The Case For, and the Case Against, “The Case Against Education”

12 thoughts on “The Case For, and the Case Against, “The Case Against Education””

  1. You probably don’t want to hear from me…but…

    > 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.

    Having worked with a lot of MBA students, participants in executive management programs, etc.

    I’ve never heard many of them defend the content per se. Mostly they come from having been in industry positions, and say that what they’re learning in business school is what they were learning years earlier in the field.

    But as a general rule, they say that the networking they do in business schools is invaluable. Also, the ability to learn from other students about other companies in their industry, or the opportunity to glean lessons from students in other industries.

    I’ve worked with many execs from Wharton’s advance management program who have said, much to my surprise, that they greatly valued their experience despite the cost of tens of thousands for just a few weeks. I would say their evaluation was made mostly (but not entirely) based on a financial scale

    I’d say that there’s a similar “networking” gain in other areas of study as well. Or from seeing teachers model all kinds of learning tasks. I don’t know if Caplan addresses those issues – I’d imagine he must to some extent. But I would suspect that his (self-professed) politically oriented slant would lead him to underestimate the value of those aspects from schooling at pretty much any level.

    1. Don’t worry — I’m happy to read your comment! This is a good point, but I wonder about the networking benefits for a professional MBA versus an *undergraduate* business degree — the latter is what I was referring to. I doubt that the networking effects of hanging out with 2000 other undergraduate business majors are very strong. Still, I agree that it’s not clear where networking fits into a human capital vs. signaling picture.

  2. Another thing that’s missing here is that there’s a problem with the claim that a lot of the information taught is available online*: in particular, I seem to remember that online courses turned out to be far far worse than even badly-attended in-person courses. That is, that there are very few people who actually succeed in completing an online course**. (That may have improved over Covid, but the general agreement seems to be that even “live” online courses with a schedule and feedback left a lot more people behind than regular pre-Covid courses.)

    * And this is ignoring the point that being able to use online resources effectively is probably far rarer in non-college grads than in college grads.

    ** For example, I have good intentions of doing the MIT linear algegra course, but reviewing my 50-year old rusted-out pre-calc and calc is going very slowly; there’s a good chance I may not even get there. Sigh.

    1. Yes and no — I agree that most people don’t complete online courses on their own, and wherever you are with the linear algebra course, you’re likely ahead of the vast majority of people! However, I also know of people who do learn things well online, especially “bite-sized” pieces like Khan Academy nuggets. Personally, I really enjoyed doing the course described here (

      However, you’re right that in general it’s harder to learn independently / online as compared to an in-person course. A big challenge is that there’s no one to answer one’s questions, so one is stuck unless one can figure out everything on one’s own. I’ve often thought that a great way to structure a university would be for the “content” to be from online lectures, like MIT’s, with the role of faculty as tutors / answerers-of-questions / coaches. That probably deserves a post of its own!

    2. Personally I’m more convinced that people fail to complete the online course because it doesn’t serve as a good signal, not because the course quality is much lower than an in-person course. I suppose it depends on the subject, but these days many professors (even at top schools) post their class syllabus online, so you can know the exact roadmap to follow pretty easily. Many professors even post their lecture slides online, if they don’t just outright record their lecture videos. More and more textbooks are freely available via the professors who write them, and if they’re not they’re very easy to find for those motivated. If you’re working through an undergraduate math textbook, you’ll likely find the answers to many questions (particularly the harder ones) on StackExchange, and frequently these are high quality answers. Courses on MOOC platforms like EdX and Coursera also contain message boards where you can ask questions and get answers from other learners or from some of the course TAs, however I can’t vouch for the quality of these personally. The number of podcasts/blogs/substacks/youtube videos covering concepts one learns in university is higher now than it ever has been.

      Don’t you think it’s just more likely that people would rather do other things with their time than learn some of this content? I’ve had the Feynman Lectures bookmarked for about 7 months now. Every now and then I’ll go and read through a lecture, or more frequently, remind myself of what I had been reading last time I checked in. Part of me wants to have a better understanding of quantum mechanics, but if I’m being honest most of the time I’d rather spend my free time doing other things (like reading blog posts). Now if you attached a financial reward to the completion of the course, I think I’d be more motivated to get through it.

      1. “Don’t you think it’s just more likely that people would rather do other things with their time than learn some of this content?” Absolutely! Caplan states this as well. I think I’m not understanding your point, though. The fact that most people *don’t* seek out / complete courses on their own is, again, an indication that the skills themselves are not as sought after as one might like to believe. My point was that among the subset of people who *are* trying to gain these skills on their own, a bit of interaction in addition to the online content may help remove roadblocks.

