Bryan Caplan on the Case Against Education

This show’s guest is Bryan Caplan (youtubemp3), Professor of Economics at George Mason University whose latest book is *The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money*. In this book Bryan makes the point that if we judged education based on how much, as adults, we use what we learned in school, we’d have to admit it’s a shocking waste of time and resources:

David Wright: I remember the first time it occurred to me. I was in third grade gazing out the window and I figured this whole racket was basically just free babysitting for my parents, ah, was I right?

Bryan Caplan: For young kids it’s definitely that, but there’s definitely a lot more going on. Schools definitely teach skills, most obviously literacy and numeracy. But then a big thing that’s going on is that you’re jumping through hoops trying to impress future employers.

Now employers don’t know what you’re actually doing in third grade but since the whole system is so cumulative and sequential.. basically in third grade you’re getting ready for forth grade and fourth grade for fifth grade and so on. And then Junior High and middle school you’re getting ready for high school and high school then is preparing you for college. So very often what you’re learning you’re going to use in a subsequent class. It is used for gatekeeping. But then it’s finally, when you get a job, that’s when the stuff you learn you can safely forget.

Instead, education is about signalling qualities you need to succeed in the workplace. That means more education doesn’t really benefit society!

Bryan Caplan: So the problem is this: when you go and get a better degree this selfishly raises your earnings because you look better but it does not enrich society in the same way. If everyone were to go and get a college degree this would not mean that everyone is good in the same way. This would mean you now need additional degrees in order to convince employers of your awesomeness and we can see very clear empirical evidence of this that over time there’s been massive credential inflation this means if for one and the same job you now need a lot more education to be considered worthy of employment.But if the whole society gets more credentials this doesn’t make the whole society better instead this means that employers will say what’s so great about a high school diploma, almost everyone’s got one now so now you’ve got to get more… as a result there’s this rat race…

So what kind of a world does Bryan want? One with a lot less education spending:

Bryan Caplan: I call it educational austerity. If very wide access to education has caused fruitless credential inflation then reducing access will cause fruitful credential deflation and basically go back to a world where you can get a good job out of high school right so this is the main thing that I push. I talked about a lot of different ways you can cut spending there’s so many different possibilities. I’ve got a blog post on 47 ways to cut spending right so I’m agnostic but there’s just not much research on what’s the optimal way to cut education spending. It’s just not a big topic as you might guess.

And of course we talk about actuaries…

David Wright: Why don’t more people go into vocational jobs?… By training I’m an actuary and that is in some ways I vocational job because I (only) have a bachelor’s degree but it’s it seems to me quite an interesting sector because there’s no other there’s no other profession I think that would be a comparable to actuary where you don’t have to get a graduate degree and so that school system doesn’t hold the keys to the Actuarial profession.

… so I think vocations are great and I think that they’re underrated go by our society why do you think that might be?

Bryan Caplan: Basically there is a pile of government money in favor of the status quo and the status quo is a modest modification of the system from Oxford and Cambridge, right, so basically modern colleges have the fingerprints of early [inaudible] was basically there to train the elite for Law and Medicine and the Ministry…

and one of the main things that education signals is sheer conformity.

I have to admit I remain uncomfortable with the length to which Bryan follows the logic but this book is much more convincing than you’d expect.

We much more than the above, including Bryan’s very interesting idea of the Ideological Turing Test, that just because education is signalling doesn’t mean it doesn’t work and the impact of educational signalling on the civil rights movement!

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