Reply to Tyler on The Case Against Education
By Bryan Caplan
Response to Tyler’s first post:
I’ll be doing a Conversation with Bryan, but for the time being I’ll
say this: everyone obsesses over the mood-affiliated “I’m going to lower
the status of education signaling argument.” Hardly anyone has
discussed what to me is Bryan’s strangest assumption, namely a
sociologically-rooted, actually anti-economics “conformity is stronger
than you think” argument,
Coordination games have long been standard in economics: If everyone else is driving on the left-hand side of the road, conformity is prudent, regardless of what’s globally optimal. Indeed, branded as “path dependence,” empirical economists have used this approach to study not only technology, but location, language, and much more. Yes, many of the specific tech path-dependence stories have been overblown. But the general insight remains profound: our current system of English spelling is godawful, but who expects a decentralized switch to a sensible phonetic system?
Thus, there’s nothing “anti-economics” about my approach – unless it’s “anti-economics” to take psychology and sociology seriously.
That said, conformity does play a somewhat novel role in my analysis. To be specific, I argue that:
1. Conformity is one of the main traits that employers want.
2. Education signals conformity.
3. Trying to signal conformity in unconventional ways generally signals non-conformity, leading to serious lock-in of existing conformity signals.
Again, how are any of these claims “anti-economics”?
…which Bryan uses to assert the status quo will
continue more or less indefinitely. It won’t. To the extent Bryan is
correct (and that you can debate, but at least he is more correct than
most people in the educational establishment will let on),
competency-based learning and changes in employer behavior will in fact
bring about a new equilibrium…not quickly, but certainly in well under two decades.
And what about on-line education? Well, a lot of students don’t like
it because they have to actually work on their own and pay attention.
To the extent education really is just signaling, that should give
on-line options a brighter future all the more. But not in the
Caplanian world view, as conformity serves once again as an intervening
Fans of online education initially made (fairly reasonable) arguments about how it’s better for human capital creation. Lately, they’ve switched to (pretty unreasonable) arguments about how online education is going to provide great signals too. My story explains why online education won’t dominate despite its obvious advantages for learning. What other explanation is there?
For better or worse, Bryan’s book subverts economics as a
science at least as much as it does education.
Again, no. My book shows the power of economics, though of course economics works best when married to psychology, sociology, and beyond.
Bryan of course is smart
enough to see the trade-offs here, and he knows if the standard model
of economic competition were allowed to reign supreme, we would (even
with subsidies, relative to those subsidies) tend to see strong moves
toward relatively efficient means of signaling, if only through changes
in the relative sizes of institutions.
When government gives the status quo a trillion dollars of subsidies per year, efficiency “relative to those subsidies” is nothing to crow over. And I see little sign that we’re approaching even that low bar. Some small schools are going bankrupt, but that’s just one pro-efficiency force in a deeply dysfunctional system.
Response to Tyler’s second post:
My view is this:
1. Learning at least one language is of high value for America’s
elite. It helps them see different points of view,
Seems like a small payoff for 2-4 years of high school coursework.
and prepares a small
number for careers in the foreign service or in other international
Only slightly, given the low quality of instruction.
It makes intellectuals deeper and improves their
Frankly, it’s not even clear that the correlation is positive. Lots of Ph.D. programs have dropped their foreign language requirements. Should we bring them back?!
2. If we could target foreign language acquisition to this future
elite, I would gladly let the vast majority of the student population
off the hook. One move toward this end would be to use foreign language
“tiebreakers” for those wishing to finish in the top quarter of their
high school class.
An improvement. But we’ve got the standard inefficiency of signaling: If you need a foreign language to be the in the top quarter, far more than 25% of students will study one in the hope of occupying that top quarter.
3. Here is an estimate that knowing a foreign language brings a wage premium of about 2%; I have not read the paper, but I do not wish to overclaim on the causality front. It still is measuring something about quality.
That seems like a pretty low estimate for actually knowing a foreign language. But as I’ve shown, near-zero Americans even claim to have learned to speak a foreign language very well in school.
4. Many European countries teach their citizens English (above all),
French, and German with reasonable success and high returns, especially
for English. So it is possible to succeed with this endeavor within a
public education system.
Yes, it’s much easier to teach students subjects they expect to use one day – and frequently practice outside of school regardless of the curriculum.
6. I do not think opportunity costs during high school are especially high.
This is probably my biggest disagreement with Tyler. If the government required him to study a blatantly useless subject for years, I think he’d consider the opportunity cost very high indeed – even if it just crowded out his leisure time. I say that imposing such requirements on kids is an outrageous form of bullying. If any government did this to adults, who would defend it?
Addendum: Disagreement aside, I am so pleased that
this year the two big exciting economics books so far are by Bryan and
Robin Hanson. Do buy and read both! As for Bryan, maybe some of you
are thinking you just can’t accept his argument about education being so
wasteful. But I’ll say this: Bryan always defends his “absurd” views
much better than you think he is going to be able to.
Thanks! I would add, though, that most of what I say seems like common sense to readers who focus on their first-hand educational experiences instead of ubiquitous pro-education propaganda.