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More Books on American Universities

reviewed by T. Nelson

book review

The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money
Bryan Caplan
Princeton, 2018, 395 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

An old TV commercial from CLEP, a place that gives college credit for subjects learned outside the classroom, showed Abe Lincoln failing a job interview. The employer says: “Look, Lincoln, I know you're a smart guy, you know you're a smart guy; but you ain't goin' nowhere without that sheepskin, fella.”

Bryan Caplan says that the economic value of a college degree is mostly from ‘signaling.’ Its main purpose is not to increase human capital, as some claim, but to tell an employer that the student is intelligent, conscien­tious and conformist. Caplan guesses the ratio is 80% signaling to 20% skill acquisition. That 80% is “an incinerator that burns society's money, time, and brains in a futile attempt to make everyone look special.” He acknowledges that, of course, some students do, on occasion, learn useful skills. But our educational system is broken because its credentialing function far outweighs its skill-imparting function. This, he says, is the pathway to national stagnation.

These days a diploma is more like a certificate of release from a mental institution.

Alternatives such as online education will never pose a chal­lenge to the uni­vers­ity system, says Caplan, because they impart only learned skills, not credentials.

Caplan's second point is that the signaling (credentialing) function of schools and universities benefits some individuals and harms others in equal measure. Therefore it is benefit-neutral toward society in general. Since it doesn't benefit society, government should not be subsidizing it. He recommends cutting education spending: a “separation of education and state.”

His third point is that, by a strict economic calculation, taking into account lifetime income and overall happiness, college is not cost-effective for most students. His arguments are valuable for potential students to consider.


Few people would be more receptive to the idea of defunding the universities than I am. I was in school for twenty years and hated every second of it. Remember that one kid sitting in the back reading Being and Nothingness in analysis class? That was me. So I agree, but his argument misses the point here: a degree doesn't just signal character traits; it's documentation that you have specific knowledge, or at least a possible awareness, however dim, that such knowledge exists; or, at a minimum, a receptiveness to the idea that there is such a thing as knowledge.

Bryan Caplan says you can attend Princeton for free and get the same education as someone who paid tuition, but nobody would hire you. This is true, but why? The reason is that without proof, and without documented exam results, you could simply lie, and they'd have to spend thousands of dollars testing you. They might get a thousand applicants; if they tested all of them, it would cost a million bucks, and eat up the entire salary of the winner for the next 20–30 years. From an economic perspective, it's better to make the applicant pay for it: it's cheaper to do it once for each applicant than repeatedly for each job opening.

I'm also not so sure that conformity is desirable for employers. What employer would want someone from an institution in which students are deprived of physical exercise, and then forced to take drugs when they become restless? I suppose it depends on the type of job. Conformity and unimaginativeness may be valuable for bureaucratic jobs, but these days a diploma is more like a certificate of release from a mental institution.

The problem is that we have few alternatives. Home schooling is viable only for the small and decreasing number of students who have a healthy family environment. Caplan suggests apprentice­ships as an alternative to trade schools. The challenge is certifying their quality, which is a roundabout way of saying that credentials still matter.

Why is credentialing a problem?

Caplan makes a sound economic argument, but from an employer's point of view, the problem with credent­ialing is that it's inaccurate. I once interviewed a candidate for a research assistant job. He had an M.D. degree. He dressed well and spoke intelligently. He even showed up for the interview on time. I was shocked! But when I showed him around the lab, it was clear he couldn't do the job. He didn't know what a pressure regulator was for. He didn't know how to make a ten millimolar solution. He had no idea what a cuvette or a stirring bar was. The credentialing system had utterly failed.

These are elementary lab skills. Yes, he could have learned on the job. But people underestimate how long that takes, and how dangerous an employee can be in the meantime. If I had turned that guy loose in the lab, his first six months would have been spent screwing up and asking dumb questions. Why should I have used nitrogen instead of CO2? Why did this acid spray all over me when I added water to it? Where did that wall go, and what are all these weird orangey flamey things shooting up everywhere?

The Teach a Man To Fish principle

Even patently useless majors can help us by keeping mediocre students out of classes where they'd pull the level of teaching down. The existence of useless departments is proof that a university degree doesn't guarantee meaningful skills. Their expansion in recent years has degraded the value of a college diploma.

