Leftist Lessons of The Case Against Education
Overall, reactions to The Case Against Education have been civil and fair. While I’ve been heavily criticized, I’ve been criticized for what I actually said and believe. My main disappointment: While the quality of the left-wing critiques has been fine, the quantity is modest. Yes, I had a great conversation with Sean Illig at Vox, and Steve Pearlstein has a nice write-up in the Washington Post. And don’t forget my animated podcast with center-left Michael Baranowski on The Politics Guys. But I’d still say my un-left podcasts outnumber the left podcasts by 10:1. – and at least so far, no left-leaning think tank has invited me to speak.
This strikes me as particularly unfortunate because there are many results in The Case Against Education that leftists should appreciate. Starting with…
1. Lots of workers – especially less-educated workers – are paid less than they’re worth. If signaling is important, there are bound to be numerous “diamonds in the rough” – good workers who are underpaid because they lack the right credentials to convince employers of their quality.
2. Lots of workers – especially more-educated workers – are paid more than they’re worth. Again, if signaling is important, there are bound to be lots of bad workers who are overpaid because they obtained misleadingly strong credentials.
3. A lot of education is meaningless hoop-jumping. Campus radicals have long accused the education system of imposing an irrelevant, backward-looking, elitist curriculum on hapless kids. I say they’re right.
4. The education market is inefficient. In signaling models, education has negative externalities. My story therefore implies a serious market failure, where self-interest leads students to pursue more education than socially optimal.
5. Locked-in Syndrome. Due to conformity signaling, the market for education isn’t just inefficient; it’s durably inefficient. The education market doesn’t just fail; it durably fails.
6. The government’s “ban” on IQ testing is grossly exaggerated, and does next to nothing to explain employers’ reliance on credentials. While the Griggs case nominally imposes near-insurmountable hurdles on IQ employment testing (as well as virtually every hiring method), it is cursorily enforced. Lots of U.S. employers admit they use IQ testing, and the expected legal costs of doing so are tiny.
7. Credential inflation is rampant. Technological change explains only a small fraction of the evolution of the modern labor market. The popular perception that workers need far more education to get the same jobs their parents and grandparents had is deeply true.
8. Working your way up takes ages. While there’s good evidence that worker ability raises pay, the process takes many years. If you’re smart but uncredentialed, even a decade of work experience isn’t enough to fully catch up.
9. In many ways, the labor market used to be better for people from poor and working-class families. Sure, average living standards are much higher today than in 1950. But in 1950, there was far less stigma against high school dropouts, and very little stigma against workers who didn’t go to college. Moderns who look at college graduates from poor families and see “social justice” are neglecting the troubles of the massively larger number of kids from poor families who never get college degrees.
10. Forcing middle-class aspirations on everyone causes misery and failure for poor and working-class kids. Lots of kids loathe school. They’re bored out of their minds, and humiliated by teachers’ endless negative feedback. Such kids disproportionately come from poor and working-class families. But since the middle- and upper-classes control the curriculum, they’ve stubbornly moved to a “college-for-all” approach to school – and turned vocational education into an afterthought. The result: Most poor and working-class kids endure thousands of sad hours, then leave school unprepared for either jobs or college.
I don’t deny, of course, that The Case Against Education has plenty of right-wing lessons, too. Scoff if you must, but I try to just follow the arguments and evidence wherever they lead. My point is that there is plenty between the covers of my latest book that the left should appreciate. To all my left-wing friends, I say in all sincerity that I’d be delighted to discuss all this in depth!
Apr 2 2018 at 1:56pm
Dr. Caplan writes,
Well, I for one did give your book a thorough reading (how many others who have responded to various blog posts over the last month or so can say the same?). I don’t classify myself as ‘left-wing’ (whatever that means these days) and since we have never met, I’m not sure that I can be classified as your friend. I sent you a lengthy set of comments on the book and areas that I think you got things wrong including some of the points you raise in this post(I’m happy to post a link to my comments if other respondents to this post are interested).
Steven Peralstein’s critique of the book in the WaPo was pretty much spot on and depending on one’s confirmation bias, not necessarily a glowing one. It’s nice to pontificate from the cloistered tower of academe but those of us who spent the majority of our career in the private sector and interviewed, hired, did annual reviews of employees, and made salary and bonus decisions have a different view from yours. This view is nether left or right, just based on real world experience.
