Tuesday, June 11, 2024

The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money

I have been reading this book by Bryan Caplan, mainly because I agree with its title, but I was barely able to convince myself to finish it, because I found the contents boring. Caplan is an economist and a professor at George Mason University, near Washington, D.C., and he seems to be a budding policy wonk. As I often say, American academics tend to write poorly, and economists are among the worst. This book is stuffed with charts and data that I don't think are necessary to make his main point, which is very simple: higher education, as it is presently structured, is a waste of money. That is something I've been thinking about for many years, and I've already mentioned it on this blog a few times. 

I sort of fit the data that Caplan brings up. I went to college after high school, because that was what you were supposed to do. No one actually encouraged me to go, and I had a good time and studied whatever I liked for four years. After a brief stint in graduate school, I decided that I would never be a philosophy professor, and I delivered pizzas for a few months. My mother-in-law then sent me the catalog of a local vocational college, and I looked through it. Becoming an electrician, welder or printer seemed attractive, and I gravitated toward printing, since it is associated with books and knowledge. I also have some mechanical abilities and thought that running a printing press might be fun. I started the program in the autumn of 1976 and finished in December, 1977, graduating at the top of my class. I immediately got a job in January, 1978 as the supervisor in a small print shop at Indiana State University. I continued working in the printing industry in Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois until I retired in September, 2007.

Caplan's main point is that what is studied in four-year college programs isn't practical, because it only produces a few vocational skills that provide about twenty percent of its value. However, a four-year degree has a "signaling" value that he thinks accounts for about eighty percent of its value. The signaling says that you are probably a more competent and reliable person than someone with a lesser education, and employers accept this.  I agree that this is an inefficient process, and that it would be more effective to use college funding differently. In other respects, Caplan seems primarily to be a simple-minded libertarian who opposes governmental waste. He does not make specific recommendations regarding how current educational spending should be reallocated. Implicitly, he sounds a lot like a Reaganite who wants to put an end to "big government."

Returning to my own story, I did feel that my educational process was unnecessarily haphazard. There was no orderly procedure at any point regarding what I ought to consider doing. I was not unusual, because, as Caplan points out, very few undergraduate majors are directly linked to careers. Of the four undergraduate philosophy majors I knew, two became lawyers, one became an architect and one worked mainly in fast food. A specific problem that I had was that I was always better-educated than my peers and often better-educated than my boss. This occasionally led to work tensions. It didn't help that I got a part-time M.B.A. from a highly-rated program. However, on a personal level, the M.B.A. was beneficial to me because it was the first time that I had ever thought about the capitalist structure of American society, and I began to plan the remainder of my career and retirement when I was thirty-six.

In other respects, as an intellectual work, based on my extended readings, I think that Caplan's book is a complete failure. He is aware that some people have genetic advantages with respect to their academic success, but he never explores this fact. Also, though he seems to be aware of behavioral economics, his thinking in this book more closely resembles the obsolete "rational agent" model of economics. More significantly, he is myopic about the future of work. A lot of social turmoil is emerging now, I think, due to automation. This is a problem that isn't going to go away, and I think that the solution will eventually have to be basic income – probably another waste of money as far as many libertarians are concerned. Although Thomas Piketty's book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, seems to have been forgotten after the initial fanfare, the only realistic solution is probably going to be a reversal of the wealth distribution that he critiqued. Currently, several billionaires are rallying around Donald Trump because they like things the way they are. 

On a more subjective level, I reject Caplan's approach because I don't really identify with capitalism. Having been steeped for years in the works of E.O. Wilson, Frans de Waal and Robert Sapolsky, I'm coming out as a hunter-gatherer. Typically, hunter-gatherers had no formal educations and were never paid wages. Furthermore, I think that all of the useless books that I've read over the years have enriched me personally, and my aesthetic sense is more important to me than my bank account. So far, I've only worked for about forty-three percent of my life, and I'm hoping to get that down to thirty-three. Twenty-two years to go!

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