Book review – The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money

Here is another book in the category “reading outside of my usual fields of interest”. When I spotted this title in the last Princeton catalogue it immediately piqued my interest. Surely, as an unabashed cheerleader of science, why would I oppose education, the gateway to science? Economist Bryan Caplan has written a provocative book that will not make him many friends. But before you discard this book as abject nonsense, give the man a chance and hear him out. He makes a cogent argument, supported by both common-sense observations and a solid analysis.

The Case against Education

The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money“, written by Bryan Caplan, published by Princeton University Press in February 2018 (hardback, 416 pages)

Now, if you are done frothing at the mouth with indignation, I think the best way to tackle this review is pointing out what this book is not. The first clue is in the book’s subtitle: Caplan is not opposed to education per se but to the current education system (specifically the US education system – this book is very US-centric). And he is the first to admit that school teaches children basic and necessary skills, such as reading, writing, and basic math.

But once you progress through the curricula, students get saddled up with subjects that are of little use to them in real life. Caplan targets subjects such as liberal arts, history, foreign languages, and higher mathematics. Admit it, when you were still at school, how many of you have not wondered “Am I actually ever going to use this when I grow up?” How many of us can remember what we learned in high school? The statistics that Caplan mentions regarding people’s incredibly poor knowledge of basic historical facts are telling. Through historical happenstance, we have ended up with curricula that teaches knowledge mostly irrelevant to today’s job market. On top of that, most teachers do not know the job market out there and cannot teach the relevant skills. It is hard to deny that schools and colleges are woefully underpreparing students for life in the real world.

“[…] if you are done frothing at the mouth with indignation, […] let me point out what this book is not”

Another big problem Caplan sees is the availability of ubiquitous education for all and financial support for those who struggle to afford it. It sounds very humanistic and will win you the hearts of voters, but it has resulted in a rat race. Caplan calls it “credential inflation”. Everyone is better educated nowadays, so employers have raised their expectations. We all need more years in school to get even a basic job. Furthermore, our liberal approach has resulted in a complete disconnect between the number of students and available jobs in a given sector. For example, Caplan mentions how in 2014 there were only 3500 historians employed in the US. But there were many times more students studying history. Why is the system allowing students to study a subject when the chances of finding a job are slim? How is that helping anyone?

So much for some of the common-sense observations that doubtlessly sound familiar. Caplan’s main argument, which he supports with a thorough economic analysis, is that the value of education does not lie in the knowledge or skills you obtain. The financial reward of education does not rise linearly with time but sees large increases in graduation years. Not graduating spells doom when applying for jobs. Employers do not care that you did all your years in school but for some reason could not get your diploma (an accident, death in the family, whatever). All they see in such cases is a drop-out. No diploma, no job. According to Caplan, education is largely (though not completely) about signalling. Graduation signals to employers that you have a good work ethic, that you take social norms seriously. Basically, that you’ll be a good little cog in the machine.

“[…] not graduating spells doom when applying for jobs […] No diploma, no job.”

I will leave it to other economists to pick apart his analysis, I lack the background to give a sensible critique of it, but many of his casual observations are spot on, however inconvenient they may be. And believe me, he managed to rile me a few times. Especially in the first few chapters I found myself repeatedly thinking “that is a ridiculous claim!”

Take for example his claim that teaching history is a waste of time. Hello! What about the idea that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it? Even if we do not remember all the little factoids, surely it is important children are taught about historical atrocities such as the second World War so that they do not end up again electing a demagogue and… ah, yes… Trump.

Okay, what about his claim that foreign languages are a waste of time unless you plan on becoming a translator. Oh, come on! That reeks of an arrogant US-centric attitude. Caplan, you do realise the world is bigger than the USA? I would argue that speaking a foreign language is incredibly valuable in the international job market. No doubt this betrays my Eurocentric bias, stranded as we are on a continent where almost every neighbouring country has its own language. Caplan would no doubt counter this by asking how many US students actually end up on the international job market. Then again, what better time to learn a language while you are still young? Which Caplan counters with the observation that, unless you keep using a language, you will rapidly forget it.

“Take his claim that teaching history is a waste of time. Surely it is important children are taught about historical atrocities so that they do not end up again electing a demagogue and… ah, yes… Trump.”

Throughout the book, Caplan carefully deals with all the objections that people typically raise. Having spent decades thinking and writing about this topic, he has heard them all. One might accuse him of taking a myopic view purely based on economic arguments, but he shows that most other supposed benefits of education are largely illusory once you crunch the numbers. By the end of the book, I had to admit he makes many valid points about how the education system is failing to prepare students for the job market. Our students are overeducated and schooled in many useless topics, and it is costing society at large a fortune.

Pointing out the system is broken is all fine, but any suggestions on how to fix it? Caplan has a few, but you may not like them. He proposes more vocational education (you know, actual jobs, like mechanics, plumbers, or carpenters), and cutting subsidies for higher education. I can agree with his first idea, it is high time we stopped disparaging these vocations. But I am far less comfortable with his second idea. He suggests we need to go through a difficult period of financial austerity, nay, perhaps even taxation on education so that fewer people can afford to study. That hardly seems just, it would create a new caste system where only those born in rich families can afford education. Of course, Caplan has thought about this complaint too and spends a section defending it.

“Caplan […] doesn’t shy away from controversial ideas or cynical statements (calling the majority of students philistines is not going to do you any favours, even though I agree)”

I agree that educational reform in the US, and probably worldwide, is long overdue. Education in Europe does not differ that much from the US when it comes to the broad picture of students being overqualified in irrelevant subjects. But there are other solutions that could be explored. And I feel this is the weakest point of this book – Caplan barely compares the US education system with others, for example in Europe, to see what lessons the US could draw. He speaks admiringly of the German apprentice system that teaches students how to do a job. But what about other countries? When I studied for my MSc degree in the Netherlands quite a few subjects had a numerus fixus limitation, basically a limited number of available places to prevent overcrowding. Wikipedia tells me this is more generally known as numerus clausus, though I am not sure if it is tied to demand from the job market. If it is not, maybe one possible reform could be that governments impose limits on how many students are allowed to pursue a certain subject?

Overall, Caplan has produced a thought-provoking book and he refreshingly does not shy away from controversial ideas or cynical statements. Calling the majority of students philistines is not going to do you any favours, even though I agree. Now, I am all for controversial ideas that run counter to cherished notions, especially if they are well-reasoned and supported by data and research. Caplan more than delivers that here, so I am giving this book a thumbs up.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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