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winter 2018 book forum: bryan caplan’s the case against education

with 18 comments

This month, I will write a series of blog posts about Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money. Normally, I will summarize a book, then praise it and then offer some criticism. In this case, I will deviate slightly. A lot of people will criticize the book, so I will focus on describing the core argument and explain why sociologists should care about it. If Caplan’s main point is even partially correct, it has big implications that any educational researcher should care about. In this first installment, I’ll provide a little background and then lay out the main argument. Later this month, I’ll describe the nuts and bolts of the argument in more depth.

I’ve known Bryan for many, many years and I’ve grown a deep appreciation his style of thought. The way he approaches an academic topic is to first boil down the main claim. Then, he will massively research the claim to find out how much of it is true. When I say “massive,” I mean massive. He’ll read across disciplines. He’ll read flagship journals and obscure edited volumes. He’ll even email the authors of papers to make sure that he got their main point correct. Once he is done this obsessive review, he’ll summarize the main points and the then re-assess and redevelop the original claim. He re-estimates models and the draws out the conclusions, which often cut against common opinion.

The Case Against Education proceeds in this same way. Caplan starts with a simple idea that a lot of people believe in: education improves you and that is why it should be subsidized and supported. This basic idea comes in a few flavors. For example, in academia, economists believe in human capital theory – education gives you valuable labor market skills. Other people may believe that education improves you because it makes you a better citizen or it otherwise improves your critical thinking skills. Caplan then contrasts this with another popular theory called “signalling theory” – education doesn’t make you better, but it works as an IQ/conformity test. In other words, people who do well after getting an education aren’t better in any concrete sense. Rather, the college degree is a signal that you are smart to begin with.

Why the emphasis on the human capital/signalling distinction? The theory that you believe in has huge policy implications. If you believe that education gives you a lot of skills and benefits, then it may make sense to pay for a lot of education or to subsidize it. In contrast, you believe it is mostly signalling, it is a sign that you should scale back education.

Then, Caplan delves into hundreds of studies in education, economics, sociology, psychology and other fields to actually see if education actually makes you better, or if it is merely a hoop you have to jump through. For example, is it true that education makes you a better “critical thinker?” It turns out that there is psychological research on “transfer learning,” which means that learning a skill in field A helps you in field B. Answer? Nope, not much transfer learning. Is it true that college graduates learn alot? he reviews work like Richard Arum and Josipina Roska’s Academically Adrift, which shows that people don’t learn a lot in college. The list of debunked effects of education goes on and on.

As you can sense from my thumbnail sketch, Caplan (correctly, in my view) arrives at the conclusion that education doesn’t really make you better in any direct sense. If that is true, then much of education might be a costly and inefficient signalling game and maybe we should seriously consider cutting back on it and that entails a massive change in policy.

Next week: What education does and does not do to a person.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 9, 2018 at 7:15 am

18 Responses

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  1. I’ve read it. My book is better.

    Liked by 1 person

    tressiemc22

    February 9, 2018 at 1:49 pm

  2. The more educated you were, the less likely you were to vote for Trump. I’ll put money down for that anytime.

    Like

    Guillermo

    February 9, 2018 at 3:00 pm

  3. The more educated and WHITE.

    Like

    tressiemc22

    February 9, 2018 at 3:03 pm

  4. Nope. Trump got nearly 60 percent of the white vote.

    Like

    Guillermo

    February 9, 2018 at 3:38 pm

  5. So the more educated you were, if also say black, the less likely you were to vote for trump? Trying to understand the data…

    Like

    tressiemc22

    February 9, 2018 at 3:49 pm

  6. What you describe is an interaction effect (that race and education combine to produce a specific result). It cannot be determined unless you have access to the data on race and education for all individual respondents.

    Like

    Guillermo

    February 9, 2018 at 3:59 pm

  7. Thank you so much for explaining interaction effect to me! So you cannot say that educational attainment is the reason that voters were less likely to vote for trump but only that it is true for white voters, which I suppose here is a stand in for all voters?

    Like

    tressiemc22

    February 9, 2018 at 4:01 pm

  8. No, you suppose wrong. What I said is that there is statistical association between education and voting behaviour, and also between race and voting behaviour. Neither is surprising given that there are plenty of empirical studies which have observed associations between the aforementioned variables. If someone is claiming that education has no discernible effect on individual’s decisions they are clearly wrong.

    Like

    Guillermo

    February 9, 2018 at 5:05 pm

  9. I suspect that the education effect holds for black voters as well as white voters; all voters, really. This is not my area of expertise, but a few minutes on Google turned up some evidence for this, keeping in mind to be careful of committing an ecological fallacy (http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/education-not-income-predicted-who-would-vote-for-trump/). I’m sure someone has a thorough answer to this question.

    Like

    anon

    February 9, 2018 at 6:40 pm

  10. Fabio- From your description it seems that the book makes the case that education (acquisition of knowledge and skills) isn’t happening in colleges and universities- credentialing and socialization is (in which case I wouldn’t talk about what education does or doesn’t do to a person- I’d talk about what attending and receiving a degree from a college or university does or doesn’t do to a person).

    It also seems that there is no discussion of *changing* how we go about teaching at the college level so that education (and retention of that education) does occur. Is that accurate?

    Like

    Melissa

    February 9, 2018 at 8:45 pm

  11. @melissa: Correct. Caplan considers credentialing theory as well, but sides with signalling. In later installments, I will talk about policy implications. To summarize:

    – If a lot of education is socially inefficient signalling, we should either cut back or have people shift to human capital intensive vocational tracks.

    – He is pretty skeptical that you can make college better at teaching people. He thinks that much of college education is really about forcing people to sit in classes that they don’t like or that they don’t benefit from. Thus, this sort of education should be optional.

    Like

    fabiorojas

    February 9, 2018 at 8:52 pm

  12. @Fabio, thanks for the clarification, and I look forward to the future posts. I’ve been debating making time to read it. It sounds like I would neither agree with some arguments but disagree with others, which makes me lean toward putting it on my to-read list

    Like

    Melissa

    February 9, 2018 at 9:09 pm

  13. @melissa: Definitely worth the read. Think of this book as similar to John Hattie’s work – massive reviews of evidence on education to advance a particular thesis (an anti-schooling thesis, in this case).

    Like

    fabiorojas

    February 9, 2018 at 10:06 pm

  14. anon: what you suspect may be true. However, very few blacks voted for Trump, so finding out whether the education effect holds for both blacks and whites may not actually be that interesting.

    Like

    Guillermo

    February 9, 2018 at 10:34 pm

  15. I have now read quite a bit of the book, and it is definitely not a good one. Sorry.

    Like

    Guillermo

    February 10, 2018 at 3:55 am

  16. By the way I would like to thank Dr. Rojas. Many of his book recommendations are excellent.

    Like

    Guillermo

    February 10, 2018 at 8:16 pm

  17. The median trump voter was relatively affluent with no college degree. When college education is replaced by leftist PC indoctrination, no wonder that only 30% of GOP supporters hold a college degree even though on average they are more economic successful than Hillary’s voters. College education in the US is a scam.

    Like

    palavrot

    February 11, 2018 at 10:27 pm

  18. The vote was almost evenly split among Clinton and Trump among the high income groups. Therefore education gives us something good that money can’t buy.

    Like

    Guillermo

    February 12, 2018 at 1:59 am


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