The case against education (Part 1) — interview with Bryan Caplan | VIEWPOINT


Bryan: If we were to actually get every kid
to graduate from college, you would need a college degree to be a janitor. Nat: Bryan Caplan, welcome to AEI. Bryan: Thanks so much for having me Nat: So your book, “The Case Against Education:
Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money” makes you sort of a popular guy,
maybe with an unpopular argument. How’s the reception so far? Bryan: Well, it’s not that unpopular. So, maybe because the book’s only 20 bucks
on Amazon I’ve been moving a lot of copies, and I’ve been getting some very fair reviews. People criticize me, but at least they criticize
me for what I said, so I’ve got no complaints. Nat: Okay, that’s fair. All right, well, let’s jump right in. So, you start off in the book and you talk
about sort of three things that education communicates to employers, three perspectives. Can you sort of break those down for us? Bryan: Yeah, sure. I say it’s a package of three big traits. So first of all, intelligence, such that your
education shows how smart you are. Secondly I say it also shows how hardworking
you are, because you could be really smart, but if you’re really lazy you’re not gonna
be able to finish high school, much less college. And then last and least obviously, I say it
signals conformity. It shows that you are willing to submit to
social expectations, that you’re willing to be an obedient little sheep, right? Which, of course, our society needs obedient
little sheep a lot of times, because if everyone were a free thinker and free spirit, how would
anything get done? Nat: Hold on a second, you’ve got this all
wrong. So, you know, I learned in graduate school
this human capital theory. Right, human capital theory? We go to more years of schooling, and we get
more benefits. And that, you know, when I go out on a job
market, they’re gonna say, “Yeah, that guy’s got more years of school,” and so that’s why
we go to school? Am I wrong? Bryan: Well, what you’ve said isn’t literally
wrong, but, you know… So, the whole idea of human capital theory
is that education pays because school pours useful skills into you. So you actually learn how to do your job better. Nat: You learn, right. Bryan: And I don’t deny that occurs sometimes. So, literacy and numeracy are very useful
skills, and if you go to school to learn computer programming or something like that, then you
really are emerging as a more skillful person and it makes sense for employers to prefer
you. But I still say there’s a lot of education
where they aren’t teaching you very much, or at least it’s not very relevant to any
job you’d ever do, and yet employers still seem to care. Like, why do employers care if you failed
your foreign language classes even though the people who got A’s don’t speak the language
either? Right? And I say that reason is that when you do
well in school, you are sending a message to employers. You’re saying, “Look, I’m the kind of person
who has the package of brains, diligence, and conformity to go and jump through all
these hoops, so at least don’t throw out my application when I apply for the job.” Nat: Right, so in your book you say, let’s
see, I have it in here, you say, “Signalling,” which is this theory around signalling “has
been kept in the ghetto, and this book’s goal is to first emancipate it from the ghetto.” So why’s it been in the ghetto? Bryan: Right, so there are multiple Nobel
Prize winners that have worked on this idea that part of what or why education pays is
just that you’re impressing employers. You’re getting certified, you’re getting a
stamp on your forehead, you know. There’s one economist Michael Spence, he really
got his Nobel prize entirely for this idea. But the strange thing is that people who look
at the real world, right, so in what we call empirical research, those people who study
actual schools, actual education, the actual labor market, have never been very fond of
this idea. And they treat it, yeah, yeah, sure there
is this idea but we’re just gonna focus on going and measuring the payoffs for education. And it really bugged me, because on the one
hand there’s this explanation that seems to make a lot of sense, but the people looking
at the real world don’t talk about it very much. And I wanted to go and bring theory and reality
together, and that’s really what this book is all about, where I try to say, “Look, there’s
actually a lot of empirical evidence, a lot of evidence in the real world, that signalling
is a big part of what’s going on in education, it’s a big part of the reason why it pays. And actually there’s a lot of facts that you
really just can’t explain without signalling. If you didn’t believe in signalling, the world
would just make no sense at all.” Nat: All right, so we have a human capital
theory which says kids are learning more and that’s why education’s valued. And then we have a signalling theory that
says, you know, we have these sort of credentials basically, it hinges on credentials. And those credentials are signals that folks
who are hiring in the labor market say, “Well, you know, I see that signal so I know this
is quality.” And these aren’t independent, and it seems
like your argument is certainly a step beyond signalling. It’s about empty signals. Is that fair? Bryan: Well, I mean, so, if you convince people
that you’re great by learning a lot of useful skills then human capital and signalling would
be almost the same thing. But one of the big puzzles that I talk about
in the book is, why do we spend so much time learning subjects that almost no one uses
on the job? Almost no one has a job that uses history,
or social science, or art, or music, or foreign language. Right? I mean, just think about all the classes that
you took where you never used them again after the final exam. And yet employers care. If you were to say, “Look, I only did the
classes that I thought were useful, now give me a job,” most employers would not say, “Oh,
