Hey! Teacher! Leave Them Kids Alone!

The Case Against Education

Bryan Caplan claims that most of the public and individual spending on education is wasted. I mostly agree with him. And I say this as someone with undergraduate and postgraduate degrees that teaches at a university as a hobby.

Much of the book is taken up with the technical justification of Caplan’s claim that the bulk of the value from college degrees accrues to the individuals taking them rather than society and that this value is not in the form of actual skills development but rather signaling. Signaling means that possession of a degree signals to employers that you are smart, conscientious, and conformist (characteristics that employers prize). So employers hire people with degrees and therefore those that seek jobs need to get degrees. Those degrees may well be a waste of time and money for the students but nevertheless, they need them.

This seems obvious to me. Where the dialogue gets tougher is in the policy recommendations that follow.

Let me tackle those policy recommendations with some commentary:

  • An emphasis on vocational education. I think vocational education is great. The masters degree that I teach on is vocational (and if I had the power, it would be even more so) – as is my own masters degree. I also think that the pipeline that spits school students into universities is unhelpful. I think everyone should work prior to doing a degree (I did not and regret it).
  • The flipside of this is fewer people should be funneled into the world of degrees. This I also agree with. This does not mean that all universities should be shuttered – rather that they should change the mix of what they teach.
  • Employers need to get over the degree criteria and focus on other things. I have never hired anyone based on their academic transcript – but then I have never worked in graduate recruitment.
  • Keeping teenagers in school who have no desire to be there seems to counterproductive. Now I hated school – but I loved the lessons. Many did not. Frankly they would be better off getting a job with the option of returning the education system as and when they chose.

So far, so boring. Where do I disagree with Caplan?

He sees some value in primary education but believes that it should be completely privatized. Now I see a great deal of value in primary education. If the bulk of the money spent on tertiary education was switched to 4-11 year olds, I would have no problem with that. However I remain skeptical about handing it over unreservedly into the hands of the private sector. Evidence from within the charter school system within the US indicates that this only works with strong regulatory oversight. Caplan seems as naive about private charity as he is cynical about public government. Food and beverage companies have been very keen to fund education – provided their products are heavily promoted. Australia’s own experience of pumping public money (and student debt) into a poorly regulated vocational education sector is an example of worst practice.

I also think that Caplan’s curt dismissal of the apprenticeship model (yes it’s good but it is hard to do well) seems overly fatalistic. It can be done. Lots of things in the education world are hard to do. I agree with Caplan that changing people on a fundamental level is hard. But while changing institutions is not easy, it is something that we know we can do.

An aside: Unlike Caplan, I think history is important (and based on a misleading comment of his about the 19th century British education system on p. 217, he’d want to take history more seriously). History is less about memorizing particular facts and more about forming a group identity. The “History Wars” in Australia were, and are, real. The continuing battle over what is in and out of the history curriculum is about more than ideological games – it matters.

There are two further political implications of Caplan’s position that he briefly touches on.

The first is that Western society is increasingly stratified by educational experience. This cuts across traditional left-right divides and we face not simply different political interests but different values and methods of expression.

The second is that the most proffered answer to the social disruptions of technological change is “education”. If education is the answer then we are ill-equipped to offer it in useful and usable forms. If it is not then we had better come up with something else (and UBI will probably be insufficient).

[UPDATE: Caplan is keen on STEM. Some of the research on automation (see here and here) indicates that many of the jobs of the future will be in domains that are hard to automate. Typically these involve interaction with humans – which are often outside the STEM domain]

In short, I think that Caplan is not cynical enough nor do I share his libertarian fatalism (which is a wonderful luxury for the successful). But we are due a change.

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6 Responses to Hey! Teacher! Leave Them Kids Alone!

  1. I assume that you have read the book. I have not. From what I can see from the above this sounds like another special pleader from the extreme libertarian flank, which is really only influential in America. The German education system seems good to me, where some people are split off from the academic stream after completing secondary school and given a technical education.The Germans and the Japanese do manufacturing well. Beyond that, the points he seems to make are moot. Education is not about learning how to do something, apart from applied subjects like engineering and medicine. It is essentially about learning how to think, and especially how to learn. Critical thinking is essential for the production of competent voters, and tertiary education should be free for students undertaking it, as secondary education is in Australia.

  2. innotecture says:

    Matthew – I do generally read the books that I review here 😉 I agree that the German model is a powerful one (although not without its challenges) with a focus on vocational training. The Japanese education system, from what I have seen, is a brutal tournament that yields students that excel in test scores. It does have a strong vocational stream via the Colleges of Technology. Caplan investigates where the education system actually delivers on its promises of learning how to learn / critical thinking (esp. in Ch. 9) – and comes out skeptical (and he notes that voting in the US has fallen as education has risen). I share some of that skepticism . I don’t think that tertiary education should be free but then I don’t agree with Caplan’s contention that it should be completely private either.

    David Balan’s review discusses how Caplan overreaches: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2018/02/david_balan_rev.html

  3. If voting is sliding then the answer is to make it mandatory, as it is in Australia. I tend to prefer our solutions to major political problems such as voter turnout. Have you ever heard of Louis Harz?

    • innotecture says:

      Well, that depends if you see shrinking voter turnout as a problem or not (for me it’s just one sign of political disengagement – that mandatory voting does not change that). I don’t think it is a a major issue for Caplan.

      I had not heard of Louis Harz but I googled him. Interesting. Can you expand on why you are bringing him up here?

      • In 1964 he published a book titled, ‘The Founding of New Societies’, which elaborates on a simple theory: that “fragment” societies such as the US and Australia enduringly reflect the realities that existed in the root society at the time of the split. So, the US resembles renaissance England whereas Australia resembles Romantic-era Britain. The values and cultures of the fragment societies are to a great degree set, Harz says, at the time of their conception. The book is written in what a friend of mine, who introduced it to me, as a highly “rebarbative” style, but if you can get through the difficult style the content is revealing of an interesting theory of civilisation.

    • innotecture says:

      Hmmm. Based on your description, I think Harz has a point about the importance of institutional “starting conditions” and “path dependence”. However I think it’s possible to overplay that. The geo-strategic and environment contexts of the US and Australia are also quite different – so their cultures will develop differently.

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