Why the Educational System Is So Broken: An Economist Weighs In

Why the Educational System Is So Broken: An Economist Weighs In
Why the Educational System Is So Broken: An Economist Weighs In

The Case Against Education – Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money by Bryan Caplan – Princeton University Press, 2018


“I love education too much to accept our Orwellian substitute.”

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This deliberately provocative statement is found on page 283 of Dr. Bryan Caplan’s book The Case Against Education – Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money.  This book joins the rising chorus of criticism against the educational establishment in the United States and it’s disastrous and expensive effects on American culture.  As the author of one such book myself, I found the title instantly intriguing.

What makes this book unusual is the fact that Caplan is an economist.  From his perch at George Mason University, he has seen students come and go.  The results have not impressed him:

“I’m cynical about students. The vast majority are philistines. The best teachers in the universe couldn’t inspire them with sincere and lasting love of ideas and culture. I’m cynical about teachers. The vast majority are uninspiring; they can’t even convince themselves to love ideas and culture, much less their students.” (Page 259)

Caplan’s background as an economist is what brings value to his analysis – and more than a but of frustration to the reader.  The value is in his use of statistics to back up his case.  These are not the statistics created by education professors to back up their pre-existing beliefs, but hard, cold, scrupulously applied data.  The sea of tables and graphs – there are 62 of them in the 294 pages of text – are clearly waters in which Caplan is comfortable swimming.  It is frustrating because most readers are unused to fighting to avoid being submerged by all those numbers.  Another frustration is his use of terms that may be common to statisticians and economists – like “ability bias” and “social desirability bias” several times before we readers can decipher exactly what these phrases mean.

However, these are quibbles, because the book is worthy of examination by those who wonder why the educational system is so broken.

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Much of Caplan’s analysis revolves around two models of education, which he dubs as ‘human capital’ and ‘signaling.’  Human capital is what most of us think of as education; the students acquire facts, ideas, and methods that become part of their arsenals as they face the problems that will come their ways in adult life.  Signaling is something very different.  It is the gaining of credentials that make one appear to be educated.  As Caplan puts it on page 113, “According to the pure human capital model, education lifts income by making you more productive. … According to the pure signaling model, education raises income by making you look more productive.”

An example of this signaling is “the sheepskin effect.”

Graduation tells employers, “I take social norms seriously – and I have the brains and work ethic to comply.”  Quitting tells employers, “I scorn social norms – or lack the brains or work ethic to comply.” (Page 97)

Nowhere does Caplan say that this information is useless.  These insights are of real value to a potential employer.  Caplan’s problem is that modern education is 80% signaling and only 20% of it increases human capital.  These are, admittedly, rough numbers – but Caplan does use all of those charts and graphs to make a good case that the signaling number is out of all proportion to the growth of human capital.  On some level, the students know the real score, and betray this by their joyous reactions to a cancelled class.  If the information and skills to be imparted that day were of real value to the students, they would feel cheated out of the education for which they had paid so dearly.  Instead, they are pleased that they will gain the signaling value of that class session without having to expend effort.

There are two major problems caused by this imbalance.  First, the emphasis on information and skills which the students do not wish to possess makes the whole education process tedious and wastes time which the students could better use elsewhere.  Second, this signaling comes at a massive monetary price. “When learning is neither useful nor inspirational, though, how can we call it anything but wasteful?” (Page 2)

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The costs to society are even greater than those paid by the individual student:

Socially speaking, however, the human capital/signaling split is all important.  The closer we get to human capital purism, the more education benefits mankind.  As signaling’s share rises, education’s social benefits fade.  When we near the pure signaling pole, education becomes an incinerator that burns society’s money, time, and brains in a futile attempt to make everyone look special. (Page 124)

As with many such books, Caplan spends a lot of time revealing the problems and comparatively little on solutions.

His major recommendation is that the massive subsidies that government gives to education should be sharply cut, and totally eliminated at the high school and college levels.  He is enamored of the phrase – apparently of his own invention – “separation of school and state,” which he uses several times.  The fact that this would sharply increase the cost to the student concerns him not at all.  His contention is that a general lowering of the level of education across society (more non-high school graduates, many more students whose formal education ends with high school, a sharp reduction in the number of graduate school students, etc.) would produce the meager benefits of the signaling effect at a far lower cost to society.  The subsequent decrease in human capital would be negligible, and the Internet’s educational opportunities could plug that gap at little-if-any cost.

Another recommendation is that vocational education should be greatly expanded.  In Caplan’s analysis, a certain amount of tedium is quite acceptable provided that the student is gaining marketable skills to the benefit of himself and society.

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The last recommendation causes this reviewer a great deal of concern.  Caplan argues that courses in history, social sciences, literature, higher mathematics, fine arts, and foreign languages should be sharply limited and only taken by those students with a genuine interest in studying them.  One can agree with Caplan that few students will make their livings in professions arising from those disciplines.  It is also easy to agree with his further assertion that few students in the current system retain much of this material after they have been tested on it. However, those of us who believe that a major goal of education should be conveying the transcendental values of truth, goodness, and beauty shudder at the thought of a meat axe being taken to those subject areas. Surely, monetary utility should not be the only criteria by which education should be measured.

However, even with those reservations, it is possible to see a great deal of value in Professor Caplan’s analysis.  Certainly, his solutions would create great angst among those who currently profit from the current relationship between government and academia.  One suspects, and Caplan would admit, that those cries alone could well be enough to prevent his proposals from being implemented.  “Education for all” is a popular concept.  It is not at all difficult to imagine politicians, professors, and school administrators racing to the media to decry these ideas as elitist, regressive, and just plain wrong-headed.

However, calling them bad names does not make them bad.