winter book forum 2018, part 3: so what?

In this last installment, I ask – “so what?” Is the argument presented in The Case Against Education important? My response is addressed to two groups – the skeptics and the persuaded.

The skeptics: I think that skeptics, people who believe that education is good because it directly improves people, should take away two main messages. First, very well meaning people will often just assert the benefits of education without a lot of evidence to back it up, especially when it comes to teaching things like “critical thinking.” More sophisticated people may justifiably cite the evidence on the college premium (i.e., college educated make more money than high school grads). But in both cases, there is often direct evidence that the hypothesis is wrong (e.g., no transfer learning), overblown (e.g., educated people are better citizens, but by a modest amount) or there is additional evidence that undermines the basic human capital story (e.g., people don’t retain what they learn or the infamous sheepskin effects). And these conclusions are not from one or two analyses, but from decades of academic work. Thus, skeptics should probably try harder to appreciate this evidence or come up with equally strong counter evidence.

A second lesson for skeptics is that we should really adopt a more humane approach to individuals with limited academic skills. One of the strongest arguments in The Case Against Education is simply that low academic skill people drop out of college at very high rates.  It’s a very simple point that is almost certainly true. This is crucial because it means that low academic skill people may spend years of their lives and thousands upon thousands of dollars for degrees they never get or benefit from. Instead of demanding more and more education for these people, the skeptics should really just admit that formal education isn’t right for these people and sensibly move people into vocational schools or workplace based apprenticeships.

The persuaded: What if you believe the gist of Caplan’s argument – that formal education may benefit individuals through signalling but are a socially wasteful signal? Caplan is a radical in that he thinks all education, not just public education, should be scaled back. Most people probably aren’t ready to “push the button” and massively de-school society. But there are some sensible policies that are worth thinking about.

The first, which Caplan, argues for is vocational training. And I understand what he means. When I was in high school, vocational training was seen as a failure – the “vo-tech kids” were the left overs. But that is a very wrong attitude. There is no dishonor in learning a trade! In today’s world, it can be exciting. Why not have high schools teach programming (not theoretical computer science) and web design? Or the basics of business management and accounting? In large urban centers, many kids could get a start in creative industries like advertising, video production, and hospitality. Once people master the basics of literacy and numeracy, surely, these topics would be much better for many students than an additional year of quickly forgotten algebra.

Second, people in higher education should start seriously re-thinking the overall structure of the American university system. Right now, we have over 8,000 institutions that award post-secondary degrees. This is insane. What should we have? In a world where we focus higher education on those who are academically strong and reduce credentialing, we’d probably still keep the research intensive institutions because there are careers where intensive educations seems to make sense (e.g., medicine or engineering, or training for the elite humanities). Then, we’d probably scale back schools that offer this education to those with weak academic skills. Ironically, there might be a case to be made for junior colleges as low-cost open access places where people could either quickly get vocational skills or get certified for more intensive education.

I hope you found this discussion of The Case Against Education useful. I’d love to hear what you think.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 27, 2018 at 5:01 am

2 Responses

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  1. I’m working on a paper about internal vs. external goods in the sociology of education, and this blog has inspired me to incorporate this book into my work!



    February 27, 2018 at 6:00 pm

  2. I just love how people who work at research universities always think their institutions have a legitimate purpose but that the rest of us should be shut down.



    February 28, 2018 at 2:14 am

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