Caplan’s ‘case against education’ (& 2)

Photo: Vasily Koloda / Unsplash

In a recent entry, I provided a summary of Brian Caplan’s views (in his book The Case against Education) about the main evils of our contemporary education system. In a nutshell, the main problem is, in the first place, that most of what is taught in schools and colleges is basically not learnt, or only very shallowly, by most of the students, and most of what is learnt is actually not used at all in the jobs for which those students will later apply; in the second place, everybody knowing that entails that, except in a few more technical jobs, employers use the students’ degrees not as information about the knowledge these have, but only about the applicants’ personal qualities (like general intelligence, perseverance, and, not least important, conformity, i.e., acceptance of authority). Hence, education and CVs would be, in most cases from the high school to the university, more a signal about the personality and cognitive abilities of the candidates to a job, than something that creates more productive workers. Of course, being highly educated is profitable from the point of view of the individual, who will be able of competing advantageously with other individuals with worse ‘signals’, but is, says Caplan, basically a social waste for the point of view of the society as a whole, because everybody would get more or less the same jobs, would produce more or less the same, and would earn more or less the same income, if everybody had studied less. The “logic” behind the competition for getting higher and higher degrees is what game theorists call an ‘arms race’, an enormous pointless social investment only made in order to get in line with others.

Having characterised education in such a way, it is not strange that Caplan’s main recommendation reduces to just stop spending in education, or reduce spending in a significant amount, farther than the most elementary school (learning to read, write, some math, etc.), and the most technical learning (i.e., those studies, university or other, that actually prepare for jobs that could not be done with just training at-the-post, like medicine, architecture, engineering, etc.). Since, in the advanced countries, most education spending comes from public subsidies (even in the US, except in the few most elitist universities, in most of the others the cost of tuition is also heavily subsidized, especially by the States), and since private spending is more difficult to control, what Caplan proposes is just to cut public funding to education, or better still, the ‘separation of school and state’. Obviously, this has an old acquaintance in political theory:

Advocates of separation of school and state often compare their position to separation of church and state. The comparison is strange yet reasonable. State-supported religion has a terrible track record. You could respond by limiting government to a “small” religious role. But “small” is fuzzy, hence open to abuse. The wiser course is to cut the cord between government and religion once and for all. Opposing any government religious policy may sound dogmatic in theory but works well in practice.

But, but, but…, you might ask, what happens to the sacred political goals of social justice and equality of opportunities? If money from taxes is diverted from schools (mostly, high schools) and universities, wouldn’t the benefits of these institutions, even if they are as small as Caplan suggests, go only to the wealthy? What about the children of poor families that now can go to elite universities thanks to grants, for example? Caplan’s not very convincing answer is that we have to ponder the benefits that the poor obtains from public education with the heavy cost of many years spent in useless attendance to the classroom because of the education ‘arms race’, and with the fact that, given these ‘arms race’, the wealthy, no matter how much public money we put to pay teachers, would have nevertheless plenty of opportunities to outcompete the poor, from extra classes to elite universities, from having more books and wiser talks at home to benefiting from better social contacts thanks to their families.

I am not very convinced of Caplan’s argument against public spending, mostly because all his arguments are grounded on the private functioning of education: it is private firms who use education signals in order to hire workers, and it is private citizens who decide to study more or less. In a relatively wealthy country, even if we decided that all but primary education were privately funded, nothing prevents that the ‘arms race’ denounced by Caplan would emerge again, but paid exclusively with the families’ money or other private funds (charities, company benefits, etc.). Why wouldn’t people decide to spend in education the money saved on taxes? Caplan asserts that with that money (either taxed or not taxed) many wonderful and useful things could be done instead of years upon years of hearing boring classes, but I suspect that this is just wishful thinking.

And, what to do instead of studying? First, Caplan suggests that in primary school, much more time should be given to just playing, which probably is much better for children’s development than analysing historical texts; in the same way, the syllabus should change in primary and secondary schools, for including subjects more interesting to the students. Second, people should start having a job much earlier than now (even while they are children, if guarantees are taking that it is not exploitative, and serves a real education goal –learning job skills, as well as promoting the “intelligence, perseverance, and conformity” that employers now look for in using the formal education signals). Third, a full system of vocational education, like the German one Caplan admits admiring, should be developed (“lessons with extrinsic interest do not require to have an intrinsic interest”).

I am not against any of these three ideas, but I think that they would be compatible with having an efficient and universal system of public education, and even that they could be more easily attainable in such a system than if purely left to the private initiative.

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