The Case against Education

Caplan, Bryan

High-tech statistics can improve on basic methods, but the cost is high: to fix the flaws you understand, you usually have to introduce new flaws you don’t understand.

My deepest gratitude, though, goes to Nathaniel Bechhofer, Tyler Cowen, Robin Hanson, and Alex Tabarrok for sharing my intellectual journey, day by day. Whatever they think about education as it really is, these dear friends exemplify education as it ought to be.

Think about all the classes you ever took. How many failed to teach you any useful skills? The lessons you’ll never need to know after graduation start in kindergarten. Elementary schools teach more than reading, writing, and arithmetic. They also require history, social studies, music, art, and physical education. Middle and high schools add higher mathematics, classic literature, and foreign languages—vital for a handful of budding scientists, authors, and translators, irrelevant for everyone else. Most college majors don’t even pretend to teach job skills. If you apply your knowledge of Roman history, Shakespeare, real analysis, or philosophy of mind on the job, you have an odd job.

To effectively defend education, however, you need to do more than appeal to humanistic ideals. You need to ask: How often do academics successfully broaden students’ horizons? Empirically, the answer is bleak: while great teachers can turn students into Shakespeare fans, Civil War buffs, avant-garde artists, and devoted violinists, such transformations are rare. Despite teachers’ best efforts, most youths find high culture boring—and few change their minds in adulthood.

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?

Suppose your law firm wants a summer associate. A law student with a Ph.D. in philosophy from Stanford applies. What do you infer? The applicant is probably brilliant, diligent, and willing to tolerate serious boredom. If you’re looking for that kind of worker—and what employer isn’t?—you’ll make a generous offer. You could readily do so knowing full well that nothing the philosopher learned at Stanford applies on the job.

even if a degree did raise your pay by 70%, that would hardly prove your education “made you what you are today.” Perhaps you already were what you are today the first time you entered the classroom.

Suppose you agree society would benefit if average education declined. Is this achievable? Verily. Government heavily subsidizes education. In 2011, U.S. federal, state, and local governments spent almost a trillion dollars on it.5 The simplest way to get less education, then, is to cut the subsidies. This would not eliminate wasteful signaling, but at least government would pour less gasoline on the fire.

To be maximally blunt, we would be better off if education were less affordable. If subsidies for education were drastically reduced, many could no longer afford the education they now plan to get. If I am correct, however, this is no cause for alarm. It is precisely because education is so affordable that the labor market expects us to possess so much. Without the subsidies, you would no longer need the education you can no longer afford.

This does not mean my contrarian thesis is obvious; far from it. Yet for the most part, the book does not try to change your mind about brute facts. It tries to change your mind about the best way to interpret facts you’ve known for ages. Once you calmly review your experience through my lens, I bet you’ll admit I’ve got a point.

The disconnect between curriculum and job market has a banal explanation: educators teach what they know—and most have as little firsthand knowledge of the modern workplace as I do. Yet this merely amplifies the puzzle. If schools boost students’ income by teaching useful job skills, why do they entrust students’ education to people so detached from the real world? How are educators supposed to foster our students’ ability to do the countless jobs we can’t do ourselves?

A thriving market in literary criticism is the logical explanation. Every student has to take algebra and geometry. The Martian sociologist will conclude the typical worker occasionally solves quadratic equations and checks triangles for congruence.

Teachers emphasize classic literature and poetry. A thriving market in literary criticism is the logical explanation. Every student has to take algebra and geometry. The Martian sociologist will conclude the typical worker occasionally solves quadratic equations and checks triangles for congruence.

When I train Ph.D. students to become economics professors, there’s no magic. They want to do my job; I show them how it’s done. But the vast majority of my students won’t be professors of economics. They won’t be professors of anything. How then do my classes make my students more employable? I can’t teach what I don’t know, and I don’t know how to do the jobs most of my students are going to have. Few professors do.

Employers are running businesses, not logic classes. Hiring decisions, like all business decisions, are about prudence, not

Employers are running businesses, not logic classes. Hiring decisions, like all business decisions, are about prudence, not proof.

Humbler students send a weaker but still lucrative signal: they’re sufficiently intelligent, conscientious, and conformist to earn a degree. This doesn’t mean they’re above average in all three. As long as you manage to graduate, though, you’re probably strong in at least one, and woefully deficient in none.

If teachers were honest with ourselves, we would be slower to self-congratulate. Do we really transform waiters into economic consultants—or merely evaluate whether waiters have the right stuff to be economic consultants?

When I was growing up, he gave me the impression there were only two education/career tracks. Some students study engineering to become engineers; the rest study liberal arts to become taxi drivers.

My father, a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, routinely denied that “soft” majors pay. When I was growing up, he gave me the impression there were only two education/career tracks. Some students study engineering to become engineers; the rest study liberal arts to become taxi drivers.

Geometry is the most common of all math courses: over four-fifths complete it in high school. Yet the subject, featuring countless proofs of triangles’ congruence, is notoriously irrelevant. Geometry rarely pops up after the final exam, even in other math classes.

The point isn’t that the current curricula of the American high school is silly by historic or world standards. The status quo is more practical than a “classical education” in Latin and Greek.9 The point, rather, is that American high school is far from the skill factory we often imagine it to be. Being more relevant than Oxford in 1750 is nothing to brag about.

Defenders of the real-world relevance of education love to invoke engineering. Engineering students learn how to make stuff work; employers hire them to make stuff work. Engineering has well-defined subbranches, each with straightforward applications: electrical, mechanical, civil, nuclear. Before we get carried away, we should accept a key fact: Engineering is a challenging, hence unpopular, major. Psychologists outnumber engineers. Artists outnumber engineers. Social scientists plus historians outnumber engineers almost two to one.