Apr 2 2018 at 1:59pm
Everything you say is true, and yet you cut down one of the greatest left wing hopes: that education will bring up those on the bottom of society and equalize society. For the leftist, the rest is small potatoes.
Apr 2 2018 at 2:00pm
You might want to consider doing a talk with Freddie de Boer on these issues.
Apr 2 2018 at 2:03pm
I suspect the center-left policy wonk types are not to interested in talking about it because it is pitched at too extreme a reform. Sort of like “open borders” when the political discussion is about a few million more or a few million fewer immigrants.
Also I think that Liberals already think that many workers are paid less and more than they are worth, (especially more). And, sure, anything that makes pay better reflect “worth” is good (for efficiency), it’s not clear that would make much difference to judgement of “fairness” at the scale of who should pay for and who should receive transfer payments.
Apr 2 2018 at 2:22pm
@Alan: please post the link.
“2. Lots of workers – especially more-educated workers – are paid more than they’re worth. Again, if signaling is important, there are bound to be lots of bad workers who are overpaid because they obtained misleadingly strong credentials.” If education is mostly signalling, then for this to be true, education would have to be a really noisy signal (perhaps noisy enough for employers to disregard the signal?).
Apr 2 2018 at 3:32pm
Is it possible that Bryan’s disappointment may stem from a misplaced assumption that his hoped-for critics are more rational than the voters he’s written about?
A simple Hansonian story may play a role: the left worships education and therefore wishes to raise its status while tuning out arguments that wish to destroy this temple (even if the destroyers aim to rebuild it in an improved form that the left should, rationally, prefer in some ways).
Why crickets, though, instead of attacking the heretic that’s attacking the temple? That’s a good question. Maybe Bryan’s not important enough to attack, thus they push “ignore”? (If Bryan was viewed as a friend of Trump, they’d repeatedly and frantically push “attack”?)
Apr 2 2018 at 3:46pm
Maybe it’s a topic better suited for another whole book, but from my quick content search and skim of the table of contents it seems like the book does not address the glaring scam of big-time prep school and college football and basketball.
I remain amazed at how the Left has ignored this egregious exploitation of heavily (football) and overwhelmingly (basketball) black men by academic institutions. These teens and young men exert enormous effort, work extremely hard, for no pay whatsoever, merely room and board, reminiscent directly of slavery.
The supposed other benefits – an education and a chance for an enormous payday in the top ranks of professional sports – are mere a tantalizing cruel joke for the vast majority. Only a tiny percentage even get a rookie-minimum salary for one year in the NBA/NFL. Those who are awarded degrees get them as part of grossly cynical Potemkin programs, with courses, materials, exams, etc. whose sham nature are universally known and thus taint and discredit the entire school. The vast majority do not even get that much.
Some die in the pursuit of these will-o-wisps; many are injured, often seriously, sometimes for life.
For whose benefit? For the enrichment of an overwhelmingly white and wealthy elite – the stockholders of the TV stations and the corporate sponsors; the lavishly paid coaches, athletic directors, and university presidents. For the social status and entertainment of another overwhelmingly white elite – the boosters.
It would probably not take much to smash this gross fraud and exploitation. The federal government could refuse to provide any funding of any kind, including research grants, to any university that awards scholarships to any athlete, perhaps even basketball and football specifically, who would not qualify for such scholarship on the basis of academic criteria alone.
Yes, this would cause an uproar over the lack of similarly targeting legacies, donor children, non-athletes such as artists, and the like, and perhaps athletes in heavily white non-revenue sports such as tennis or crew — tough; this is a unique case of exploitation.
Yes, this will be painted as slamming the door of access and opportunity on poor black men. However, the degrees they get (when they even get them!) are worthless, not marketable in the real world. Everyone, EVERYONE knows that nearly all these “student athletes” not only lack the knowledge and skills, but crucially also lack the aptitude and thus any possibility of obtaining and benefiting from a real college degree in a real subject.
