The Case Against The Case Against Education: How Did We Get Here?

“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”–John F. Kennedy, 1962

“That something is hard is not an argument against doing it.”

“I say it is. It’s not a decisive argument, but it’s one of the better ones.”––Sean Illing and Bryan Caplan, 2018

For at least four months, I’ve been struggling with the best way to take on Bryan Caplan’s woefully simplistic argument about the uselessness of education. What do you do when someone with a much bigger megaphone takes up a position similar to one you hold–but does it with lousy data and specious reasoning, promoting the utterly wrong approach in seeming ignorance about the consequences?

Bryan Caplan wants to eradicate public funding for education because he thinks most of the spending is wasted. He’d like to eliminate all public school, but will settle for killing all post-secondary education as a reasonable first step.  He thinks too many people spend far too much money to learn very little or nothing.

Now, much of this was caught up in a whole rather tedious economics debate as to whether education is signaling, ability bias, or human capital. I don’t care at all about this aspect; for what it’s worth, I think education historically built human capital and the level that one could benefit from it was based on ability and access. For about 20 years, we had something close to perfect–access for all races, incomes, and creeds. And then we blew it. For the past 20 years, our education policy has been, either by accident or design, focused entirely on eradicating human capital and eliminating the advantage given ability in order that that everyone, regardless of ability, can signal the same meaningless credential.

So Caplan–who likes to say he cares about history–cares about none of the history that got us to this point (and he doesn’t accurately capture “this point”, but more on that later).

It’s customary for liberals to decry America’s social safety net as obviously and uniquely inferior to other Western countries, but rarely does our country get credit for its obvious and unique dedication to public education. For most of our history public education–a facet of our society much remarked upon as early as de Tocqueville– was focused on providing basic reading and writing skills to everyone.  In 1910, that focus expanded to the “high school movement” an unprecedented investment in secondary education that Europe took the better part of the 20th century to catch up to. (Best read on the high school movement is Goldin/Katz, who went on to write a highly regarded book on the topic. Caplan barely mentions their work in the footnotes.)

Call me crazy for wondering why Caplan doesn’t mention this history. He treats public education as some flukish fad that we just took on because of Social Desirability Bias and by golly, no one ever realized that not all students were learning what we taught until he showed up to point this out. Maybe that’s the arrogance you need to get book deals.

But public education is thoroughly baked into America’s history, and Caplan is proposing a massive change in American policy without in any way considering how it is we arrived at this point.

Nor is he looking at the enormous transformation that occurred fifty years ago.

The high school movement, and all the tremendous investment in public education that predated it, was almost entirely a state and local affair. We have thousands upon thousands of school districts from little to large because communities formed to achieve common goals. State public universities were also first funded (by sale of federal lands) in no small part to provide teachers for public schools, but also originally to encourage industrial education. But apart from offering land, the federal government had stayed out of public education for a very long time.  Catholic interests, southern politicians, and anti-communists (as Diane Ravitch put it in my favorite of her books, “race, religion, and fear of federal control”) blocked all attempts at federal funding for years. Catholics and urban politicians refused to vote for federal funding unless their private schools were included, Southern politicians refused to treat students of each race equally, and I dunno, anti-communists thought teachers would turn everyone red.

So American investment in education was unprompted, unprecedented, and entirely uncoordinated at the national level. Goldin and Katz say the purpose was not to create a “literate citizenry”, but rather an “intergenerational loan”. It doesn’t appear to have been designed for employers; in fact, area economies strong in manufacturing saw less investment in education.

Then, Brown vs. Board of Education began the federal intervention into public education, followed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and finally the big kahuna known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Ever since then, public schools have been crushed with demands, most of them entirely unrealistic and unfunded, many of them imposed by court decree,  and very few of them ever voted on by the citizenry, local or national.

It’s hard to study the history of public education and not be struck by all these contrasts. See the early generosity of local communities, the belief in an educated citizenry almost entirely for its own sake, with little debate about its purpose, and it’s easy to understand the resonance this issue has, the heart and the soul we imbue into this history. And yet inequity underlines the entire enterprise–inequality of funding, of access, of opportunity. But the grand effort to undo that inequity hasn’t succeeded to the degree that anyone expected it to and god knows we haven’t been learning from our mistakes.

