Bryan Caplan, the libertarian George Mason University economist, has written an important but flawed book, The Case Against Education, arguing that the problem with education is that it teaches you little but effectively separates high and low, sheep from goats. Education is a race, which effectively and accurately sticks winner and loser labels on kids and adults. Because employers will pay for the distinctions education elucidates between dumb and smart, lazy and hard-working, “one of the crowd “and a free spirit, parents and kids will pay in blood and treasure and time to get a diploma or a degree or a doctorate. But school doesn’t actually teach kids much, and school isn’t much good for the society or the world. A sensible government will discourage this pointless rat race by subsidizing education little or not at all: no public schools or government-supported financial aid. A sensible government will encourage kids and adults to get out of school into the workforce rather than showing off their qualities by staying in school.
Caplan presents two lines of evidence for his thesis: one is a series of observations from social science papers and datasets that suggest that kids learn little in school and that the economic returns to schooling, while ample, are associated with degrees, not learning. The second line of evidence is his own ruminations on the pointlessness, boredom, and insincerity of education and school. Both styles of argument deserve to be treated seriously. On inspection, much of the mountain of social science evidence for the practical value of education is built on sand, and our own turbulent memories of our school days are often filled with the grim awareness that we were just filling time or simply proving ourselves slightly more ruthless than our classmates.
Teachers are, whether or not they articulate it in terms suitable for Princeton University Press, more aware than most of both these lines of critique. Teachers are on stage for almost all of their working day, and familiarity often breeds contempt, from students as well as libertarian economics professors. Caplan is studious in avoiding the question of whether teachers or schools are doing a good job or a bad job, on their own terms, and focuses wisely on whether it is a job worth doing at all. And so we must engage with him on the more elusive question of whether employers are paying you for the philosophy you learn when you major in philosophy, or for the philosopher you were before you decided to major in it. As an in-law told my mom when she decided to go to philosophy grad school, paging through the New York Post, `so many jobs, and none for philosophers.’
Caplan’s central critique of education is in this vein, that schooling is signaling rather than the acquisition of human capital. Defining a practice- whether education or dancing or cancer screening or military exercises in the South China Sea- as signaling has the defect that signaling is the fundamental human activity. This goes beyond Caplan’s colleague Robin Hanson’s habit of defining everything we do as signaling, from health care (“Show Care” in Hanson’s formulation) to politics to romantic relationships. The truth is that we do what we do so that others may perceive it. We marry, in general, in front of the most important people in our lives so that the signal, the promise we give to one another, may be received by those we care most about. Calling something “merely” signaling ignores that the best things in life are the result of signals, of one type or another.
In the case of education, it is often impossible to say where valuable learning ends and signaling begins. Caplan stumbles at one point in addressing the question of whether a brilliant kindergarten teacher advances the long-term earnings of her pupils, as Raj Chetty and others have estimated, by saying that such a teacher merely advances the kids a few places in the rat race without advancing their long-term productivity. What exactly would advance their long-term productivity? What distinguishes productivity from one’s place in the pecking order? If you push a whole class of 5 year olds forward (by getting them to read “CAT” and “RAT” and “RETURNS TO HUMAN CAPITAL”) what exactly distinguishes that knowledge from the real returns to education that labor economists believe exist?
In a more concrete, physically-defined economy these questions might have well articulated answers. If all we made were widgets, perhaps we could tell if one form of education made for more widgets, and another just assigned credit for widgets made to one person instead of another. But in our post-industrial economy this is a much harder question than it looks. We notice one Hollywood producer makes movies with $100 million in revenue and another makes movies with $200 million in revenue and wonder whether to call that difference productivity or not. Is a George Mason University economist signaling or producing, when he teaches his students the skills that let them pass his own class?
An appealing kludge for resolving these issues is to look at the differences between different cities, counties, states, or countries- how is education associated (or not) with different forms of productivity, and the wealth and well-being of people who live in one place or another. Caplan avoids such analyses- and the implicit Tiebout equilibrium of different places choosing more or less education for their citizens- by claiming that since everyone has been spellbound by the appeal of education, the choice to invest in it as country, state, or county, is nothing but Social Desirability Bias at work. In a curious passage, Caplan claims that the worldwide belief in education is no more remarkable than the worldwide dominance of Abrahamic religions, perhaps the most remarkable of all historical facts. But if Caplan is right, many countries are leaving vast sums of money on the table by choosing to spend money educating their populace. Since, according to Caplan, about 80% of education spending is wasted, any country that could choose an alternative investment vehicle with less than 80% wasted spending could soon outpace those foolish countries who waste their time building schoolhouses and finding children to fill them.
It’s obvious that at some margin, much education spending is wasted, of course. You can learn much the same stuff as at Harvard, probably better taught, by enrolling at your local community college, supplementing with online materials, and then transferring to a state university after two years. Relatively few strong students take this approach, and fewer still will get Harvard-sized salaries for doing so. But it’s curious to call this a fact about education rather than a fact about Harvard and the place of elite institutions in our labor market. Our white-collar economy is a mysterious blend of genuine productivity, ideological indoctrination, the power of institutional affiliation and the limited circle of trust that exists within narrow social castes. When Adam no longer delves and Eve no longer spins, who shall then be the gentlemen and gentlewomen?
