Marketing Thought

The Case Against: Is Education A Waste

I have mixed feelings on Bryan Caplan‘s books (see also here). I must confess to appreciating that he tackles hard to discuss, important topics. Is education a waste is certainly one of those.

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, this 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 his critics at the end of the book are just strange. They make him look far too pleased with himself. Still, he tells us that 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 education’s key benefit is signaling to employers. He even argues 80% of education’s benefit is signaling but that number doesn’t seem especially solid. 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. His logic is, therefore, that the knowledge gained can’t be doing much of value.

While he seems too job-focused in the objectives he sees for education, he doesn’t just look at job outcomes. I 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, 50%, or 20%. The numbers are really quite important and are very hard to be certain of.

Signaling Matters

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 at the consequences of the idea so that is taking it forward.

The problem he highlights is that where education is largely just 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.

Did They Learn Anything (At Least About Gravity) Or Are Just Signaling Something

To establish the limited value of education he needs to argue that people don’t learn much of use in their educations. Here he uses the phrase ‘human capital purists’ for those who disagree with him. This seems a bit of a rhetorical device to undermine any 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 the self-description of a human capital purist. Education is complex — I can’t imagine too many true purists are out there.

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 in education that do not always seem to make sense. (Cursive anyone?) I have no idea why at school I did a lot of math but learned so little about statistics. Stats is surely more useful in everyday life a skill as any other type of math.

Politics Matters

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 type of spending is too big or too small. It depends on what you are trying to do with the spending. People likely spend more on gas than salt, it doesn’t logically follow that 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 bit worried about the influence of the left-wing teachers, who 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 if 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 like Caplan’s.

Read: Bryan Caplan (2019) The Case Against Education: Why The Education System Is A Waste Of Time And Money, Princeton University Press

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