The Case Against Education

Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money

[Amazon Link]

This is one of those rare non-fiction books with a thesis in which I am in 100% agreement.

For author Bryan Caplan, the education system is an emperor with no clothes. And not only is the emperor merely naked, he's downright ugly, with disfiguring diseases. Also stupid and misguided. He should have no claims on your allegiance.

Education-system apologists point to an obvious fact: people with "more education" wind up with better results in society. Specifically, they make more money. Caplan notes that's so, but disputes the assumed underlying reason for that success. Education does increase one's "human capital", sure, but that's only a part of the story, and a relatively small part at that. A much bigger reason for success is that obtaining a degree is a "signal" to employers of three things: that the degree holder (1) has a certain amount of necessary intelligence; (2) has employment-compatible work habits; (3) exhibits a certain degree of conformity; they followed instructions in school without making much of a fuss, so it's a safe bet they won't rock the boat on the job, either.

Fine, but it gets worse. While it's likely that increased education levels are a good deal for the student, people tend to jump to the "obvious" conclusion that they're good for society as a whole as well.

First off, Caplan points out this is the "fallacy of composition". You can get a better view if you stand up at a concert; but if everyone does that, nobody gets a better view. So it is with education: when employers start looking at a Bachelor's degree to get a job as (say) a cab driver, that's a zero-sum game: the non-degree cab drivers get crowded out.

Not only is the argument fallacious, it's also quantitatively wrong. Caplan works the stats to discover the "social return" to education, and discovers a surprising result: even under generous assumptions, it's negative. In the US, the trillion-or-so dollars fed annually into the gaping maw of education system is worse than wasted. We'd get better results from putting that money toward cancer research, veteran health care, space travel, or even (shocking notion) letting taxpayers keep it and spend it on things they want.

Caplan writes from inside the system; he's an econ prof at George Mason, and, before that, he's had the requisite lifetime experience as a diligent student. He's a whistleblower, and casts a realistic eye over what he's seen: most students are bored, and going through the motions; most teachers are boring and also going through the motions; most "required" courses are required for no good reason, with most of the material soon forgotten, with (mostly) no ill effects.

Caplan tells the story with a moderate amount of cheeky humor. He realizes that (almost certainly) not enough people will buy his thesis to make a difference in policies. But that doesn't mean he isn't completely correct. As near as I can tell, he is. Read the book to see if he doesn't convince you.