You can now pre-order Bryan Caplan’s *The Case Against Education*

by on November 11, 2017 at 2:36 am in Books, Economics, Education | Permalink

My view is not exactly that of Bryan’s, but this will be one of the most interesting and important books of the year, pre-order it here.

Here is Bryan on the book.

1 A Truth Seeker November 11, 2017 at 3:06 am

So that is what America has become: a place where the education system is a waste of time and money, a threat, like in Mao’s China or Pol Pot’s Cambodia.

Every school that is built, every book published, every teacher hired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.


2 Ray Lopez November 11, 2017 at 9:38 am

Very true TR. Keep in mind, as per the book “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” that in Brazil, the country of tomorrow, there’s also rote lerning that teaches { }. Aside from the 3R’s, which can be taught before age 12, there’s nothing more to do in school except signal and socialize.


3 A Truth Seeker November 11, 2017 at 10:06 am

Actually, Brazilian professionals are very well trained. As Feyman soon learned, the students can quote any at leanght any concept their books expound. Also, according to famous Brazilian writer from the early 20th Century Medeiros e Albuquerque, who authored the immortal lyrics of one of our anthems, when he was young, under the Empire of Brazil, the French teacher of the country’s most important school trained his students to quote by heart all the sentences of the French book and know which content was on each pge of the book. Such performance is unheard among other peoples.

But I doubt things are exactly as they used to be. When I was young, we learned the complete name of His Imperial Majesty Pedro I, first Emperor of the Brazilians: Pedro de Alcântara Francisco António João Carlos Xavier de Paula Miguel Gabriel Rafael Joaquim José Gonzaga Pascoal Cipriano Serafim de Bragança e Bourbon. I used to be able to say Mounsieur Auguste Comte’s complete name in the same breath with mo hesitarions at any time: Isidore Auguste Marie François Xavier Comte. We used to know by heart all the national anthems. I spent more time singing anthems and marching than learning mathematical tables. I doubt the younger generations have our acumen, our tenacity and our toughness.


4 Thor November 11, 2017 at 10:41 am

I learned that Canada was clean and pure and good, except for stealing the land of the natives, and that America was suspect.

It wasn’t until I was at University and was educating myself (aka reading) that I learned about, say, the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. No marching. Little memorization. Auguste Compte? We’d have been lucky to hear of Watt or Edison.


5 A Truth Seeker November 11, 2017 at 11:48 am

It is a two–edged sword.

Our books explained everthing about the Cultural Revolution. Mao and the four cockroaches of the Gang of Four used the radicalized students to attack their enemies in the party (Deng Xiaoping, Liu Shaoqi et al.) and in the cultural establishment, who were termed capitalist-roaders, so that Mao, whose prestige had suffered badly due to the dismal failure of the Great Leap Forward, could consolidate his power and get rid of his critics. Mao said it was necessary to bomb the headquarters, meaning the party apparatus itself.

According to Maoist teachings, it was more important to be red than to be an expert. Education suffered too much as more emphasis was put in practical work at the countryside. Western influences such as classical music and traditional Chinese influences such as Confucius’ teachings were attacked by the government (“Criticize Lin, Criticize Confucius” was the motto, rabid Red Guards attacked Confucius’ Cemetery).
Americans were aware of the confusion going on in China back then: Mr. Collin Powell visited Maoist China and, according to his autobiography, he saw through the cockroaches’ mindless propaganda and opposed the Cultural Revolution even when his colleagues were impressed by Mao’s regime.
At last, Mao had to impose some appearence of order and use the Army to tame the rebelling students.

At the end, it was decided that studying higher mathematics was actually good because Marx, rhe founder of Marxism, studied Calculus:

However, a year ago, in Rio de Janeiro City, I saw a poster calling people to an academic conferece in Rio de Janeiro’s best university celebraring the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. They used a photo of a Red Guard woman wearing a pretty nice Mao Suit and looking fierce . So you can lead a horse to the water, but you can’t make it cross the river if he doesn’t want to do it.

6 A Truth Seeker November 11, 2017 at 11:57 am

As you can see, the Americans criticized the Cultural Revolution:

As Mao himself pointedmout, rebelling is righteous.

7 cliff arroyo November 11, 2017 at 3:29 am

Why educate citizens when you can import an unlimited supply of people from countries who have educated them? Duplication of effort!!!!


8 Vivian Darkbloom November 11, 2017 at 3:57 am

There is a wide gulf, I think, between “The Education System is a Waste of Time and Money” which is “not exactly my view” and that, at the same time, we should give a tax deduction for contributions to Harvard University’s endowment fund, exempt all of its investment earnings from tax, and allow Harvard to disguise salary payments to RA’s and TA’s in the form of of tax-exempt “tuition waivers”.


