“School is a waste of time” is not exactly an uncommon cry, especially from high school students.
“Education is a waste of time” though? That’s extremely rare. And probably the last person you expect to hear it from is someone who works in the industry.
In his new book, The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money, economics professor and author Bryan Caplan readily takes on the role of whistleblower against a system in which he has spent almost 41 years of his life.
Make no mistake; the title of the book isn’t designed to stoke controversy for the purpose of making sales. Caplan means it. His argument isn’t for reformation, so much as decimation of an industry he believes is bloated, fundamentally defective, and a waste of tax payer’s money.
The primary issue, says Caplan, is “signalling” – the concept that the scope of a prospective employee’s education is a direct reflection of their intelligence, conscientiousness, and willingness to conform.
He compares education history to a diamond engagement ring. The more expensive the ring, the stronger the signal the bearer is sending to the recipient that they are worthy of being accepted.
As a result, more and more people are spending more and more time in classrooms not to improve their ability, but to improve their prospects. Caplan estimates that modern education is 80% signalling to ensure students receive a good job, and only 20% about developing human capital – the knowledge and skills that actually allow them to perform in that job.
“The way our education system transforms students into paid workers seems like magic. Governments delegate vast power to a caste of Ivory Tower academics. The caste wields its power as expected: Every child has to study teachers’ pet subjects. Educators then rank students on their mastery of the material. Students rapidly forget most of what they learn because ‘they’ll never need to know it again’. Employers are free to discount or disregard the Ivory Tower’s verdicts. Yet they use academic track records to decide whom to hire and how much to pay.
Do students need to understand the market for marriage, the economics of the Mafia, or the self-interested voter hypothesis to be a competent manager, banker, or salesman? No. But because I decide these topics are worth teaching, employers decide students who fail my class aren’t worth interviewing. Abracadabra.”
There are sure to be many, including educators, who would be quick to outright reject Caplan’s argument. To do so is disingenuous, especially considering the amount of examples presented and myths debunked through his extensive research, which does a thorough job of exploring both sides of the debate.
We don’t need Caplan’s examples to prove his signalling argument. All we have to do is think back on our schooling years.
Why did university students react joyfully when class was cancelled? Because they were there for the degree, not the knowledge.
Why doesn’t anyone walk onto a university campus and sit in on any lecture they find interesting? Because if they’re not on the stage come graduation, what they’ve learnt means nothing to future employers.
Written so as not to overwhelm, and with a few subtle jabs at how effective signalling can be (chapters start with a verse of poetry, as if the writer’s taunting us to equate their relevancy to his understanding of the topic) Caplan immerses the reader in findings that will draw them to his side.
Where he will likely lose most, however, is in the second half of the book, where he makes his point for reducing education by eradicating government funding and making it more expensive. There’s enough here to make the most ultra-conservative gawk.
Caplan makes a solid point: if students (and their families) are asked to pay for their education, they would be likely to more carefully consider its value before applying to higher levels. Such a system would shift education from a selfish pursuit – the best courses for the strongest signal – in order to create more social benefits. Employers would have to look beyond education to analyse the quality of a potential employee, and so it would be the truly capable who receive the jobs.
It all falls apart in the details, however.
For one example, Caplan says poor families could be provided with unsubsidised loans for students to enter high school, and hopefully escape the cycle of poverty. Wouldn’t this potentially serve only to create greater poverty, if the families proved unable to pay it back? And what of those who want to reach higher levels of education, but who might not be seen as having the ability to succeed, and so do not receive the loans? Would this not be negative signalling?
Then, of course, there’s the fact that The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that everyone should have fair access to education.
Caplan knows the education system will never meet his standards, but he’s nevertheless willing to fight for what he believes in.
The book closes with a discussion between Caplan and a range of fellow educators, as well as students. Everyone is stacked against Caplan, and yet he manages to swat down every single argument against his findings. His claim that he initially developed something like the signalling concept in kindergarten is quite hard to believe, but his ability to balance the importance of his findings with his reality as an employee of the industry which he’s targeted is commendable.
Caplan is right. The value of what he presents in The Case Against Education is by no means diminished by the fact that the industry he envisions will never come to fruition. There are serious flaws in the education system, but it is too sacred a cow for most to dare meddle with it. He deserves respect for making such a provocative case.