06.18.18 | Don't Need No Education

The broadside indictment by Bryan Caplan in his recent book "The Case Against Education" is the equivalent of an academic calling in an air strike on his own position. Yet it's the response to his work that will frame our discussion. Rather than dismissing Caplan's thesis as challenging his own profession, the reviewer, a fellow academic, largely endorses it as based upon a) common sense and b) the data. And, one might add, personal experience. The Case Against Education.

Indeed, most of us have had a front-row seat to the (mass) education experience -- from K-12, to college, maybe through graduate school -- against which we can test the thesis. You will wince or smile knowingly. Caplan's central thesis is (with a very few targeted exceptions) formal education has little to do with expanding intelligence or imparting knowledge and mostly to do with signaling conscientiousness and conformity. Yes, those might represent important qualities to prospective employers. Just don't confuse that with signaling pre-existing qualities or ultimate potential. Better to make job offers to high school seniors with the higher admission scores (let's say) and then just skip the actual college experience.

And that's just a start. Improving students' "human capital?" He cites my own personal favorite response: then why are we so thrilled when school is cancelled for a snow day? Then why do most students try to minimize the work necessary for a grade? Or minimize the consumption of a product for which they (or, more likely, their parents or the government) pay hundreds of thousands of dollars? How about "learning how to learn"? Studies show limited general effect outside of the narrow course work.

OK, it's easy to be cynical, but there are some valuable truths to be gleaned here. Mark Twain's dictum to not let schooling get in the way of one's education rings true. It's hard for most of us to recall more than one or two Dead-Poet's-Society-quality teachers. My only solid take-away from the high school segment on Greek history was naming the three types of pillars: Doric; Ionic; and the other one.

Why is this an important topic to discuss? First is the incredible amount of financial resources devoted to the industry, almost without serious question. The only thing worse than the false value attributed to the diploma is the graduate's attendant financial ball and chain. A serious rethinking might then also embrace the possibility of innovative approaches -- anything beyond the basic reading, writing and arithmetic would seem fair game (Mark Twain's formal education level, by the way, was third grade) -- including earlier work-study and European-type apprenticeships; or more of a bottoms-up rather than a tops-down autocratic class offerings. Yes, there might be a danger that a few students could go "feral" but that would seem better than having virtually all students remain in an infantile state promoted by the prison system we have now.

Let's discuss. 

- Steve Smith.

Dustin SimantobComment