I also don’t want to be the sort of person that, just because I don’t have a similar perspective to Caplan, I can’t read his book and learn something. Even if he overstates his case and understates some critical parts doesn’t mean that he can’t have good points. This is especially true given he is aiming so big. You have to admire that.
That said, he does come across as a bit insufferable. He seems very impressed with his own abilities. The imaginary arguments he has with critics at the end of the book are just strange. They make him look far too pleased with himself. Still he tells us he has his dream job so maybe he has a lot to feel smug about.
Is Education A Waste?
The central thesis of Caplan’s The Case Against Education is that most of education’s benefit is signaling to employers. He argues 80% of education’s benefit is signaling but that number doesn’t seem especially sold. To be fair it is hard to come up with a number given benefits are so wide and not universally agreed. He does try and argue that a lot of the benefits people think of simply don’t occur. Basically most people quickly forget what they learn during their education so his logic is that it can’t be doing much of value.
While he seems too job focused, he doesn’t just look at that. Also, I certainly don’t think he is wrong to try and think through the benefits logically. I agree that thinking through the benefits of education are worthwhile.
Instead of Scorning bean counters, we should scrupulously count beans of every description.Caplan, 2019
A challenge is that assumptions are critical. For the private and social returns it matters whether education is 80% signaling, or 50%, or 20%. The numbers are really quite important and are very hard to be certain of.
A critic might say that Caplan was recycling well-known work on signaling. I don’t think that is fair. Of course, he builds on other people’s ideas — we all do. He is trying to look the consequences of the idea so that is taking it forward.
The problem he highlights is that where education is signaling then it doesn’t do much to improve the world. It only helps one person get ahead of another. This is great for the person getting ahead but doesn’t do much for society collectively. Although signaling can help society through matching this seems broadly logical.
To get rid of the value of education he needs to argue that people don’t learn much of use in education. Here he uses the phrase ‘human capital purists’ for those who disagree with him. This seems a bit of a rhetorical device to undermine opposition. Anyone who argues that education is all intellectual improvement and no signaling is likely wrong. That said, I can’t imagine who would sign up for that self-description. education is complex — I can’t imagine too many purists.
Caplan Makes A Number Of Sensible Points
He notes what skills are useful and says we don’t teach enough of them. I think he is right mostly. I’m sure partly this is teachers, partly parents, partly administrators. We do seem to have a lot of things continuing to be done that don’t always seem to make sense. (Cursive anyone?) I have no idea why at school I did a lot of math but learnt so little about statistics. That is surely about as useful in everyday life a skill as any math.
There is a strong dose of politics in Caplan’s writing. To be fair, how could there not be? When Caplan compares education to defense spending this seems pure politics. Some bits of spending are bigger than other bits of spending. This doesn’t tell us whether either spending is too big or too small. It depends what you are trying to do with the spending. People likely spend more on gas than salt, it doesn’t mean they are spending too much on gas or too little on salt.
That said, although I doubt I agree with Caplan on much I do appreciate the fact he is consistent. He doesn’t believe educators have much impact on student learning so he isn’t in the slightest worried about the influence of left wing teachers he disagrees with in schools and universities.
Even extreme left-wing dominance leaves little lasting impression”Caplan 2019
My biggest personal challenge was when he seemed to equate attempts to generate more equitable outcomes through funding of education to toenail fungus cream. If it isn’t working stop doing it. I see equity concerns more like heart treatments. It isn’t everything, but when it goes wrong it isn’t clear what the point of everything else is. I don’t think we can give up on state funded education. Still there are always things to improve so it is worth engaging with critiques.
Read: Bryan Caplan (2019) The Case Against Education: Why The Education System Is A Waste Of Time And Money, Princeton University Press