9 Lecht November 11, 2017 at 7:03 am

well, the primary Cowen/Caplan goal here is to sell Caplan’s new book. Highly unlikely that Caplan has anything new to say about the education system.

Of course our education system is a huge wasteful tyrannical mess … as has been well documented for many decades, but the Establishment (including most academics, not surprisingly) really likes its basic structure … and would only tinker at its margins.

“Indeed, if we look into the history of the drive for public schooling and compulsory attendance in this and other countries, we find at the root not so much misguided altruism as a conscious scheme to coerce the mass of the population into a mold desired by the Establishment. Recalcitrant minorities were to be forced into a majority mold; all citizens were to be inculcated in the civic virtues, notably and always including obedience to the State apparatus. Indeed, if the mass of the populace is to be educated in government schools, how could these schools not become a mighty instrument for the inculcation of obedience to the State authorities?” (Murray Rothbard)


10 Anonymous November 11, 2017 at 8:41 am

I like the first half, and agree that education is full of self-perpetuating structures, short on flexibility.

The second half though, confuses a bug with a feature. The American system depends on a values-based buy-in. It can hardly work without everyone knowing what the core deal is, the variations on the theme.

Without that, what? Home schooling and marriage at 14?


11 Lecht November 11, 2017 at 8:56 am

“The American system depends on a values-based buy-in.”

“buy-in” denotes voluntary choice, supposedly a core American value.

But the American education system depends upon heavy government compulsion (even for “private” schooling). Freedom (choice) and compulsion can not exist simultaneously.


12 Anonymous November 11, 2017 at 9:08 am

We don’t live in anarchy, no.

13 Boonton November 11, 2017 at 9:51 am

Where exactly is it established that flexibility is a market based value? Are cell phones diverse and flexible or from a distance are they all really the same? Go do schools randomly around this country and you’ll see lots of differences but Wal-Marts look the same and if I randomly beamed you into one you couldn’t tell where you were in the country. Ditto for most of our fast food chains.


14 Anonymous November 11, 2017 at 10:20 am

I am thinking of systems bigger than any institution.

As an example, it is most often k-12, and then a 4 year degree.

Why is 15 years of education “just right” for so many diverse life paths?

15 Anonymous November 11, 2017 at 10:22 am

Or even the old “teenagers really shouldn’t have to wake up so early.”

16 Anonymous November 11, 2017 at 10:34 am

I have no idea why 15. 12+4-1? Moar coffee.

17 Boonton November 11, 2017 at 10:42 am

Why is 15 years of education “just right” for so many diverse life paths?

Only 33% of Americans 25 or older have a 4 year college degree ( If you restrict it to just people who get a 4 year degree by going straight from HS to college with no breaks or part-time college then you’d have an even lower number. True the number has never been higher, but 15 years of straight education is not even a majority let alone the norm for most in the US.

Come out of your bubble.

18 Anonymous November 11, 2017 at 10:51 am

Why look at 80 year olds? Look at the current pattern:

And don’t avoid the question, why are 2 and 4 years magic numbers?

19 Anonymous November 11, 2017 at 10:55 am

My answer is that 4 years is a strong historical pattern, and has little to do with either signalling or human capital.

.. unless you count the loose fit that if you survive four years in “music” or “physics” you have signalled that you can survive that long in the field, developing corresponding skills.

20 Boonton November 11, 2017 at 10:58 am

Right after finishing HS, your earning power is pretty low, your free time tends to be rather high and the ability of your parents to still give you a decent amount of support is likewise typically high. If you did want to do some college classes that would be a pretty opportune time to do it. An enrollment rate of 60% doesn’t seem absurdly high to me.

And this has nothing to do with looking at 80 year olds who entered adulthood in a different age. Suppose 60% enrollment holds for the next 100 years. We are still unlikely to see 50% of adults with 4 year degrees even 100 years from now. So where is your idea of 15 years of education for everyone with no flexibility coming from?

21 Boonton November 11, 2017 at 12:54 pm

Why are 2 and 4 years ‘magic numbers’? They aren’t. Why are eggs sold in dozens, bread in loaves, milk in gallons but soda in liters?

You have network effects here as well as the ‘well trodden path’. Consider ‘small, medium, large’. If you’re hiring people how do you distinguish between those with some college, college and a lot of college? Well 2 years and 4 years would align nicely with the concept of ‘small and medium’ while grad school would be ‘large’. It also makes sense because colleges offer their courses in increments of classes so it would take roughly 2 and 4 years to get an associates or bachelor’s level degree….

