Sunday, September 30, 2018

Review: "The Case against Education"

Bryan Caplan, an economist from George Mason University, has written a book called The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money.

It's quite a title, and quite a thesis, which touches a few nerves for those of us who have spent much of our lives studying and working in the education system.

Summary of the book

Here's my summary of his most important points as I saw them:

1) Degree programs at a university lead to less skill acquisition than what most people think...instead, grades and degrees and attendance at famous schools have mostly a "signaling value."  That is, a person with a diploma, a degree, or high grades is thought of more highly, and is therefore more likely to be given a better job or higher esteem in society, even though their actual skills may be no different from a person lacking such credentials.  If they did have more skills, it may not have been due to the degree, but rather they had more skills in the first place, and that's why they did the degree.  Having a degree could also be an indirect signal of being compliant and obedient, which might be considered attractive by some employers.

2) The social machinery of education therefore causes people to use enormous amounts of time and money for obtaining academic credentials that have mostly "signaling value" but have little use to them or to society otherwise.  Employers assess people based on these educational credentials;  this inflates their value.  Therefore, people who would be otherwise capable employees even without any such credentials must spend years of time, and tens of thousands of dollars, delaying their lives and careers in order to attend classes.

3) It is true that people who are more skilled or apt for some kind of career in the first place, are more likely to obtain these credentials.  But Caplan's point is that these same people would or could have been very similarly capable even if they had not spent years of time and money in the academic system. 

3) He recommends at the very least that education not be publicly funded.

Caplan does have some good data to support his positions, which he shows in his book.

Areas where I agree:

Here are some areas where I do agree with him:

1) I find it tragic to see students who are bored with their education.  Sometimes people have to sit through and struggle through years of classes, competing for grades, trying to complete their degrees, all the while not enjoying the process, not excelling, and not valuing the subject matter.  When the course or the degree is over, the experience is relief.  Sometimes the subject matter of the degree is never looked at again.  The entire experience is aversive or sometimes even traumatic, a repetitive blow to self-esteem with little redeeming value except for the certificate at the end.  People do this because it is considered a social norm and a family expectation to obtain a degree or to go to university. And people do this because employers require more and more academic credentials just to be considered for a job.

2) I agree that trades and technical training programs should be valued more highly.  Such training opportunities could start earlier in life, such as in high school. 

Areas where I disagree:

But here are areas in which I disagree with Caplan:

Caplan points out that people show evidence of having forgotten much of what they learned in university, not long after they finish.  But such tests of memory do not prove an absence of permanent learning.  Almost certainly, in most cases, people would re-learn the material much faster if exposed to it again.   For example, if you took a calculus or Spanish course 5 years ago, but had not used these subjects since then, you would probably score poorly on a test today.  But you would probably be able to re-learn the calculus or Spanish much more quickly than someone who had never taken the course at all.  Knowledge can sometimes go into a sort of "zip file" in the brain, which can't be used immediately, but can be re-awakened if needed. 

Caplan himself shows that while there is a very high amount of signaling vs. skill acquisition in university education, it is not 100% signaling...that is, some true valuable learning has taken place, on average (in some subjects, such as engineering, more than others).  In many areas of life, we have such inefficiency, but that does not negate the importance or value of the activity.  For example, an exercise regime may only lead to a statistically small improvement in health variables, but such a small effect is still positive and desirable.

I find Caplan's comments about certain areas of study, such as within the arts, inappropriate and offensive.   All subjects, all human wisdom, has value...this is part of being human. We should cultivate respect for all forms of knowledge...however I do agree that we need not "force" people to study these things just for the sake of acquiring some signaling item such as a diploma.

Conclusion and personal reflections:

In conclusion, I have always felt that a broad education is valuable for individual lives and for society.

But I believe that educational pursuits should have a stronger focus on joy and meaning, with efforts made to reduce the predominance of signaling effects. 

I agree that we should reduce social or economic penalties for people who do not have formal educational credentials, as long as they can show and develop skill or expertise in other ways.

While I agree that we should value trade schools or other technical programs, I think broad education is important for technical students as well, to allow people to be well-informed and to have a greater esthetic appreciation for the arts, fine arts, and other subjects.  Of course, going to school is not necessary for esthetic appreciation, but school at its best can introduce people to beautiful areas of life that would not be discovered otherwise. 

I would like to see less polarization between arts and sciences programs...I would love to see more overlap.

I think it would be healthy for the activities of students in different faculties, including in the arts, to have immediate relevance and interaction with the community.  It would be interesting, for example, to have more outreach programs.  And maybe the encouragement for students to have their undergraduate essays published, so that all those hours of work writing would not just lead to a product that would be read one time by a professor or grad student, and then never looked at again.

People who are truly bored and struggling through material should at least have broader choices for their educational development, to favour subjects that truly interest them, so that people's youth need not be wasted in a drudgery of unsatisfying and demoralizing work.

My own experience of education through my life has been very positive and meaningful.  There are many esoteric subjects I studied long ago that I may not make much use of, but I consider them to be part of acquiring wisdom, and broad knowledge of the world. In my daily work, a broad education allows me to have better connection with students from many different faculties.

Most of us need some kind of formal structure to motivate us, and maybe some sort of prize at the end, such as a diploma.  Free access to education through the internet is a great thing, but this modality does not have such motivational factors.  I love learning but I am much more likely to get something out of a learning process if there is a more formal structure to it.

In the arts, Caplan seems to suggest that many subjects are wasteful.  Perhaps an example would be the study of Shakespeare.  But I can't help but note the local theatre company which produces Shakespeare plays all summer...all of the performances are packed, with people of all ages!   I think if we were to reduce exposure to literature in schools and universities, we would see a decline in these types of cultural activities, which would be a loss for us all.

But I do think that Shakespeare, if taught in school, should be made engaging, dynamic, and fun,  just like a good theatre production.

I strongly disagree with Caplan's opinion that we should reduce public funding for education.  Reduced funding would penalize those with lower income.  He suggests some kind of meritocratic system as well, which I favour too, but it seems to me that access to a high-quality, enjoyable public education should be a basic privilege granted to all citizens.   I do agree that there could be more educational options though, aside from the conventional, orthodox degree system which has prevailed during this century.

Relevance to mental health:

I bring up this issue in a mental health blog because one of the common environmental factors contributing to unhappiness, anxiety, and depression in young people is frustration with education.  Classes may be boring, excessively difficult, lacking in obvious meaning or purpose, or lacking in application to future life goals.  Classes are also expensive, causing students to be in a compromised financial state for years, relying upon loans or family support, or upon strenuous after-hours jobs.  Grades, if low, can cause demoralization.  Even if grades are high, they can drive a perfectionistic or obsessional quest at the cost of other healthy or enjoyable life activities (ironically, including learning).    Once a degree program is over, many students still have a hard time finding employment, even after a graduate degree.  Sometimes the jobs that are available have only an oblique relationship to the subject matter studied during the degree.

So I think it is good to examine the process of education itself, and to question some of the foundations, as part of helping young people to have good mental health.

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