system in which each of us is working to raise our status relative to the whole has division and inequality woven into its very fabric. A compulsory system that judges worth while constricting behavior prevents more growth than it fosters.
That it focuses its judgments on a narrow band of intellectual abilities is a problem, but expanding its realm to vocational training, without removing its compulsion, just expands the scope of its damage. I agree with many of the damning facts Caplan exposes, but his interpretation is mired in the same screwed up measurement of human value that keeps the system running.
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