I have happened to have known one or two Harvard-quality students who have taken the community college approach with good results, and this is a heartening reminder that not all ways are blocked off in the maze of American life. I spend a fair amount of time dwelling on related questions of how my own young children, bright but by no means world-conquering, should navigate the narrow tight-rope to the American middle class. But these predispositions and the mesmeric attraction that elite colleges exert on our media should not distract us from the real story of American education and the real story of American youth.
Most American public school kids are low-income; about half are non-white; most are fairly low skilled academically. For most American kids, the majority of the waking hours they spend not engaged with electronic media are at school; the majority of their in-person relationships are at school; the most important relationships they have with an adult who is not their parent is with their teacher. For their parents, the most important in-person source of community is also their kids’ school. Young people need adult mirrors, models, mentors, and in an earlier era these might have been provided by extended families, but in our own era this all falls upon schools.
Caplan gestures towards work and earlier labor force participation as alternatives to school for many if not all kids. And I empathize: the years that I would point to as making me who I am were ones where I was working, not studying. But they were years spent working in schools, as a teacher or assistant. If schools did not exist, is there an alternative that we genuinely believe would arise to draw young people into the life of their community?
Even young men in their mid-20s, the peak early years of workforce participation, have been leaving the workforce near-asymptotically. I am not convinced that if we tore down all the high schools the kids would all get jobs (let alone if Caplan got his way and we declared open borders to all comers.)
Some of the stronger sections in Caplan’s book focus on vocational education and its potential. A worthy successor to this book would be to focus on the real obstacles to implementing vocational ed, and my sincere respect to anyone who figures out how American high schools can teach welding as well as reading, shop as well as math. But I also knew of non-profits in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia that promised vocational education twenty years ago- the problem wasn’t that students didn’t have demand for these programs but that such programs are very, very hard to run.
As Anne Case and Angus Deaton have recently explored, young and middle-aged Americans without college education are undergoing a social crisis that cannot reasonably be blamed on education’s hoarding of opportunities in of itself.
Falling social connection and increasing isolation and spiraling drug, alcohol, and suicide mortality are merely the portions of this crisis that are most impossible to ignore.
It is not an accident that the state that spends the least on education is Utah, where the LDS church can take up some of the slack for schools, while next door Wyoming spends almost the most of any state at $16,000 per student. Education is now the one surviving binding principle of the society as a whole, the one black box everyone will agree to, and so while you can press for less subsidization of education by government, and for privatization of costs, as Caplan does, there’s really nothing people can substitute for it. This is partially about signaling, sure, but it’s also because outside of schools and a few religious enclaves our society is but a darkling plain beset by winds.
This doesn’t mean that we should leave Caplan’s critique on the shelf. Much of education is focused on an insane, zero-sum race for finite rewards. Much of schooling does push kids, parents, schools, and school systems towards a solution ad absurdum, where anything less than 100 percent of kids headed to a doctorate and the big coding job in the sky is a sign of failure of everyone concerned.
But let’s approach this with an eye towards the limits of the possible and the reality of diminishing returns.
Much of adulthood is learning to live with diminishing returns. Our best efforts, at work or love or the rest of life, are often less productive than our half efforts. As with the pint of ice cream hiding in the freezer, devouring some is usually better than devouring all.
But we have a harder time applying that insight to public policy. Our society can help some people some of the time with some expenditure of resources. But whether we can help more people more of the time with greater expenditure of resources is not simply a matter of being “smart” in our interventions, of listening to the results of “evidence-based policy.” Nor does an inkling that we’ve gone too far in one direction or another mean that we have to tear out our institutions root and branch and start anew or not start at all, as Caplan would argue we should do.
Human beings are resilient things, that to themselves are often true, even when those selves are not how we want them to be. Parenthood generally involves this recognition, that our dreams for other people must ultimately bow before the person they are bound to become.
But when it comes to other people’s children we have a harder time managing this acceptance. We acknowledge that college seems to be the sole ticket to a comfortable middle-class life, so we design ninth grade curricula and six grade curricula and third grade standardized tests that presuppose everyone taking them is on the train to an academic degree, at a “good” 4-year school.
Recognizing that this is not in fact the case, that many and probably most children in the country are not going to complete an academic degree, does not mean counting those children out of the society, or presuming before we could possibly know that their future is predetermined to be X instead of Y.
My wife still recalls the elementary teacher who mocked her in front of the class when she missed a math problem: “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” For my wife, as for so many other kids, school was respite from the rest of life as a kid, and school and books were windows to the other worlds she was eager to climb into.
It is not that we are free of obligation to other people’s children, if only because they will determine the character of the society when they grow up. But those obligations are to the place they grow up in- that it is clean, and safe, and well-lit, and has enough kind people to talk with and books to read and space to play in. No doubt many schools do not fulfill this minimal list.
The commitment of the society, that can still be largely fulfilled, is to provide an adequate place for kids to grow up in. But it is they who are doing the growing up.