good thinking.” Instead they would not even be talking to
you because you application would be in the trash. And signalling can explain what’s going on
here, which is even when you study something useless, something that you absolutely do
not need to know on the job, still the fact that you did it and you jumped through these
hoops shows a lot of good things about you. And especially it shows that you are a conformist
person, that you went and followed the norms of our society. You did what your parents, teachers, and peers
all said everything has to do. Because if you’re an employer do you wanna
hire someone who doesn’t do those things? I’d be nervous. I mean, I have a lot of nonconformist friends. I love them, they’re fun. But if I were hiring people I would be scared
to hire those friends, I’d hire the boring people. Nat: Yeah, I mean it seems like a safer bet
to hire somebody who’s got the credential than doesn’t. But you also make some serious claims about,
you know, there’s just a lot of waste. So paint this picture for us. Where’s all this waste, and about how much
of schooling is wasted? I mean, the subtitle of the book is “…The
Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money.” Bryan: That’s right. Nat: Show me. Bryan: So my preferred number is 80% of the
payoff for education is signalling. And it’s basically just a waste of social
resources. It doesn’t mean it’s a waste for the individual. The individual gets to look good and outshine
the competition. But is it the kind of thing that it makes
sense for taxpayers to encourage? And that’s where I say no. And there’s a lot of different ways that you
can come at this, and I say all of these different ways point in the same basic rough ballpark
of a number. To me probably the most impressive evidence
is, let’s take a look at the amount of education that you need to get a job, not to do a job,
but to get a job, to be considered worthy of employment. Since 1940, the amount of education that you
need to get one and the same job that your dad or grandfather had back then has risen
by about 3 years, almost a full degree. Right? So in 1940, there’d be almost no waiters or
taxi drivers or cashiers with college degrees. It would have been almost unthinkable back
then. Now these are very common jobs for people
with college degrees to have. All right? And you say like, what’s going on? I say what’s going on is that the more education
the workforce has, the more you need to impress employers. Like, when almost nobody has even a high school
degree, then if you have a high school degree, employers say, “Look at this person, this
is management material.” Now no one looks and sees that you’ve finished
high school and says management material. Now you might need to have not only a college
degree, but an MBA. So, you know, this is called credential inflation. It just means that, you know, like, aside
from the fact that jobs have changed…that’s happened too, right? So there are some more intellectually demanding
jobs, but that only explains a small part of what’s going on. Most of what’s gone on in the economy is that
you now need a lot more education in order to be considered worthy of the very same jobs
that people used to have in the past. Nat: Right. So I hear a lot of folks saying, you know,
“We have this new economy. It’s a new economy. It’s the future of economy, so kids are gonna
need more and better education, and newer education.” Wrong? Right? Bryan: Well, it’d be nice if they were being
trained for the new economy, but I don’t see signs that schools are doing much of that
at all. So again, the education system is normally
extremely backwards-looking. Teachers basically teach you the same things
that they were taught when they were students. Their teachers did the same thing to them. If you look at the curriculum, the curriculum
has barely changed over time. There’s a little bit more time for computer
science, although, you know, like, as far as I’ve heard only Washington State lets students
do a computer language instead of a foreign language, all right? So, you know, there’s almost no adaptation
to what the modern economy is, or is going to be. Before, you know, you say, like, “Wow, like,
how can we even get by with this education system?” I say the answer is that almost all of the
actually useful job training happens on the job. The main thing that you do with your education
is not actually get ready to do a job. The main thing you do is convince employers
that they could train you in the actual job that they want you to do. Right? And you know, of course you do learn some
useful things in school, and there are some majors that are more vocational. So like, nursing, or medical school, or engineers,
or computer scientists, but it’s always important to remember that these are exceptions and
that most students are doing majors in fields where there’s almost no jobs at all. And then you’re like, well, then where do
they get jobs? They get jobs in something outside of their
fields. So, like, you know, every year we graduate
more new psychology BAs than there are jobs in psychology. Every year we graduate more communications
BAs than there are jobs in the entire entertainment industry. So it’s not like people in psychology and
communications never get jobs. They just get a job where the employer says,
“I want someone with a college degree in something or other,” right? And the reason why the economy works is that
when you finally get that job, then the employer says, “Huh, well, did you learn how to do
videography while doing psychology? No? Well, that’s unfortunate, but none of your
competitors know that either. Now let’s go into it.” Or maybe you did an internship where you did,
and then like, fine, you have an internship, that’s useful actually. Nat: So, let me ask you this, does this system
work for employers, and does it work well? I mean, if I’m on the hiring side, you know,