But then, why would we? Every time we’d expanded education in the past, we saw the benefit. We didn’t have the same data we have today. We didn’t see the failures. We only saw the many people who benefited from access. Who can blame us for thinking this expansion would go on forever? I don’t think I’m alone in noting that the last fifty years of public education policy, the ones when the feds have been in charge, have failed not only the country, but the people we were most trying to help. By turning education into a massive federal program in which the public’s voice was almost completely eliminated, we’ve wasted a fortune and a great deal of good will in exchange for improved test scores that never seem to last through high school.

So maybe look at what our expectations are, and ask if they are realistic. Surely an economist who understands data might spend a page or two talking about the ludicrous nature of a federal education bill that demands everyone–literally everyone–must achieve proficiency in a dozen years. Perhaps he might ask whether a federal program that insists on  mainstreaming children with severe mental disabilities into regular classrooms might possibly lead to students feeling trapped and and bored in school.

But such nuances are beyond Caplan.  The problems he outlines aren’t new, and  if you want a real idea of the depth and breadth of our education system, to determine whether or not we should kill funding, I recommend Larry Cuban, David Tyack, David Labaree, Diane Ravitch, Goldin and Katz and a host of other serious scholars before coming to any conclusions.

I can’t remember when or where he did this, but at some point Caplan has complained that no progressive has taken on his book seriously (or few did, I forget which). But he’s clearly unhappy that his book hasn’t made even the slightest ripple in the education “blob”.

Speaking from within the blob, I can say that Caplan’s book never got close enough to the water to make a ripple. The book is utterly without any of the understanding that would cause the blob the smallest frisson of fear. If Caplan wants to make a serious argument about defunding public education, he needs to understand this history,  the belief in education that is hardcoded into America’s DNA. He needs to understand the degree to which public education has been straitjacketed, for better and mostly worse, for the past 50 years by court order. He needs to understand the mandates that ensure his simplistic proposal to defund education will go nowhere.

Having thoroughly trashed the higher end value of a high school diploma, our country is currently in the midst of doing the same to an undergraduate degree. It’s appalling and we need serious, honest people who aren’t afraid of disapproval to take on this problem and, I desperately hope, stop it. Caplan’s not that guy. He’s smart, and I think he knows what would be required to actually engage in this conversation. But he won’t. He once bragged that Steve Sailer’s views were much closer to the public’s than his were, but that Steve is treated “like a pariah”, but is “very sweet” to him. He says he finds this bizarre, but my guess he knows exactly why he gets the better treatment. He loves floating shocking ideas, but “float” is exactly what he does.

I included the JFK quote and the exchange not because I think public education is one of the “hard” things we choose to do, but because Illing and Caplan’s exchange should have spurred some…I don’t know, some ironic sense in either of them that they were touching on a famous speech. Alas, these two public intellectuals didn’t recognize the connection at all. Typical these days to use history in the shallowest possible manner. But their exchange is also interesting because it captures Caplan perfectly.  A genuine, realistic argument to rethink public education in this country in a way to address the problems Caplan reports would be hard. So he dodges it entirely.  Not only is this easier, but it insures he’ll still get kid gloved by the media.

I can’t even really recommend the book, because anyone who comes away thinking that public education is a waste of time and money for the reasons Caplan outlines is doomed to be disappointed. But the bibliography is great, so maybe see what you can get from the googlebooks index.

****************************************************************************

I spent months trying to figure out how to capture all this in one review, and I just can’t. I’ve had a tough time focusing on writing this year–not sure why. But I decided to just chunk off the thoughts about Caplan as they come up. Consider this a long throat clearing, but also the context. In my next piece, I will be talking about the stuff that Caplan gets flatly wrong or incomplete. I hope to have it done soon. Wish me luck. Nag me.

About educationrealist


40 responses to “The Case Against The Case Against Education: How Did We Get Here?

  • Aaron Mietz

    It sounds like you didn’t read the book.

    This is one book that you cannot understand by reading reviews and listening to podcast interviews.

    The book is a single, gigantic worked economics problem. In order to fill in all his model’s spreadsheets and formulas he spent years reading and evaluating every paper ever written on education in several disciplines, economics, education, psychology, sociology, etc. Even forgetting about his own theories, this is a huge accomplishment. Anyone with another theory would probably have to start from Caplan’s giant meta study of education research. This does not come through in the reviews and interviews, nor in the excerpt in the Atlantic.

    I guarantee you that he addresses any objections you could have to his book. He anticipates everything, and has research from others to support his opinion.

