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Key insights from

The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money

By Bryan Caplan

What you’ll learn

Economist Bryan Caplan boldly argues that benefits of education in its current form are tremendously overrated. Considering the money spent and the grueling hours that students are subjected to, very little prepares them for the actual workplace nor are there benefits to our broader society.


Read on for key insights from The Case against Education.

1. Very little of what students learn in school will ever be used on the job.

Education is a tremendous waste of time, energy, and resources. We have way too much of it. Very little of it can be meaningfully integrated into life after graduation. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are obviously very useful, as are computer science programs and metal and wood shop classes that a few high schools offer. In college, too, there are practical majors that prepare students for workforce experiences, like premed and engineering. But consider, if you will, all the foreign language classes, world literature courses, the music theory electives people are required or elect to take: they prove useful to the few who become linguists, classicists, or musicians, but what about for the rest? How much of what you’ve learned have you actually put to use in your life?

By and large thousands of hours are wasted teaching students information that they would not use even if they remembered it after exam week. They don’t get students ready for the real world. Most university courses and programs do very little to incorporate job skills.

Some might argue that education is intended to have a humanizing effect. Some are transformed and enriched, to be sure, but that’s not enough. The “broaden their horizons” argument would be more persuasive if more students were open to their horizons being broadened. The fact of the matter is that very few actually come away from education with a love for high culture, the humanities, and learning for its own sake. Even if a course is interesting, just about everyone thinks in terms of getting good exam grades so that they can get high-paying jobs.

2. Most teachers are people who have never left school; so how can they prepare students for the “real world”?

 On the whole, education pays. Post-graduates earn more than college graduates, who earn more than high school graduates, who earn more than high school dropouts. This is clearly the case. Employers prefer to hire individuals with education. It conveys dependability and skills. This is a curious preference because the majority of time in grade school (and college) is devoted to learning (and then promptly forgetting) material that bears little relevance to the labor market.

Teachers themselves aren’t prepared for the real world outside of the realm of teaching. So why on earth are these people (the author includes himself) entrusted with equipping the next generation with marketable skills? How will students learn these skills for jobs that educators would not be qualified to hold? The gulf between skills learned in education and skills learned on the job is expansive, and there are no indications that it is being bridged.

3. Signaling is the explanation for the gap between education and job skills.

Given this remarkable gap, it is puzzling that there is such a strong link between high GPA and stellar careers. It seems almost magical. What explains this? The most satisfactory answer is signaling. 

Even if the content of a Ph.D. in philosophy from an Ivy League is utterly unrelated to the job at hand, the degree signals certain traits about an individual and her productivity. People get hired for presenting proof that they studied material longer than others. 

We send all sorts of signals at interviews: a clean-shaven face, a professional blouse or suit, a positive countenance, and appropriate eye-contact all send signals. You can get all those signals right, but lacking certain educational credentials sends a powerful signal that does not sit well with most employers—even if the skills learned in school have no overlap with the skills needed for the job. No skills relevant to the job? Sure, but you went to Princeton, so you’re hired!

Signaling theory has been developed by world-class economists, some of whom have received Nobel prizes for their work. Yet signaling theory is largely missing in education literature, even though it exposes the incompatible marriage between education and market.

Arnold King rightly quipped that education is “the only good that the consumer tries to get as little out of as possible.” 

Believe it or not, you can get the best education in the world for free if you so wish. You might attend a university like Princeton and sit in on lectures. It is unlikely that anyone would stop you. Professors would assume some bureaucratic oversight and go ahead with their lecture. If you asked, most professors would be fine with it, and probably elated that someone would come to their lectures out of interest rather than fulfilling degree requirements. If you did this for four years, you’d have an education, but no degree. You’d be Princeton-educated, but have no piece of paper to prove it. 