The same goes for knowledge. Yes, you “might need” Latin one day. Maybe a time machine will strand you in ancient Rome. Still, does it make sense to study a dead language for years to prepare for a scenario you almost certainly won’t face? You cannot retreat to agnosticism. “No one knows if this trash will come in handy” is a crazy argument for hoarding trash. “No one knows if this knowledge will come in handy” is a crazy argument for hoarding knowledge.

Surveys of adults’ knowledge of reading, math, history, civics, science, and foreign languages are already on the shelf. The results are stark: Basic literacy and numeracy are virtually the only book learning most American adults possess. While the average American spends years and years studying other subjects, they recall next to nothing about them. If schools teach us everything we know about history, civics, science, and foreign languages, their achievement is pitiful.

For each of these three subtests, the NAAL charitably grades respondents’ knowledge as “Below Basic,” “Basic,” “Intermediate,” or “Proficient.” Take a look at official examples of Below Basic, Basic, Intermediate, and Proficient Tasks (see Table 2.2). Summing two prices and finding a table in an almanac are Basic (not Below Basic) tasks.

Given these low standards, you might think that virtually all Americans would score at the Intermediate or Proficient level in every subject. Not even close (see Figure 2.3). The ignorance revealed by the NAAL is numbing. Only modest majorities are Intermediate or Proficient on the prose and document tests. Under half are Intermediate or Proficient on the quantitative test. Reviewing specific questions underscores the severity of the ignorance. Barely half know that saving $.05 per gallon on 140 gallons of oil equals $7.00. Thirty-five percent of Americans can’t correctly enter a name and address on a Certified Mail form—with no points off for misspelling!

How do the NAAL results look if you break them down by education? If you mentally picture “high school graduates,” you probably see them as Intermediate or Proficient in literacy and numeracy. If you mentally picture “college students,” you probably see them as Proficient in literacy and numeracy. Such mental pictures do not fit the facts.

While today’s dropouts almost always spend at least nine years in school,22 over half remain functionally illiterate and innumerate. Over half of high school grads have less than the minimum skills one would naively expect them to possess.

Though college grads spend at least seventeen years in school, under a third have the level of literacy and numeracy we assume of every college freshman

One could look at these facts and conclude the public’s historical and civic knowledge is no worse than its literacy. Yet such optimism overlooks a key point: knowing half a subject’s basic facts does not make you “halfway proficient.” If you know only half the letters in the alphabet, you are illiterate. Why? Because you lack knowledge of basic facts on which all reading depends. The same holds for the ABCs of history and civics. Not knowing the three branches of government isn’t like not knowing Hamlet; it’s like not knowing the letter “h.” If you don’t know that the Civil War came after the Declaration of Independence, you don’t understand American history. If you don’t know which parties control the House and the Senate, you don’t understand American politics.

Few American adults know the ABCs of science. The General Social Survey provides the best evidence of their ignorance. In recent years, this survey has tested the public’s knowledge of twelve elementary scientific facts (see Table 2.4).29 Adults correctly answer 60%. While this may seem low, it is a gross overstatement. These are true/false questions, so people should get 50% only guessing!

Guess-corrected, the average respondent knows 4.6 answers. If adults learned everything they know about these twelve juvenile questions in high school science, they learned 1.4 answers per year.

Educators can arguably blame the majority’s disbelief in the Big Bang and evolution on Christian fundamentalism. Yet ignorance of the ABCs of science is nondenominational. Only 7% of adult Americans who deny the Bible’s literal truth answered all twelve questions correctly.

Given the ease of the questions, we shouldn’t conclude Americans’ knowledge of science is mediocre. We should conclude Americans’ knowledge of science is virtually nonexistent.

Americans’ staggering ignorance may not be a death blow for human capital purism, but it is an awkward fact. If we learn so little in school, why do employers so heavily reward education? The simplest response is that employers, like teachers, grade on a curve. Intermediate literacy and numeracy horrify intellectuals. From an employer’s point of view, however, intermediate is way better than basic—or below basic.

Educational psychologists who specialize in “transfer of learning” have measured the hidden intellectual benefits of education for over a century.33 Their chief discovery: education is narrow. As a rule, students learn only the material you specifically teach them . . . if you’re lucky.

“Besides just plain forgetting, people commonly fail to marshal what they know effectively in situations outside the classroom or in other classes in different disciplines. The bridge from school to beyond or from this subject to that other is a bridge too far.”34

Many experiments study transfer of learning under seemingly ideal conditions. Researchers teach subjects how to answer Question A. Then they immediately ask their subjects Question B, which can be handily solved using the same approach as Question A. Unless A and B look alike on the surface, or subjects get a heavy-handed hint to apply the same approach, learning how to solve Question A rarely helps subjects answer Question B.

Since subjects hear these two stories back to back, you might think almost everyone would leap to the convergence solution for the medical problem. They don’t. A typical success rate is 30%. Since about 10% of subjects who don’t hear the military problem offer the convergence solution, only one in five subjects transferred what they learned. To reach a high (roughly 75%) success rate, you need to teach subjects the first story, then bluntly tell them to use the first story to solve the second.37 To repeat, such experiments measure how humans “learn how to think” under ideal conditions:

To apply schoolwork in the real world, you must normally overcome each and every one of these hurdles. You must see through surface features to underlying structure. You must select the few relevant lessons, and ignore the rest. You must remember relevant lessons years or decades after encountering them. You must apply what you learned in a nonacademic location, without your original teacher (or any teacher!) to hold your hand.