    He puts almost no effort into recommendations. The thing about federal funding comes only in passing. His emphasis is in proving his (80 percent) signaling theory.

    This book reminds me of Judith Rich Harris’s work collating the research showing that parenting has zero effect on kids. People just can’t accept It. They have to much invested in their beliefs.

    • educationrealist

      I read the book. And he absolutely did not address obvious objections.

      • Drebin

        I also read the book and I can second ER’s take. I’m inclined to read Caplan’s book in a more charitable light: he’s doing the economist thing that he does and this falls out. I didn’t get the impression that he wanted to apply his conclusions as much as this critique thinks he did (defund public schools? I don’t remember that) but this critique is pretty accurate, in the general case.

      • educationrealist

        Thanks for the validation. He himself thinks we should defund public schools entirely. He’ll settle for cutting everything he thinks is worthless out of public high schools and colleges and ending all grants and subsidies.

        “Ultimately, I believe the best education policy is no education policy at all, the separation of church and state. However….” and then he goes on to suggest something more palatable.

        On page 205, he goes through “cutting fat”–raising standard so high that no one will bother in music, language, art, and discontinue classes that teach impractical material at taxpayer expense at both high school and college level. Shift the cost of education from taxpayers to students–raise tution for public colleges, charge borrowers market interest, and impose tuition for high school.”

        I would argue that’s pretty close to defunding public school, and that’s his *compromise* position. What he really thinks is in the chapter called “What I really Think” on page 215, and that’s when he says “Government should stop using tax dollars to fund education of any kind. Schools–primary, secondary, and tertiary alike–should be funded solely by fees and private charity.”

  • charles w abbott

    Thanks for this review. Hope to see more discussion of the “nuts and bolts” of where he goes wrong.

  • RohanV

    Is his argument really so sweeping?

    Admittedly, I haven’t read the book, but from the various discussions on the internet, I thought he was primarily arguing against the state of post-secondary education.

    While all your arguments appear to be defending the state of primary and secondary education, and (at least to me) don’t really seem to have much bearing on university education.

    I tend to disagree with most of what Caplan says, and I think he has a very bad habit of taking an argument that applies a subset of all cases and insisting it is universal. But it seems to me that the argument you are attacking is not the argument he is making in his public statements. Perhaps that’s different than the argument in his book, though.

    • educationrealist

      Oh, he wants an end to all public education. He goes through considerable detail saying that most k-12 education is a waste of time because it’s not useful for work, so keeping high school education focused only on math and English. He argues that no one remembers anything from high school, that schools are doing a terrible job, and that the “selfish case” for high school is ok, but wasteful.

      Here’s Caplan in the Illing Vox interview (linked in above):

      “we don’t really have that much data for anything before high school. I focused on high school and beyond. Kindergarten through 8th grade tends to serve as a daycare center for kids while their parents are at work. The educational waste really becomes a problem in high school because at that age kids could be doing something far more productive, like an apprenticeship or a vocational school.”

      Illing: And you think spending less time and money educating people will improve our situation?

      Caplan: Yes. I don’t think it would improve our thinking. I think our quality of thinking would stay about the same because I don’t think the current system is improving it, but we would save a lot of resources, and people could start their lives at a much earlier age, which I’d consider a big improvement. There are a ton of resources being wasted right now, resources that could be put to better use elsewhere.

      • jay

        So if I understand him correctly: Too bad we have those pesky child labor laws keeping the kids from being productive.

        On the other hand, some of my students work until closing at their fastfood jobs. I wish businesses didn’t need the force of government to prevent them hiring illegal alien workers for instance, but economist heaven is not of this earth.

  • Kevin

    I don’t follow why the history of US education is at all relevant, much less a powerful objection. Caplan is attempting to quantify so far as possible the economic returns to education from a private and public standpoint. In other words, talking about if people ought to care about education, not if they in fact do and why they do. Defunding education is not a very well thought out policy but the book is more a response to the many people who feel that the key to US prosperity and economic growth is better education. If they want to defend this they need to put up hard data that such public returns to education exist. From that perspective I do think that there ought to be more engagement with the book.

    • educationrealist

      “I don’t follow why the history of US education is at all relevant, much less a powerful objection.”

      You apparently also didn’t follow that I wasn’t objecting to his argument, but rather that his method of arguing for less education uttelry ignores history.

      “If they want to defend this they need to put up hard data that such public returns to education exist.”

      No, they don’t. Why? Because public education is baked into our DNA. Caplan’s the one who has to make the case, and he’s doing a crap job.