Furthermore, as countless booster scandals show, it’s almost impossible to keep big money and big talent apart. Libertarians and liberals should be able to agree to stop trying to accomplish this task. By excluding low-IQ highly talented athletes from universities (and prep schools), we collapse the quality of gameplay from those teams, collapse the fanbase, viewership, and revenue, and thereby free up that money and potential for a real, viable minor league system in which the athletes can at last be PAID, with salaries and benefits, legitimately.
Look at the English “football” (soccer) pyramid, which has no less than EIGHTEEN layers of leagues, stacked one on top of the other. The Premiere League at the very top offers NFL/NBA style zillions to its players, but (and this is key), there are a number of fully professional, widely watched leagues below this level in which a player who cannot yet (or cannot ever) play in the Premiere League can still earn an affluent or at least blue-collar living, starting right away at 18 instead of marking time and risking career-ending injury playing for NOTHING and being tempted by booster cash. This system is possible because there is no NCAA in the UK, diverting players and money away from a market system paying athletes into a government-created, -sponsored, or even -paid system in which athletes are FORBIDDEN payment.
That’s why this reform would actually OPEN, not close, doors for poor black men.
The only price the Left would have to pay is to admit the truth about the academic aptitude and intelligence of a large portion of the “student athletes” in the NCAA revenue sports.
Apr 2 2018 at 4:13pm
Another possibility is that left-leaning readers may find you are blaming the wrong target. Many of your points are focused on how the market is being misled by the education system, thereby over/undervaluing some students and causing injustice.
But this is within a “markets are good” context. For those who are hardest left, the market itself and the concept of measuring any aspect of human worth in monetary terms is a fundamental source of injustice, and education is merely incidental to the process.
Apr 2 2018 at 4:24pm
@JFA – the link to my comments.
It’s hard to know who his critics are. When I finished reading the book and preparing my own comments, I did a Google search to read The vast majority of the reviews of the book are positive with only the Washington Post offering a truly negative review. I have not seen any reviews from mainstream education school linked scholars.
Apr 2 2018 at 5:02pm
Or maybe the Left uses Education to indoctrinate young minds into their ideas, and any reduction in in the “importance” of Education would be against the “project”…
And in case you think I am too cynical as to the motives of the Left, I can only say that I am too old to be that naÃ¯ve.
Apr 2 2018 at 5:43pm
I had a remarkably large amount of thermodynamics book learning in my undergraduate studies in mechanical engineering. And I used a fair modest of what I learned at work. And still, my reaction was, “There’s a third law of thermodynamics?” 🙂
I see it is:
I can promise anyone studying for work in…any field that I can think of…that knowing the third law of thermodynamics might be useful in Jeopardy! or Trivial Pursuit, but otherwise it’s not important.
Apr 2 2018 at 5:54pm
“It’s nice to pontificate from the cloistered tower of academe but those of us who spent the majority of our career in the private sector and interviewed, hired, did annual reviews of employees, and made salary and bonus decisions have a different view from yours. This view is nether left or right, just based on real world experience.”
I assure you plenty of people’s “real world experience” leads them to agree with Bryan’s view rather than yours. Considering that personal experience leads people with vastly different preconceptions to equally vastly different conclusions (and that personal experience in hiring et al. doesn’t really tell one much about the value of education in cultivating human capital), I’m inclined to heed “ivory tower” statistical analysis rather than “real world” anecdotes.
On the question of why so many on the left might be silent in Bryan’s thesis, it’s likely because leftists’ esteem education for largely non-economic reasons. They tend to mainly defend formal education not because it supposedly increases productivity, but because it supposedly confers “enlightenment,” makes people more “socially responsible”, improves their character and quality of life in non-material, intangible (one might say, “spiritual”) ways. In short, it’s like a secular version of church. Trying to convince a Catholic that going to church doesn’t make them more productive isn’t likely to alter their support for Catholicism.
Of course, to me, the supposed non-material benefits of education should be treated just like spiritual matters: the state has no more business paying people to sit in a room and treat Whitman and Steinem than paying people to sit in a room and read the Bible.