the demand side of the labor market, is it working? Bryan: Well, here’s the main thing. There’s about a trillion dollars of government
money in favor of the status quo every single year. So I wouldn’t say the current system is passing
the market test by any stretch of the imagination. It’s propped up by enormous subsidies, and
if government spent a lot less, there might be very different systems of figuring out
who’s good for jobs, who’s bad for jobs. There’d probably be a lot more apprenticeships,
there’d probably be a lot of other kinds of certification. But at the same time, I don’t see any sign
that employers are really looking around very hard for something else. You know, there are stories where people say,
“Well, employers wanna do other things but it’s illegal.” I did look into this idea in the book. Like for example, a lot of people say, “Employers
would do IQ testing for hiring if it were only legal, but since that’s illegal they
do college instead.” So here’s the striking thing, when I actually,
you know, did research on this, found out that IQ testing is like 98% legal, 2% illegal,
98% legal, and the amount of actual punishment that you’re likely to receive in the legal
system for doing IQ testing for hiring is peanuts compared to the cost savings. So I have to say that I don’t think that employers
are eager to switch to something else. And you know, my story for this is that if
you were to go and say we’re hiring people that dropped out of high school but they have
high IQs, I think you would get a certain kind of really smart person, namely lazy,
non-conformist, defiant smart people who are… Again, I love them. A lot of these are my favorite people in the
world, but I don’t wanna hire them. Nat: Yeah, you don’t wanna depend on them. Bryan: Yeah, I don’t wanna depend on them. I want, you know… Well, I can depend upon them to be ready to
go to a concert on a moment’s notice. Say, “Hey, buddy. Hey, smart, lazy friend, do you wanna go to
a concert? Free tickets.” “Like, dude, I’m up for that.” So yeah, so those, you know, like… Nat: Depending on them to get your taxes done
by April 15th is a different question. Bryan: Exactly. Then, I want the boring person. Nat: Sure, I understand. So let me ask you a question. It’s you’re a little bit all over the map
here on which level of education you’re talking about. It sounds like you’re talking about higher
education. And I know that a lot of people would say,
“Yeah, higher ed wastes a ton of money.” So, but, you know, where does it stop? I mean, high school certainly is always a
good investment, right? Bryan: Well, for the individual, then generally
it pays very nicely. But you know, for society, I don’t think so. So again, think about all of the time that
you wasted in high school, all the useless requirements, things that you had to do in
order to graduate that you’re never going to use again. I mean, it’s just very striking if you make
an inventory of all the time that you spent in high school studying subjects that you
will never use after the final exam… You know, like, massive foreign language requirement,
two or three years, and yet almost no one in America learns to speak a foreign language
very well in school, all right? So you know, just like history, civics, art,
music, these are required classes to an insane extent, and yet if you don’t jump through
these hoops, then you’re not going to be allowed to advance, you’re not gonna be allowed to
get into college, and you’re cutting off a lot of opportunities for yourself. So you know, like, one of the other things
that I say in the book is it’d be much better if kids, especially kids who just don’t like
school…there are a lot kids like that. There are a lot of kids who are miserable,
bored out of their minds. You know, if kids like this could instead
go and do vocational education, or they could do apprenticeships and be prepared for an
actual job… You know, it’s very striking that there are
countries like Germany and Switzerland where kids who just don’t like school, never have,
when they’re 13 or 14 or 15, they can go and do vocational education. Nat: But there’s… Bryan: Yes? Nat: But we’ve got this educational credential
arms race. And with that background, right, for these
kids, it’s not a rational decision for them, right? I mean, the rational decision for them would
be, look, if you drop out of high school, things are not gonna go very well, am I wrong? Bryan: So, if you drop out of high school
and do nothing, then you’re totally right. If you quit high school and learn to be a
plumber, especially if you’re the kind of person who probably was gonna quit high school
anyway eventually, then I think there’s actually very good evidence that the vocational track
is a good idea for you. So the main idea in my book is just that taxpayers
are wasting a lot of money encouraging this rat race. But I do also have this side idea that even
in high school, there are a lot of kids, maybe even a third of kids or half of kids, who
would actually be even personally better off if parents would just listen to them, and
teachers listen to them, and say, “Look, you don’t wanna do college. College is not the kind of thing that in any
way inspires you. How about we go and teach you something else?” And especially, you know, like, you have people
say, “Well, so you get tagged as a plumber at 13?” I say, “How about this? How about when you’re 13, if you don’t like
school, we introduce you to 20 different occupations, 2 weeks as a plumber, 2 weeks as an electrician? Just try a bunch of things. Is there anything you like and are good at
at all?” right? And I think there’s a lot of 13-year-olds
who would jump at that chance because, you know, like, they’ve spent years of their life
just being told, like, you’re a C or a D student, you’re not good at this stuff, you shape up. Nat: Yeah, interesting. So we’ve had actually the absolute polar opposite
of that as far as sort of the dominant K-12 theme over the past decade. Bryan: College for all. Nat: College for all, right. And we should design our education system