Notice that ‘2 year / 4 year degree’ is a bit like Han Solo’s Kessel Run. It’s actually a unit of quantity expressed as a unit of time. If you know someone has a 4 year degree you know little about how long they spent actually getting it.

22 Li November 11, 2017 at 7:21 am

Forced sterilization based on IQ is also “not exactly” TC’s view. As is legalization of verbally consensual sex with minors. One wonders who, TC included, has ever articulated TC’s view “exactly”. I conclude that no one, TC included, is able to “exactly” articulate his view – making his comment exactly meaningless. But hey, it sells newspa,…er, books.


23 H November 11, 2017 at 9:11 am

It’s weaseling. He wants to signal to us regular commenters his sympathy with the book while retaining his eligibility to write NYT columns. If he wanted to condemn the book, he could have done so.


24 Anonymous November 11, 2017 at 8:35 am

Why not generalize that further?

Make all contributions “after tax.”

Then I don’t have to worry about your Sierra Club and you don’t have to worry about my Gun Owners of America being truly in the public interest.


25 Jan November 11, 2017 at 6:49 am

Stupidest thesis I’ve seen on the internet in a while, and that’s saying something. At least Rand Paul will read it while he’s recovering from his leaf blower fight.


26 Mark November 11, 2017 at 7:40 am

I believe his book is largely an argument on higher education as a signal with low human capital value and the consequences of policies to promote wider-scale utilization of such a model. At least that was what his EconTalk episode was about a few years ago.

I am looking forward to reading it.


27 Jan November 11, 2017 at 8:38 am

Also a bad thesis, but he could have saved himself a bit of the embarrassment by not letting them name it The Case Against Education.


28 Anonymous November 11, 2017 at 9:25 am

“higher education as a signal with low human capital value ”

You have to picture a pretty strange median degree to make that fly, and it probably isn’t something like nursing or accounting where future clients would like to be assured of a firm foundation, no dangerous gaps.


29 Slocum November 11, 2017 at 11:08 am

IMHO — the best short expression of Caplan’s education ideas is his ‘failing vs forgetting’ claim. If the ‘human capital’ model of education is correct, then failing high-school Spanish or Calculus ought to have exactly the same career effects as passing them and then thoroughly forgetting all the material — each should be equally debilitating. But, of course, failing high-school courses and not being admitted to a quality university has enormous negative effects while the (near universal) experience of forgetting virtually all of what was learned in most courses has little or none. The signalling model predicts a night and day difference between failing and forgetting, while the human capital model predicts no difference. This appears to me to be a big win for the signalling model — what’s your counterargument?


30 Ted Craig November 11, 2017 at 6:59 am

Important? Doubtful. Caplan is still dining off “Myth of the Rational Voter.” That’s fine. Joseph Heller made an entire career out of “Catch-22.”

But when is Socrates going to drink his hemlock and give up his tenured position at a public university?


31 Art Deco November 11, 2017 at 11:41 am

Mrs. Socrates, Roumanian immigrant and licensed attorney, is employed by Freddie Mac. Acting as counsel for ‘a stew of rent-seeking and regulatory arbitrage* ‘ is a job Americans just won’t do.

* (Arnold Kling’s description)


32 Captn Obvios November 11, 2017 at 7:22 am

I bet this book will be read by people who never to school…


33 H November 11, 2017 at 9:13 am

“who never to school”

I bet this book will be condemned by people who didn’t learn anything there.


34 Li November 11, 2017 at 7:24 am

With a majority of mothers with school aged children working, public education system is as much about day-care as education. Or, perhaps, more.


35 A Truth Seeker November 11, 2017 at 8:14 am

Since they are there, and they have been there in America for centuries, one could as well teach them, right? By the way, how many mothers of school aged children were working when Johnny couldn’t read?


36 Li November 11, 2017 at 7:45 am

The first ingredient: Worthy content. Learning about great ideas and glorious culture uplifts the soul. Learning about half-baked ideas and so-so culture, not so much. While the liberal arts tradition wisely hails the value of grappling with error, this only holds for well-argued, thoughtful errors.
The second ingredient: Skillful pedagogy. Learning from enthusiastic teachers who have mastered their subjects uplifts the soul. Learning from uninspired teachers who parrot the textbook, not so much. Mediocre instruction is tolerable for practical training, but worthless for intellectual or artistic inspiration.
The third ingredient: Eager students. Sharing great ideas and glorious culture with students who find them fascinating uplifts their souls. Force-feeding great ideas and glorious culture to students who couldn’t care less, not so much. Indeed, the charade degrades students, teachers, and the subjects themselves. Opera is divine, but herding country music fans into opera houses is not only futile, but cruel. Many educators assuage their consciences by insisting that youthful force-feeding will in time blossom into mature fascination. Even if they’re right, the force-feeding is a regrettable pathway to the merit good of mature fascination, not a merit good in itself. (Caplan 2015)
…I’ll pass.