      • Roger Sweeny

        The fact that something is “baked into our DNA” does NOT take away the need to justify it. Some people would argue that white supremacy was “baked into our DNA.”

        In fact, as you say, the educational system today is much different from the original recipe. So perhaps it’s a good time to be thinking about first principles. What do we want an educational system to do? What CAN an educational system do? How well does the present system do what we want it to do? How can we change it to do more of what we want it to do?

      • educationrealist

        Oh, I completely agree with that we need to change it and we need to think about first principles. But to ignore the reason WHY we’ve done this is to ignore the fact that our education system has been incredibly successful.

    • spottedtoad

      The historical questions are relevant because if schooling is individually beneficial through signaling but socially harmful, the municipalities and states that delayed investing in schooling should have benefited, but that wasn’t true at all. The same as true at a comparative level now- poorer countries should be able to escape spending on schools with no harm (and more money left over for useful things). But Caplan exclusively focuses on individual-level data, because the aggregate historical and comparative data wouldn’t support his thesis. (There are also problems with his individual-level analysis, like his presumption that returns to graduation rather than grade progression- his sheepskin effect- are exclusively signaling.)

      As Ed points out, a less extreme version of Caplan’s thesis could be compelling- we might be (almost certainly are) past the point of diminishing returns for many or most students. But he doesn’t want to make a less extreme argument, he wants to say the Emperor Has no Clothes.

      • Roger Sweeny

        I agree with you about the “less extreme version of Caplan’s thesis.” It drives me crazy that we have so many people going to college who don’t get much of anything out of it at the same time as we have lots of young people who can hardly read or do arithmetic or write three sentences that are grammatically correct and follow logically one to the next.

        A problem with aggregate data is that it is hard to determine direction of causality. Richer countries have more people driving luxury cars, but no one with any sense argues that a country will get richer if its government subsidizes the purchase of luxury cars.

      • educationrealist

        This is exactly right.

        I agree he wants to say that the Emperor has no clothes, but I think it’s also true that Caplan–who knows exactly who Steve Sailer is–is afraid of what happens if he gives a less extreme version. As it is, he’s pretty confident no one will point out the obvious ramifications of his approach.

      • educationrealist

        I hit enter too soon. Two things:

        “There are also problems with his individual-level analysis, like his presumption that returns to graduation rather than grade progression- his sheepskin effect- are exclusively signaling.”

        Could you elaborate on that?

        Also, I totally agree with you that using historical data would show problems with his thesis. As usual, I’m making a much less focused point, though! I’m just saying if you want to make a case against public education–a good one, that the three of us would agree with, or an Emperor Has No Clothes one that he’s making–you have to understand what you’re up against.

        I’m amazed at how many reviewers don’t address that, either directly or ind\irectly. The only one I’ve seen take him on is, surprisingly, Ric Hanushek.

      • rob

        “There are also problems with his individual-level analysis…”

        I would phrase it as that the main problem is he doesn’t actually do that, he just says he does. He in fact way over-generalizes.

        For example, sure there is signaling, and some of it may be from lousy schools, but many individuals care less. Some even educate to be better people, who knew? Plus who says it’s signaling? Interviewers will be more superficial, but whether you learned anything becomes evident on hiring to your boss who’ll show you the door. Conversely many hire based on competence and care less about credentials except as icing on the cake. I think Caplan has a definition problem right there. Finally, populations also self-select in this. Even if all he said was true, it at best shows that people who realized they didn’t need the education process do as well, not that the process isn’t needed by many people. From things like this he completely fails on individual-level analysis.

        Like many others he apparently gets hypnotized by aggregates data i.e. stereotypes. Sure these work, but only to a point. In many cases they’re the opposite of the truth.

  • Roger Sweeny

    Readers may misunderstand: Sean Illing, the Vox writer and interviewer, says, “That something is hard is not an argument against doing it.” Bryan Caplan then responds, “I say it is. It’s not a decisive argument, but it’s one of the better ones.”

    I’ve been meaning to read the book but kept putting it off since I’d been following his progress reports and have been touting signalling for 40 (yes, 40) years. But now that you have something to say about it, I feel the need to read. So have something new up in a week (nag, nag). I hope to finish it by then 🙂

    • Roger Sweeny

      The Illing/Caplan disagreement above is about “teaching students how to think.” Many proponents of 12 or 16 years of schooling agree that people remember very little of what they learned in those years and don’t use much of it anyway (one reason it is largely forgotten). However, they say, school does teach you how to think.