to get everybody to graduate high school and everybody to go to college. Bryan: It sounds great. Nat: How does this play? I mean, how does this play out? How do you see this playing out? If we were to succeed in that, what would
we have? Bryan: If we were actually to get every kid
to graduate from college, you would need a college degree to be a janitor. You would need a college degree to be a waiter. And it would no longer be in any way impressive
to employers, and so employers would then say you need to have a master’s degree, or
a PhD or a professional degree to be worthy of even being our intern, right? So, I mean, you know, like, in a world where
everyone has a college degree, then garbage men have college degrees, then, you know,
janitors have college degrees, this is a crazy system. You know, it’s never going to happen and we’re
not even…we’re nowhere close to it. Just because even though we… About 70% of graduating seniors go on to college,
but the actual rate of completion is much lower. Nat: Yeah, right. Absolutely, I mean, you know, even two-year
college we’re having two-thirds of our kids not making it through. You know, and there certainly is a lot of
ways… Let me ask…let me push back on a couple
of things. Bryan: Sure thing. Nat: So when I was in graduate school, I learned
hierarchical linear modeling. I’m just gonna use it as an example because
I TA’d it for several years, I taught it as an assistant. And, man, you know, I really knew every different
way to run it. Today, I need to go back to my textbooks and
sort of review some of my notes and sort of brush up on that. But in the book you use lots of examples that
are sort of akin to that. Now I’d say, well, I would not be able to
go back and do HLM today without some review, but I can go back and do it. So in the book you use examples like, well,
a lot of kids could never pass an algebra test now. And my question is… Bryan: Or adults, yeah. Nat: Or, yeah, adults. The test they could have passed when they
were kids. So my question is, isn’t there some value
there that isn’t being captured when you say, well, we’ve lost the discrete skills we had
in tenth grade? Bryan: There’s a small amount of value. So it’s definitely true, any educational psychologist
will tell you it’s easier to re-learn than to learn the first time around. But so much of what people forget is stuff
they never use. It never comes up in adult life, and that’s
why they forget it, actually. If you were…if you periodically brush up
and refresh your memory, then at least you retain the basics. And yes, it remains useful, but stuff I’m
talking about is really stuff that, really, adults virtually never use. But what’s striking to me is that out of adults
who actually went on to calculus as high school students, only about 20% even use algebra
on the job right now. So, you know, it’s not like that we’re training
people something so that they can re-learn it at each point where it becomes appropriate. Most of it is just stuff that you will never
encounter again after the final exam. That’s why we forget it so readily is that
we have no additional practice because what was taught was not really well-thought-out
preparation for adult life. Nat: So getting even past sort of the discrete
skills that you can re-learn, how about things that can’t even be sort of communicated in
the skills? For instance, you know, some people will say,
well, you know, part of getting through high school is just learning how to negotiate the
system. And part of the problem with kids who drop
out is they’re never gonna learn to negotiate the kinds of systems that are gonna give them
success of any kind in the labor market. So without, you know… If we roll back the education system substantially,
are we prohibiting kids, are we making it very hard for kids to learn how to negotiate
those systems? Bryan: Right, so, this is a classic compared-to-what
question. If it’s either school or play video games
home alone in your basement, then school is a great socializer and I’ll say nothing against
it. However, is that really the relevant alternative? In all other human societies, and earlier
in the U.S. history, the alternative to school wasn’t sitting home alone, the alternative
was work. And work also teaches people to negotiate
systems, and you know, it teaches social skills, it teaches you how to get along with other
people. But it also teaches a bunch of social skills
that aren’t really being taught very well in schools today, like accepting criticism. Right? In modern schools they’re so touchy-feely
and they’re so positive that kids often are not told, “By the way, you screwed up, you
are not… You know, your work is inadequate and you
need to improve, sorry.” Right? On the job you still get that kind of thing
right now, you know. So on the job you learn the idea of, you have
to make the customer happy, right? And life is not equal or fair. These are lessons that are taught on every
job. School, on the other hand, you really are
preparing them for this strange world that no adult experiences of equality and fairness. So, you know, better to go and prepare kids
for the world they’re actually gonna be facing. You know, of course, don’t go and give them
immediate shock therapy where you give them a boss who screams at them on the first day,
but just to move them gradually to a realistic environment where people don’t love you, right? You know, so like, teachers at least pretend
to love the students. I mean, even at the high school level, like,
they’re so nice. But in terms of preparing people for adult
life, people aren’t gonna be that nice afterwards, so you better get used to it. Nat: Hey everyone. Thanks for watching part one of our discussion
with Bryan Caplan. Part two picks up right where we left off
here, so click the link to see the next part of the series.

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