What’s the preferable position: the student who obtained a covert education but no diploma, or a student with a diploma who’s forgotten the majority of what they learned? The human capital purist, who insists that education’s purpose is to provide skills essential to the labor market would answer that the covert education is preferable. Most Americans are purists by conditioning—even if they’re not familiar with the term. But anyone, in a moment of honesty, would recognize that this view is patently false: No matter how much education a person retained, it is the Princeton grad—not the eager undercover learner who will get the job. Signaling is the best explanation.

There are failing students and forgetful students. Neither has managed to retain course material,  but the latter group fares far better in the job hunt.

4. The inflated power of the diploma doesn’t benefit society.

Okay, so education doesn’t actually do what it’s supposed to, as far as cultivating labor-relevant skills. So it’s more about signaling than skills. So what?

If you’re only looking out for yourself, then this discussion doesn’t matter. Who cares if the current education system is creating a bigger pie or redistributing the pieces as long as you get a hefty slice? It begins to matter if you consider the matter from a societal perspective.

To understand the problem, consider a concert: if one person stands up for a better view, she will certainly benefit, but that doesn’t mean that everyone else will benefit if everyone  stands up. This is called the fallacy of composition, the mistaken assumption that what is true for the part must also be true for the whole. Education benefits the individual, but fails to benefit countries. The post-graduation life may bring in more money for the individuals who can show diplomas, but that education does not to bring any substantive benefit to society.

5. The social returns on education are not nearly as grand as the propaganda suggests.

There is not a single government on earth where a politician would advocate for cuts to education—at least a politician who wants to be elected. The pro-education ideology is so pervasive that no one questions the rhetoric. Press someone on the street to expound on why increasing education spending is important (seventy-four percent of Americans think it is), and they will fall back on conditioned responses that are emotionally forceful but logically deficient—clichés such as investing in our children, our nation and future, or simply stating that there’s nothing of greater importance.

The elephant in the room is that the oft-praised social returns on education are negligible. The most thorough investigations estimate the return is somewhere between slightly below market value to far below market value. In other words, for all the money invested in education, there’s not much to show for it. The returns are subpar not only from a financial perspective, but by more holistic metrics. Education’s impact on crime reduction is overestimated, as is its impact on voter turnout—to say nothing about more substantive political involvement.

6. There’s so much waste in the education industry, and everyone’s afraid to say it.

The blessings of education are widely championed, but results don’t live up to the propaganda. Education should not be increased but decreased—drastically. The class clown’s intuition that he’ll never use his education in the real world is actually dead-on. It’s a common experience that education feels unlinked to the real world.

Anyone who reflects honestly on his or her grade school experience will agree. Not only does the research confirm the uselessness of education system, but so does common sense. The Sesame Street “school is fun’ hype has never been lived up to, but we hear about the societal benefits of school so frequently that most assume it’s the case. But if it’s so demonstrably false, why are so few speaking up against it? Societal Desirability Bias is the culprit: We are afraid of being viewed as retrogressive and socially deviant, so we don’t voice opinions that go against the social grain.

Education spending has outpaced military spending since 1972—almost half a century ago. The most important step toward redressing education issues is to drastically slash the trillion-dollar education industry. We’re fueling a useless system. Put the onus on parents and students to pay for education instead of the taxpayer. This will save years in the lives of students, and free them to do meaningful things more connected to the real world and relevant to the labor market. This won’t detract from their skill levels, but it will help deflate education credentials. Will this extreme austerity likely come about? No. Political institutions run on Social Desirability Bias. Policies aren’t approved because they actually work, but because they sound like nice ideas that the general public will like.

This is not a case for better education but less of it. Education needs to become less about how to get a good job and more about how to do a good job. This is part of the reason that a degree means far less than it did in the 1950s, when only thirty-three percent of men earned high school diplomas. When everyone has a degree, it doesn’t mean much anymore. 

We need to be adult enough to admit we’re making childish mistakes in how we conceive of and run education.

Endnotes

These insights are just an introduction. If you're ready to dive deeper, pick up a copy of The Case Against Education here. And since we get a commission on every sale, your purchase will help keep this newsletter free.

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