      Both Illing and Caplan say that it does not. Illing is heartbroken; Caplan is resigned. Caplan says that good, smart people in the schools have been trying to do it for 100 years and haven’t succeeded. No one knows how. Stop pretending schools can do it and stop trying, he says. No, says Illing, it’s such a wonderful goal, we have to keep trying.

      Caplan may have underestimated by a century. This is from Christopher Clark’s Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, a long but very interesting book:

      “The man entrusted with renewing the kingdom’s educational system was Wilhelm von Humboldt.

      “Once installed, [on 20 February 1809] …, Humboldt unfolded a profoundly liberal reform program that transformed education in Prussia. For the first time, the kingdom acquired a single, standardized system of public instruction attuned to the latest trends in progressive European pedagogy. Education as such, Humboldt declared, was henceforth to be decoupled from the idea of technical or vocational training. Its purpose was not to turn cobblers’ boys into cobblers, but to turn ‘children into people’. The reformed schools were not merely to induct pupils into a specific subject matter, but to instil in them the capacity to think and learn for themselves. ‘The pupil is mature,’ he wrote, ‘when he has learned enough from others to be in a position to learn for himself.’ In order to ensure that this approach percolated through the system, Humboldt established new teachers’ colleges to train candidates for the kingdom’s chaotic primary schools. He imposed a standardized regime of state examinations and inspections and created a special department within the ministry to oversee the design of curricula, textbooks and learning aids.” (pp. 331-2)

  • Stanley Roper (@homeystuff)

    I doubt you were looking for points to refute. You’re more upset about its tenor (low-key and nerdy, thus problematic should the laity discover it). I’ve long disliked Caplan and his glib anti-social attitudes, so I wasn’t expecting much; my own view on the edu biz is closer to Upton Sinclair’s “The Goose-step.” Thankfully the Caplan book was free of pedagogical shibboleths and propaganda, compared to the glittering-generality social-uplift notions you reference.

    If anything the argument was too dry, too generous, reductively focused on cost-benefit curves, and lacking courage to confront our ritual warehousing & programming of hormonal lunatics “from all walks of life” to be instilled with modish overclass ethics, the better for forming lynch mobs to sicc on today’s scapegoat. Anyway, I’m sorry you believe the eraser-party industry is a net benefit to society.

    • educationrealist

      I don’t know if I agree with the first paragraph. THe second is more accurate, but again, if you know anything about the history of education in our country, it’s simply wrong to say that it hasn’t been a net benefit. In fact, most of our problems today are because we expected the good run to continue.

  • rob

    I agree.

    Let me add a little rant that I respect Caplan’s titanic research (and statistics tend to miss contrary clinical observations of outlier cases that ruin one’s big theory; IMHO Caplan is worse as he lumps all kinds of High School programs together despite some very distinct differences), alas he has a tendency to half-digest Libertarian tools or options then try and justify them empirically as universal prescriptions and worse, identify them with Libertarianism. The whole point of Libertarianism is more rights-based eco-choice which he seems to want to limit. If students like the High Schools and get something out of that, well fine. One-size-fits-all policies miss the individual variation in students. Bryan Caplan BTW is not a formal L/libertarian, though clearly an informal libertarian fan. He’s what Libertarians call a squirrel: Grabs one option he likes and thinks that’s all there is to it.

    Libertarians think public schools (and most public, properly common, services) are fine, but want to end compulsory use/funding that politicize everything and are behind many perceived ills, and ad interim see to more choice. This is gradually happening. Another Libertarian idea is more use of teacher-student run school co-ops, and using endowments or dedicated taxes from referenda to increase teacher salaries. They definitely frown on demonizing teaching professionals. I doubt Caplan gets any of this.

    Pinellas, Florida got smart and did several workshops with Libertarians over the decades, to now being Ground Zero for a lot of innovation. It now has incredible educational choice from home-schools to vocational options, higher public teacher start salaries, some of the first and best ESE programs, parent-student boards, and probably among the lowest-cost public Honors College in the US ($110 CRH, and free for low-income last I looked) mostly funded by a voluntary endowment. This is an example of which I know a little. There’re many other exciting things happening elsewhere that need to be publicized.

