Four years ago, I read Bryan Caplan’s The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money, a polemic about the form of education in the U.S. I disagreed strongly with a decent fraction of it, agreed strongly with a larger fraction of it, and overall found it stimulating — one of the rare books that can change how you view the entirety of a system, not just its parts. (I should post sometime a list of eye-opening books…) Like Theodosius Dobzhansky’s famous quote that “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” , I’d argue that little in higher education makes sense except in the light of signaling. By signaling, Caplan means that the major outcome of the education system as currently structured isn’t that students gain skills or knowledge, but rather that they demonstrate that they’re the right type of person to fit into jobs and society. The acquisition of skills and knowledge isn’t a negligible part of education, but it’s not the primary aim. This isn’t a new idea — even I was aware of it before reading Caplan — but I don’t think it’s ever been expounded so thoroughly.
Accepting this framework of signaling, many aspects of how education works make sense, in a sad sort of way, and its human and economic tolls become clearer. As mentioned, Caplan doesn’t make an airtight case; I’ll describe below some strengths and weaknesses. Why, you may ask, should I write a book review four years late? As always, I’m mainly writing for my own benefit, but I’m also spurred by Andrew Gelman’s recent posting of his thoughts on Caplan’s book, six years after writing them; my four years seems speedy in comparison. Also, the book continues to spur a lot of discussion, often involving people who haven’t read it and who (often severely) misunderstand its claims, so noting some key points may be useful. The post isn’t a substitute for Caplan’s book itself which, despite its flaws, I strongly recommend to anyone in academia.
Before starting, here’s my customary plug for my own book! Will it dramatically change your views of the living world? I don’t know, but I was happy to see yesterday that it made it onto “Your Ultimate Book Guide to the Biggest Questions in Biology”. Here are the usual links: My description, Publisher, Amazon.)
Caplan contrasts a signaling model of education with the commonly held “human capital” model. Human capital refers to actual skills; your psychology degree reflects your understanding of the mind and your ability to asses and alter human behavior. Signaling considers the utility of the degree to be, instead, a signal of other attributes, especially conscientiousness, intelligence, and social conformity. These traits that may have no relation to what you nominally learned, rather like a peacock’s tail serves as a signal of general health and fitness and not as a useful tool in itself.
Notably — and this is a point that’s often egregiously misunderstood — Caplan doesn’t claim that education is all signaling. He argues that it’s at least one-third signaling (in terms of time spent, for example), and probably 80%. There’s a big space between one-third and four-fifths, and this isn’t something readily quantifiable anyway, but the key point is that it’s neither 0% nor 100%. Caplan states that any sizeable signaling fraction points to a huge inefficiency, not just in wasted time and money now, but in the continued escalation of of waste as the signal becomes more common. I’ll return to this later.
A signal is valuable. This point is also often misunderstood. Caplan quite clearly lays out how much more money college graduates make compared to high school graduates: 73% more (Chapter 3). The reason for this correlation is what’s at issue. College graduate bartenders, for example, earn 60% more than bartenders without a bachelor’s degree, and it’s hard to imagine any other reason than that those hiring them view the degree as an indicator of reliability. Or, putting it the other way around, the high school graduate who isn’t hired is rejected not because of his lack of technical knowledge, but because he lacks the implicit character reference that a college degree provides.
At the level of individuals, a college degree can be lucrative. At the level of society, as we encourage almost everyone to take this track, is it beneficial? Are there cheaper, more humanistic, and more enriching ways to accomplish our goals (whatever they may be)? More on this later…
Caplan provides a variety of further evidence for the ubiquity of signaling in education, for example the uselessness of almost completing a degree program, despite having almost all the skills associated with the full program. More interesting, however, is the inadequacy of the human capital model to make sense of so many features of modern education. Why, for example, doesn’t forgetting the content of a course have the same consequences as failing the course? Why do so many students seek out the easiest classes (or majors), rather than the ones from which they’ll learn the most? Along similar lines, a quote from Steven Pinker:
A few weeks into every semester, I face a lecture hall that is half-empty, despite the fact that I am repeatedly voted a Harvard Yearbook Favorite Professor, that the lectures are not video-recorded, and that they are the only source of certain material that will be on the exam. I don’t take it personally; it’s common knowledge that Harvard students stay away from lectures in droves, burning a fifty-dollar bill from their parents’ wallets every time they do.
Which model explains this?
