Tag Archives: economist

The Case Against Education

Bryan Caplan proves – proves! – that education is (mostly) useless.

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Princeton University Press, 2018

With impeccable scholarship and endless footnotes, Caplan makes the case that education does nothing but signal, for resume purposes, conscientiousness and a willingness to conform.  As he says, “(Jenn’s) degree signals her deference to social expectations; she’s a team player.  When the boss says, ‘Jump,’ she’ll ask, ‘How high?'”

Education is sadistic.  College applicants are not only smart and diligent, but they have proven over and over again in K-12 that they are “willing to tolerate serious boredom.”

If I think back over my school years, college, and a wee bit of grad school, and ponder starting the process all over again from the first day of kindergarten when I accidentally ate my classmate’s carefully foil-wrapped crackers, I want to vomit.  The level of boredom, the interminable line-standing, the achievement-mongering, the smelly bathrooms, warball day after day in gym . . . it is nauseating.

Our whole educational process is shit, and, even worse, bullshit, from beginning until restroom.

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Caplan is a libertarian, and a severe one.  I don’t agree with all that he says.  And even though he proves his point convincingly, I don’t like it.

And besides proving that signaling (to future colleges, then grad schools, then employers)   that you’ll play the All-American bullshit game and conform, and you’ll work HARD at that conforming, and you’ll never have a deep thought (” . . . most humans resent mental effort . . .”), he proves we learn nothing of the actual subject-matter that we study.

“Schools make virtually no one fluent in a foreign language,” he says, and he has the facts to prove it.  Less than 2% of people who take a foreign language are fluent when self-reporting.  Since this is self-reported, it’s probably, egads, high.

So what do we learn when we take Spanish for three years in high school?  We learn that there is a language called Spanish that is spoken by other people in the world.

Figures are even worse for science education.  Americans actually retain nothing from their science classes.  In fact, we have negative science knowledge, as if science drains from our feet and into the soil.

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Now, remember:  Caplan is a utilitarian.  He is an economist and a statistician.  He is purposely provocative.

His bottom line is that we, as a nation, should spend much less on education.  Less.

He convinces me that if we, as a people, learn nothing from dissecting frogs in biology in 7th grade, then the proper and wise approach is not to double down and make students dissect frogs daily until they know frog guts by heart, but to forget frogs.  Teach students vocational skills.  Teach them basic numeracy and literacy – reading and writing.

Forget Spanish and French.  Forget history.  Forget political science and art and music.  Unless you really, really want a life of poverty.

But something seems missing.  Even he mentions the teacher who instilled a love of classical music in his libertarian soul.  Many teachers say that what they do is offer “cookies” to students, and hopefully, one or two a class, will “get it”.

Something magical will click in their brains.  They may not remember how to specifically conjugate a verb or flagellate a frog.  They may not directly use 1492 or 1776 in their job in 2018.  But something of the aura of that knowledge will be of use.  Or something that some teacher taught them in science in 1956 will, oddly, help them appreciate Bach or Mozart.

Caplan disproves this, of course.  He’s an economist.  What would you expect from someone who studied just another absolutely useless subject in school?

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