Sorry for the delay this AM, all. Long flight over the Atlantic yesterday.
There is a new book out from George Mason economics professor Bryan Caplan called The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money. It’s causing some brouhaha south of the border (you may have seen this article in The Atlantic).
There is a longstanding argument in economics about how to measure gains from education. Basically, there is the “human capital” view, which says that wages reflect actual skill levels and hence the length and content of education are important, and the “signalling” view, which says skills don’t matter because all employers look at is the credential obtained, which is viewed as a proxy for skills. If you believe the gains to education are all about human capital, investing in education makes complete sense because everyone wins as skill levels rise – higher productivity, higher national income, etc. But if the higher incomes are simply due to signalling: that a degree merely signals to employers that you have a certain level of intelligence and stick-to-it-ness, then the gains go to the individual, not society, and the case for public subsidy declines substantially.
Economists have been arguing for a long time about how much of education is human capital and how much is signalling. There is near universal agreement that both are at play, but little agreement on the relative proportions, which is extremely hard to measure conclusively (Caplan misleadingly implies the consensus among labour economists is that it is close to 100% human capital, a claim met with hilarity among the labour economists with whom I chatted). The premise of this book, based on a number of estimates he makes in chapters 2 through 4, is that the correct proportion is 20-80 and therefore education is mostly signalling.
If you accept this premise, then much of the rest of the book’s argument follows: education has a terrible social return and we should generally have far less because it is socially wasteful. I think he’s overstating his case –he is too focussed on America, insufficiently interested in international evidence. For instance, he calculates that one of the main drivers of low returns to education is the high risk of drop-out, which he thinks is an intractable problem we can’t do anything about. This is ludicrous considering nearly every country in the world has higher rates of completion of the US. Further, his dismissal of nearly all of Eric Hanuschek’s work (see here for instance) on quality of education (as opposed to years of education) as a driver of economic growth discredits his argument. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting and not totally unreasonable point to make. If Caplan had left his argument there, on the debate about how much of education is in fact signalling, this would be a decent book.
Unfortunately, he did not leave it there.
Much of his argument in favour of the proposition that “most education is useless” is of the sophomoric “how much of algebra class do you remember” variety. He partially elevates it by trying to demolish the “education is learning-to-learn” counter-argument with a decent survey of the literature on learning transfer and skill/knowledge decay (tl;dr, learning transfer is difficult). But basically, this only works if you think the point of education is to build fluid intelligence (and secondarily, if you think fluid intelligence is best measured through make-an-argument-break-an-argument testing). The idea that education might be about learning to ask better questions, or about learning how to master particular bodies of knowledge quickly so as to act on them – dismissed as mere “crystallized intelligence” – or indeed about socialization, seems not to have occurred to him (to be fair, few on the pro-education side of the case push too hard on socialization either)
From there he jumps to the idea that specific parts of the high school curriculum and specific university programs are useless. Effectively, this includes anything which is not math or basic communications. History? Languages? Basically anything in the humanities and social sciences? All 100% useless. Somehow, he has come to believe that a college major equals a career, and that the 30,000-odd history graduates per year are all out of their mind because there are only a few thousand practicing historians in the US. This logic is confounding–most occupations in the US have no training program at all, as there are only about one hundred basic majors but over 900 listings in the Standard Occupational Classification system. It is a position so startlingly stupid that it hardly needs refuting.
Then there is his proposed remedy. A reasonable response to the observation that education doesn’t deliver critical thinking and fluid intelligence as promised might be to find ways to improve outcomes in this area. But no, his idea is to defund the entire educational enterprise from about grade 9 onwards and leave it to the market (yes, he is a libertarian). That race between education and technology? Imaginary. The effects on industry of replacing university graduates with a flood of untrained 14 year olds? Not examined. The effects on social mobility of returning to what is essentially a nineteenth century education system? Some whatabbouttery about “oh yeah like our system is so classless now”. It’s kind of depressing.
The notion that education is oversold as an economic miracle cure has been done before and done well: Alison Wolf’s Does Education Matter is in fact one of my all-time favourite books in the field. And the notion that education isn’t particularly effective in achieving its pedagogical goals shouldn’t be controversial either. Caplan opens his book with a quite wonderful line in this vein: “Learning doesn’t have to be useful. Learning doesn’t have to be inspirational. When learning is neither useful nor inspirational, though, how can we call it anything but wasteful?”. But he quickly abandons the idea that education should be inspirational and his solution to wastefulness is not improvement but decimation. Despite some interesting early points, the end result is educational policy as designed by Genghis Khan. The best we can hope for is that the book does not receive a lot of traction.