Book of the week
The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money
If Americans ever collectively conclude that their schools have played them for fools, “Bryan Caplan will have a lot to do with it,” said George Leef in Forbes.com. The George Mason University economist has been gathering evidence for a decade to prove that most of the time and money invested in education is wasted, and the fruit of that work is “a book that America has needed for a long time.” The usual arguments for education are swatted down quickly. It imparts valuable knowledge? Caplan argues that people don’t even remember the things they were taught, proven by how poorly they score on basic proficiency tests once they’re out of college. But what about the premium employers pay people with college degrees? Caplan claims that 80 percent of that edge has nothing to with academic content.
“Like most prominent libertarian thinkers,” Caplan is “frequently infuriating,” said Charles Fain Lehman in FreeBeacon.com. “But when he is right, he is very right,” and he makes a nearly indisputable case that the high market value of a college degree mostly derives from attributes that it signals rather than imparts: innate intelligence, diligence, and a capacity to conform. Sure, basic literacy and numeracy are valuable to employers, but because so much of the value is in signaling, students get caught in a credentials arms race, driving up education costs at every level. But as “pressingly urgent” as Caplan’s call for reform is, he offers no clear alternative, only pieces. He spends a whole chapter on the virtues of vocational education, for example. Further, he suggests—“surprise, surprise”—that education be completely privatized.
That’s where Caplan’s argument goes off the rails, said Peter Coy in Bloomberg Businessweek. Much as he’d like to think employers would discount the value of college degrees if they were rarer among the non-wealthy, even he concedes that the education has some value. Reformers would be wiser to focus on seeing that schools teach students more useful lessons, since every student would then accumulate market value with each year of school completed. In Caplan’s “Dickensian” future, America would recognize that only 1 in 20 people truly needs a four-year college education, and the other 19 would receive schooling that efficiently prepares them for different roles in the economy. Most of us wouldn’t be ready to bar 19 of 20 kids of their chance at the best jobs, though. We think of America as a family, and “a family tries to give every child the very best shot at success, even when it is expensive to do so.” ■