      2. @Raghuveer,

        Sorry my reply was meant to be for David, I think you and I are in agreement. Totally agreed on the interaction aspect, and I’m a big fan of things like flipped classrooms or a more tutor-oriented instructional style (something like St. John’s Liberal Arts program). I think MOOCs are trying to innovate there as well, but of course it’s a bigger challenge for them. Just in case anyone’s interested, I think UCSD’s Data Science series on EdX is a good example of an online course I believe they mention making videos shorter and adding in more opportunities for interaction to boost engagement

  3. Raghuveer –

    Sure, the networking benefits would he less for undergrads, but I do still think even there, the more general benefits from the human interaction part aren’t at all trivial (especially in the internships that many undergrads have as a part of their business school curriculum). Students learn, socially and emotionally, from interacting with peers and with teachers as mentors. Indeed, not all of those interactions are positive – say considering the high drop out rates, the high rates of suicides among freshman, etc. And alternative activities at replacement environments, such as they might have in a work environment, would also be valuable. But I wouldn’t just make a blanket assumption that replacement experiences would be equally beneficial or even better; for example, there are plenty of generalizable negative interactions in work environments as well.

    I’m a big proponent of career-based experiences being built into education programs for students in their late teens or early twenties – as I think from a developmental psychology perspective those students are very much in need of opportunities to explore adult roles and develop adult identity – and schools in many ways create an artificial environment that delays that developmental opportunity. But it’s the replacement aspect of Caplan’s argument (what I’ve gleaned without actually reading the book) that I’m highly skeptical of. Caplan hits on many criticisms of out traditional educational paradigm that I’ve been talking about (as an educator) for decades, but I have a reflexive reaction to what I see as a weaponizing of those criticisms in a libertarian campaign to create a “free market” model as a replacement.

    You might want to look over this piece:

    It’s written by a rather well-known climate change “skeptic” who also runs a pretty well-known program of election modeling. Anyway, it’s been a while since I read it, but as I recall, it’s from a rather similar tale as Caplan’s. And my reaction was similar there also. As a Wharton professor, he offers a critique of our educational paradigm that touches on what I think are very mportant aspects to consider in the process of reforming education. But his conclusions and overall political slant, in my view, is actually pretty dangerous in its simplistic foundation: that because these problems are real and worthy of reform, we should just basically chuck the whole thing out. I think doing so, and removing any federal or governmental role in ensuring educational opportunities, would basically be a disaster – especially for people who have fewer resources to rely on. And I say that as someone who basically sees our whole process of schooling as effectively a mechanism that in the end, functions to reinforce existing class status quo, even as it’s also often seen as the critical driver of class mobility.

  4. Interesting post! I disagree with this point though: “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.”

    I think some part of that 60% must be due to a selection effect on the part of the workers. College graduates will on average have more attractive non-bartending job options, and so will have a greater propensity to pass up jobs at lower-paying dive bars. In other words, you’d expect a substantial wage gap even when college graduates are no more attractive to bar owners than non-college graduates.

    But even if bar owners do have an average preference for degree holders, I don’t see how this data shows that the degree is causal. I would suspect that many of the desirable qualities that the degree is a signal of are themselves also partially observable.

    If I had to guess, I would bet that selection, non-degree signs of desirable traits, degree signalling, and improvements in non-academic traits caused by college all play a role in the bartender wage premium, probably in that order of magnitude.

    1. I don’t know enough about bartending economics, or the hiring process for bartenders, to reply. The selection idea seems odd, though: why wouldn’t the dive bar bartender apply for the higher-paying position? About non-degree, but observable, signs of desirable traits: a lot hinges on “observable,” since for many jobs, the initial screening is of a resume, not a flesh-and-blood candidate. In any case, it would be great to see work that tries to quantify all the causal routes you established — I think you’re right that there are more than two!

      1. Imagine that all individuals have two attributes: their bartending quality X, and their uncorrelated non-bartending quality Y. X and Y are measured by the salaries that can be earned as a bartender and as a non-bartender, respectively. College grads and non-grads have the same distribution for X, but grads have a higher Y distribution. Each individual picks the career that gives them the higher salary. Then even though grads and non-grads have exactly the same X distribution, the salary distribution among those who choose to become bartenders will be higher for grads. Does that seem reasonable?

      2. Daniel: Thanks — I think I see your point now! If people with some (irrelevant) trait (Y) avoid low-paying jobs, it will look like a wage premium for that trait. Interesting — I hadn’t thought about this! It leads to the question of why they’re able to avoid the low-paying jobs, which could be due to skills relevant to the other high paying jobs, signaling relevant to the other high-paying jobs, etc. I wonder how one would analyze this without considering the whole “system” of jobs. I’m sure economists have thought about this…

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