Students can learn things just by being there. If you teach them how to construct mathe­matical proofs, they learn that new knowledge can be obtained using logic. That's priceless, even if they never become mathema­ticians. Knowing where the expression “For everything there is a season” came from might not help them in their job, but it protects them from thinking that Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is high culture or that the quote was invented by some hippie rock singer. We gotta live with these people, so edumacation, even in useless majors like the humanities and economics, helps everybody, even if we can't measure it homo economicus-ulistically.

I call this the Teach a Man To Fish Law of Knowledge: Teach a kid matrix algebra and they will soon forget it. Teach them something that requires knowledge of matrix algebra, and they will soon forget that too, but they'll remember the matrix algebra for life. That's because it becomes procedural knowledge. The same goes for other subjects.

It can be proved that this is equivalent to the Peter Principle. It's why conventional teaching doesn't stick: if you teach only declarative knowledge, the brain just erases it. Millions of years of evolution have taught the human brain to be ruthless with that kind of stuff. If my thirty years of studying the biology of memory has taught me one thing, it is this: Educators are failing because they aren't taking into consideration how the brain works.

So there are actually two problems here: (1) schools provide credentials that are costly and inaccurate; (2) educators are ignoring our knowledge about learning and memory; and (3) the things learned in college are, as Caplan says, mostly irrelevant to their job. Three. Three problems.

A better solution

One alternative, it seems to me, is to take the credentialing function away from the schools altogether. Mechanisms are already in place: the standardized exams. At the moment, they only provide numerical scores. If these could be expanded and granularized, they could create an accurate profile about what skills the student actually has.

As a sometime employer, I'd love this. I don't care what college they went to. I worked at one and I got my degree at one, and I know how useless they are. I stepped over enough puddles of vomit when I was there to last a lifetime. I want to know if the candidate can make accurate measurements, do basic math and statistics, and learn new skills. If they can avoid getting themselves killed in the lab, that's a ‘plus’, as employers say. If I could get a credible, non-judgmental report documenting what they know and what they need to be taught, it would be worth its weight in gold. As for their college skills, I can assume they already know how to get drunk and chase girls (or guys, or whatever).

Things are trending in this direction already. For all but their first job, the degree-granting institution is far overshadowed by the employment record, their list of things they managed not to break at their previous job (i.e. their ‘skills’), and a couple of references (i.e., proof that there's at least one person who doesn't hate him).

The advantages would be enormous. It would put self-study students, online education schools, specialized education institutes which offer intensive training on a single subject, and colleges on an equal footing. Employers would gain a detailed inventory of the candidate's skills, instead of depending on diplomas from overpriced schools with their vastly inflated, and largely undeserved, rankings of prestige.

Trade schools survive because they fill a void in the market. Online and specialized learning institutes compete against colleges, so they will only succeed if they can maintain a reputation of being more rigorous than colleges. If they're “almost as good” they will fail. They won't displace colleges overnight, or even in ten years, but it will happen. Best of all, if they become profitable, the universities will have to adapt in order to survive.

oct 28 2018. last edited nov 07 2018


Excellent Sheep:
The Miseducation of the American Elite & the Way To a Meaningful Life

by William Deresiewicz
Free Press 2014, 245 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

Poor kids. They have to get perfect GPAs. They have to take six AP courses and excel at 8–10 extracurricular activities. Their parents, in their endless quest for social status and wealth, pressure them to excel in order to get into an ivy league college. They have to write an outstanding essay and submit letters of recommendation—but not too many, lest they seem over-anxious. “What else can such a circumstance produce,” writes Deresiewicz, “if not the full demonology of psychological suffering?”

Deresiewicz uses the religious idea of a soul as a metaphor for what college should be:

[Y]ou should approach ideas as instruments of salvation, driven by a need to work things through for yourself, so that you won't be damned to go through life at second hand, thinking other people's thoughts and dreaming other people's dreams. [p.86]

His definition of ‘soul’ is similar to mine: the capacity for independent-mindedness or moral autonomy. “You need courage . . . to act on your imagination in the face of what your family and friends are going to say to try to stop you. Because they're not going to like it” [p.91]. I know many who went to elite colleges who have this, and some who don't. And that's true of humanity in general. College can't manufacture a soul for you.

That this book is meant to be an indictment of the educational system is actually a testament to the power, the advantages, and it must be said, the drawbacks of meritocracy. But I read it in utter disbelief that any parent would do all these things for their kids. Or maybe I'm just really lucky mine merely tortured me instead.

Deresiewicz also says that employers prefer to hire humanities majors because they know how to think. In my experience, many employers prefer mindless drones. Nonethe­less, this book is full of thoughtful advice from an articulate English professor.

apr 16, 2018

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