    A lot of these and other choice-innovations (which may include the tried and true) are, at present, poorly documented in academic journals. I think this is because people just use them, while ‘a priori’ scholars hail as ground-breaking what was abandoned or modified generations ago and the media echoes them. Most researchers like Caplan are NOT doing the needed field documentation but make proposals blind to the changes going on around them. Researchers like him re-debating other researchers with ideological blinders who didn’t do the field research in the first place is just unhelpful. A lot of that field reportage is happening in blogs like this one. Unfortunately this aversion to field /clinical research is not just a problem among teachers, education scientists, or economists.

    • educationrealist

      That’s interesting about what true Scotsmen (libertarians think). I’m not sure Id be on board with any of it, but it’s interesting to consider the differences between Caplan’s proposals and libertarians.

      However, I absolutely agree that most people are simply not really examing what’s happening at schools on the ground level. One of the brightest spots in the book, for me, was something that Caplan has also repeated in podcasts: vouchers aren’t working to improve test scores.

      • Paul Rain

        If you want to read some real libertarians, I would suggest reading LewRockwell.com, AntiWar.com, and the stuff Mises.org has published from the likes of Hans-Hermann Hoppe.

        Caplan’s idiocy is more analogous to the garbage that the Koch-owned ‘Reason’ publishes. But they focus on touchy feely GRIDS and drugs, while he focuses on crushing humanity.

    • Roger Sweeny

      I looked up ESE and found:

      What does an ESE specialist do?

      Exceptional Student Education (ESE) Specialists are responsible for providing support to schools to ensure that students with disabilities demonstrate increased participation and performance in the standard or Access curriculum, statewide assessments, and accountability systems.

      When I’m in a good mood, I laugh. When I’m in a bad mood, I rage against the way the ed system dresses up ugly situations in pretty words–and expects all involved to believe them and take them seriously and think they are wonderful because they mean well.

      rob, there are lots of different kinds of libertarians, like there are lots of different kinds of Christians or monarchists or liberals or socialists or Bob Dylan fans. Bryan Caplan obviously isn’t your kind.

      • educationrealist

        I taught an exceptionally bright Hispanic kid who had muscular dystrophy, I think, and was in a wheelchair, a good one, provided by the state. He had a full-time aide at school who picked him up at home and was with him pretty much every minutes of the school day, because he needed help going to the bathroom, eating, and so on. The kid is terrific–and extremely bright. The aide was great. But that’s one kid, whose aide cost the district probably $40K/year and more, with bennies. Multiply by, probably 60 kids per district.

        And those are the kids who can actually benefit from a public school education with that expensive assistance. Most of them can’t.

  • Paul Rain

    Caplan just wants more, poorer, stupider slaves.

    In the case of people who are here in this country and actually belong here, he wants them to be less educated and have less bargaining power.

    Caplan’s tiny crowd of deracinated globalist libertarians are just neoliberals who have taken the philosophy to the ultimate limits of satanic evil.

    Meanwhile, of course, Caplan is very big on recommending open borders for European countries like the US. Not so much for Israel. Meanwhile, he suggests that the rightful inhabitants of Palestine should embrace pacifism against the Zionist entity.

  • Roger Sweeny

    Thank you to various commenters for illustrating my point that there are many different kinds of libertarians–some of whom hate each other 🙂 Kind of like people who call themselves Muslims or socialists or … even biologists and social scientists.

  • Roger Sweeny

    I just ran across a tee shirt that probably describes Caplan well:

    [in big letters] I’m Already Against
    [in smaller letters] the next war. the next tax. the next president
    the next violation of my individual rights.

  • Pseudo-chrysostom

    >and I dunno, anti-communists thought teachers would turn everyone red.

    Well in the end, they weren’t really wrong either.

  • Roger Sweeny

    I couldn’t nag because I hadn’t finished the book myself 🙂

    My reaction was much less negative than your’s. I think the organization needlessly alienated many of the people who might otherwise be sympathetic to parts of his argument. And I would have used the subtitle, maybe modified a little, “The Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money” as the title. “The Case Against Education” is an inaccurate description of its contents and gives the wrong impression about his values (“I don’t hate education. Rather I love education too much to accept our Orwellian substitute.” p. 260)–which again needlessly alienates. But basically, I thought the content was strong.