Objections to objections
A common reponse to the idea that education is mostly signaling is that being a physics, or biology, or computer science major isn’t mostly signaling — there’s actual physics, biology, or computer science that one learns. This is true. However, most students aren’t physics, biology, or computer science majors. The most common major here at the University of Oregon (and a common one everywhere) is business, a hodgepodge of stuff whose rigor I’ve never heard anyone defend. A side-effect of teaching a lot of courses for non-science majors is that I chat with students about the range of things they’re actually majoring in — business, sociology, public relations, … It’s this that one should consider if thinking about the median signaling component of an undergraduate degree. This is touched on, though not enough, by Caplan.
The other common objection is that the aim of education is to enrich the soul, not to provide specific, practical skills. I am very sympathetic to this objection, being fond of art, science, and learning in general for their own sake. Caplan claims that he is too, and devotes a whole chapter to this topic (Chapter 9) that includes a long quote from Malcolm X on the wonder of reading. The main counter-objection is that culture is more accessible than it has ever been, and doesn’t need the intermediary of university classes, even if they were effective in imparting refined tastes. Chapter 9 is a mix of good and poor arguments, but I’ll leave it at that. I’ll add, though, that I’d be happier with the cultural objection if universities weren’t so keen on watering down any requirements that might make one numerate or well read. Again, the student to keep in mind is not you, but the median student, a business major taking the History of Rock and Roll as his humanities requirement.
The book’s flaws
Despite my overall fondness for it and its arguments, The Case Against Education has significant problems.
The biggest flaw is that its claims span K-12 education and higher education. The case against the current higher education system — which really is bloated, expensive, wasteful, and cruel to “below average” students — is fine, and most of the book’s evidence is arrayed against this target. Applying these arguments to high school, however, is unconvincing. Not only are basic skills in writing, math, etc., that open doors to many paths developed there, but the relative uniformity of the curriculum provides a shared background for everyone. Caplan complains about the constrictions of school with “I love education too much to accept our Orwellian substitute” [p. 260], missing the irony that most of us know what Orwellian means thanks to mass high school education. We can certainly argue that high school isn’t doing its job of developing skills well, but that’s a separate issue.
Another flaw is that the presumed aims of education are phrased almost completely in economic terms, as preparing people for employment. As noted above, Caplan argues that culture and general enrichment are important, but argues against the education system being necessary or important for promoting that. It does not follow from this, though, that preparing people for jobs should be the goal of education; Caplan, with no elaboration, seems to see it as self-evident that job placement should be the ultimate aim.
Third, even if one accepts the signaling model, the question arises as to whether education improves the traits that are being signaled. Caplan writes, “The labor market… pays you for the preexisting traits you reveal…” [p. 13] Are these really pre-existing, or are they developed by study? Caplan does address this (Chapter 3), but rather minimally, noting that there is little research on whether education itself improves things like conscientiousness. (It would be hard to untangle from simple age: is a 22-year-old who finishes college more conscientious than a 18-year-old high school graduate simply because she’s 22?) This isn’t a fatal flaw: even if education helps develop non-cognitive skills like organization, it begs the question of whether the current system is a sensible way to implement this.
Finally, I’ll note that the book is very repetitive. While well written, albeit sometimes infuriating, it could easily be trimmed by at least 1/3.
What to do?
Caplan’s overall recommendation is that we should spend less on education. Not only is it wasteful in itself, but if much of education is signaling, the “subsidies [we provide] raise the correlation between educational attainment and employability” [p 214]. The current system is “a dysfunctional game, but if you refuse to play, the labor market brands you a loser.” This escalates, as the signal grows more common and its value as a signal declines. Already, we’re seeing the proliferation of Master’s degrees, because a Bachelor’s in itself isn’t distinctive. The cost of education, spiraling ever upwards, falls especially hard on the poor. Further subsidizing education — or worse, forgiving loans, our recently enacted policy that will serve as a giant green light to every university to increase its tuition — further dilutes the signal, and the benefit to the student. This is especially harsh for the group that it’s easy for academics to ignore: the average or below-average students.
Aside from lowering our spending, Caplan doesn’t have many concrete suggestions. He envisions a world in which there is more free play, library time, etc., for young people. He also proposes education as a tour of activities and occupations to connect students with the “real world,” but this is rather vague. The lack of solutions, or a proposed path from where we are to where we’d lke to be, is a flaw of the book.
Caplan wants to be provocative, and he needlessly overstates his case. This is most evident in the title, which should be something like “The case against higher education, as it currently is” rather than “The case against education.”
Still, the book is full of ideas worth thinking about, and it helps frame many contemporary issues in education.
Today’s illustration: A rufous hummingbird.
 Theodosius Dobzhansky, The American Biology Teacher, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Mar., 1973). Link
— Raghuveer Parthasarathy; October 13, 2022