37 rayward November 11, 2017 at 9:50 am

I’m not a regular reader of Caplan’s blog, so I don’t know the nature of his criticism of the “education system”. If his criticism is that the education system we have may have been the education system we needed in the past but not the education system we need today, he (or Cowan) could make a very good case. Looking back at the history of (near) universal education in America (very much an American phenomenon), it began with the need to provide young people (boys mostly) enough education to work on the farm, then evolved to provide enough education to young people to work in factories, then evolved to provide enough education to young people to work in more advanced jobs such as engineering and medicine and so on. Today, the primary goal of secondary education is to prepare students for college. Why? What does college prepare them for? Work has evolved but the “education system” has not.

That’s a valid criticism. I’m aware (from reading this blog) that Caplan builds his case against the higher “education system” as being mostly about “signaling” rather than education. If that’s true, then it is a waste of time and money. But what’s the alternative. I’ll point out that even some students are complaining, including the students at Reed College who object to a humanities education focused on the ancient Greek philosophers. As misguided as the students at Reed may be, aren’t they “signaling” that the education system is on the wrong track.

I took several political science courses in college (a large public university). That was decades ago but I vividly remember one professor who began the course by asking how many students in the class were political science majors. Most of the students raised their hands, to which which the professor responded that it was proof that America is a rich country. His point was that majoring in political science is a luxury only possible in a rich country. Is Caplan saying America is no longer the rich country it once was and can no longer afford the luxury of all those political science majors?


38 Boonton November 11, 2017 at 10:10 am

The ‘waste of time’ part of the subtitle is interesting. Should we aspire to seeing 13 year olds taking jobs in corporate accounting? One of the things the education system does is give kids a ‘safe space’ to be immature for a good period of time where they are contained from the adult world until they become mature and less likely to cause or get themselves into trouble.

Imagine for a moment we combine distance learning, big data, and YouTube analytics and demonstrate a well crafted AI video series can get kids to master grade level skills with just 45 minutes of instruction per day. What happens in the rest of the world? Let’s imagine take your kids to work day 365 days a year.

This worked when our society was hunter-gatherer or agricultural but since the Industrial Revolution our economy functions by division of labor. People do highly specialized jobs with minimal distractions. Perhaps this will change….but I think that’s further out than we think.

This means then that even if you drastically reduced the time needed by education you haven’t reduced the ‘watch the children’ function required by society.


39 Matthew Young November 11, 2017 at 12:07 pm

I remember using my college degrees to signal for a job, but I eventually gave that up, the job and the signalling.

The theory knowledge obtained from hanging around in college was more valuable than any signalling. To this day, I still see something and think, “That;s not right” and a bunch of details in some college discussion will come to mind, no signalling; just recovering my sanity.


40 Alex November 11, 2017 at 2:16 pm

I would like to read the book but my first impression based on things Caplan has written is that he overestimates the opportunity cost of having a teenager at school. What else can a 15 or 16 year old do?


41 Art Deco November 11, 2017 at 2:39 pm

Of my great-great grandfathers, one was apprenticed to a turner and one to a shoemaker. Age 12 in the first case and around age 14 in the second. Into the 1920s, it was normal in wage-earning families to leave school at age 14 or 15.


42 Emmett November 11, 2017 at 4:52 pm

Quite correct

Today, parents would be quickly jailed for that same reasonable approach to child rearing


43 Boonton November 11, 2017 at 6:03 pm

Reasonable because we are short of shoes in these dark times? Would the shoe industry be any better off if people entered it at 14 instead of 20 these days?


44 Just Another MR Commentor November 12, 2017 at 6:48 am

The shoemakers are all in Bangledesh today. What the fuck are you talking about? Maybe we could apprentice children to be squires and they could work arranging lances for the knight’s jousts.


45 dearieme November 12, 2017 at 7:41 am

At that age I earned money in my school summer holidays by working around the harbour.

Anyway, would anyone argue if his subtitle were Much of the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money for Many Students?

In contrast to the old joke about advertising, I doubt that it would be difficult to identify the bits that are a waste.


46 Matt November 13, 2017 at 12:19 pm

Most important? Dunno. Certainly the most divisive, as there will be a great many people who confuse “Education System” with “Education” and ironically prove their lack of critical reading skills by loudly criticizing a misinterpretation of the book’s title.


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