    You’re absolutely right that he gives no serious thought to how to change things. That’s one reason he doesn’t talk about American history. I wish he had been more explicit about “how we got here.” Perhaps one reason he doesn’t is that he is so familiar with the signaling literature that he thinks it’s obvious. Education is a Red Queen’s Race, where you have to “keep running to stay in the same place.” A hundred years ago, dropping out of 7th grade meant you were below average, graduating 8th grade was ordinary, and finishing high school signified that you were above average. So there was an incentive to stay in school longer. But that meant that fifty years ago, finishing 8th grade but dropping out of high school made you below average and finishing high school only made you ordinary: good, but if you wanted to stand out, you had to go to college. Today, just finishing high school is so, so ordinary; lots of personnel people will simply delete your resume. To look better than your competition, you have to keep taking more and more years of school.

    He also seems to say that world-wide people believe, “education is good, more education is better, education is school, so people should go to school for a long time” (not a quote from him; I am riffing off page 195). Thus, specifically American history is not very relevant to the analysis.

    If you felt that much of the book was a “whole rather tedious economics debate as to whether education is signaling, ability bias, or human capital. I don’t care at all about this aspect.”, then Caplan failed. The distinction between “schooling as human capital accumulation” and “schooling as signaling” is the heart of the book. To the extent that years of schooling make you more productive, you produce more and make the country richer. To the extent that schooling is signaling, you just look better than the competition. No more is produced. You are richer but the country isn’t–which means that more schooling means some people are actually poorer, the people who don’t do well in school. And there’s all the extra money that has to be spent on school, which has to come from someone. And the extra time that students could be spending otherwise.

    I am fairly sure he thinks that there was no big switch 20 or 50 years ago in how much school made students more productive and how much it just made some students look more productive. He is pretty clear that he doesn’t think the high school curriculum today or a hundred years ago taught much that students used later (except maybe in later classes). BTW, in one paragraph above, you say we had it “just about perfect” for 20 years but then 20 years ago “we blew it.” A few paragraphs later, a big, bad transformation happens fifty years ago. I am confused. Did you mean to say that we had it “just about perfect” for 20 years (approximately 1945-1965) and then “we blew it” after 1965, which is just about 50 years ago?

    I was also disappointed that Caplan did not mention the “day care” function of school. If you’re going to be cynical and “tell it like it is”, you have to talk about that. Parents and other citizens value it. Right now they consider keeping 5-16 year olds in a school building under adult supervision 7 hours a day better than the alternatives. If you’re really trying to figure how much of the education system is a waste, you have to think about that. (He sorta, kindly, vaguely touches on it in the Nourishing Mother chapter.) Similarly, if you’re going to be a realistic economist, you have to consider how much young people value the social aspects of college. “Yeah, I don’t remember anything I learned, but I had a great time.”

    Still, I thought it was definitely worth reading and thinking about–which sometimes means arguing with it.

    • educationrealist

      I disagree with some of this.

      1.”He also seems to say that world-wide people believe, “education is good, more education is better, education is school, so people should go to school for a long time” (not a quote from him; I am riffing off page 195). Thus, specifically American history is not very relevant to the analysis.”

      He may say this, but as I point out, it’s not true. It took most of the western world all of the 20th century to catch up, and most of the Western world tracks. So clearly, it’s not true that American attitudes are worldwide.

      2. “The distinction between “schooling as human capital accumulation” and “schooling as signaling” is the heart of the book. “–I totally disagrees. The heart of the book is this: The american education system is failing, so we should stop funding education. The “Signaling” vs “human capital” debate comes into play to show that even for those who are using education for their own good are not building human capital, which is secondary. Also, I do cite data suggesting that many are unconvinced by his “it’s not much in the way of human capital ” argument.

      3. The transformation began 50 years ago, with the great society, but for 20 year so we were busy pulling out the capable blacks who had been denied opportunity. It wasn’t a huge group,but it existed. then the public grew wise to the degree to which standards were being destroyed to admit large numbers of blacks, and the courts and laws came into play. Then the institutions began their current practice of using grades and pushing everyone through college, which is far, far worse than the previous aa.

      But for about 20-30 years, when we were still finding the capable kids who’d been denied, the balance was closer to right. Also,we didn’t have nearly as much immigration then.

      4. Caplan would say it’s not our job to pay for it. The answer, of course, is that it’s our job to pay for prison guards, whoa re much more expensive and have a better union. So the public might just opt to have schools instead.. that sort of complexity is beyond Caplan, though.

      I thought it was simplistic and incredibly dishonest in parts, while avoiding all the tough questions–made much much worse by his constant pretense that he was brave for taking on tough questions.

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