Apr 2 2018 at 6:54pm
It’s not worth saying (your #1 and #2) that lots of workers are paid less than they’re worth and lots are paid more. Under any practicable economic system this will be true, because employers’ predictions about how productive each potential worker will be are inevitably imperfect. It is worth pointing out that moderately valuable workers from higher-class or higher-wealth or higher-income families are more likely to have obtained the credential than similar workers from families in the lower strata, socially and by wealth and income. But (a) this is a surprise to no one, and (b) leftists won’t be very interested, because there are too many issues that more strongly provoke their outrage.
Apr 2 2018 at 7:08pm
Employers want intelligence, diligence, and conformity, and our system of higher education provides a straightforward way to demonstrate these qualities. It takes a long time, but it is hard to see how diligence and conformity can be displayed quickly. If you have a quick, easy way to ascertain these qualities, you should be able to make a lot of money from it. If nothing else, you could go into business and hire drop-outs who scored high on your test: they’d come cheap!
The Original CC
Apr 2 2018 at 7:20pm
I’m not sure that review really addressed the thesis of the book. And the comments on the review certainly didn’t.
I’ve noticed that when people are introduced to the idea that the value of education might be signaling, their response is often, “But finishing college shows that you can finish a difficult task,” or something like that. They don’t realize that this is exactly what signaling is.
tl;dr: People need to understand the difference between the signaling model and the human capital model before they can review your book. Most people don’t get that far.
Apr 2 2018 at 7:28pm
Mark writes in response to me,
My extensive comments on the book identified the meta-analysis of a vast amount of literature as being extremely useful. However, that only goes so far and one must look to what happens in the real world with respect to how things are done. A lot of the work of Kahnemahn and Tversky accomplished this and results of a fair amount of their work is counter-intuitive until one digs deep into the assumptions. Statistics are a useful way of looking at data but if the hypothesis or the data is faulty, all the statistics in the world are not going to help.
You are correct that I offered but one anecdote but if you go back and look at comments from others to various blogs Dr. Caplan has offered on this book, those were mainly one off anecdotes as well. It would be good to hear from others who held senior management positions in the private sector. In the end we all suffer from confirmation bias of some sort and the conclusions that we draw from “The Case Against Education” will be different. There is nothing wrong with that and there are a number of issues confronting the American education system that need to be addressed.
I already submitted a post with the link to my comments but it has not appeared yet. I’ll wait until tomorrow to see if it appears. I hope it is just a case of something getting lost in the Internet ether.
Apr 2 2018 at 7:39pm
The Original CC writes,
I think this is incorrect as “signalling” is just a part of the argument. Dr. Caplan makes a case that it’s 80% of the ‘college premium’ but states it could be lower. I think we can all agree that “signalling” is a component of the argument but whether is is 20 or 80% is not particularly relevant to the key points Dr. Caplan makes in the book.
If you look at the dialogue chapter at the end of the book that attempts to put things in a real world context signalling is a minor component.
Apr 3 2018 at 8:36pm
Even your arguments which you think leftists will like are more likely to make them uncomfortable:
1. Less-educated workers aren’t the leftists who read books like yours.
2. More educated and paid more than they’re worth describes most of the leftists who would read your book. They’re unlikely to be happy with evidence that they’re overpaid for their contributions.
3. And in large part, that meaningless hoop-jumping is created by the leftists who run academia and use it as a way to benefit their “tribe” at the expense of others.
4. Again, they’re the ones currently screwing up the education market. They’re unlikely to like you pointing that out.
5. By your conformity signaling argument, it’s the academic leftists who are the most locked into conforming with their group’s view of education.
6. I can’t think of very many leftists who are in favor of merit-based outcomes, nor allowing anyone to use something like IQ to determine any sort of outcome. They’re barely willing to accept standardized testing to get into college and resort to “other” things whenever possible.
7. You thought the people with the inflated credentials are going to want to admit their credentials are inflated? Really???
8. Again, this is the crowd benefiting from seniority policies, etc… they’re not looking for a meritocracy where someone smart can dethrone them. See also Union work/promotion rules.
9. Right, but the leftists who might talk/write about your book aren’t from poor/middle class backgrounds. They’re the “elite”, instead. They don’t actually care as much about the less fortunate, that’s mostly signaling, remember? See also ribbons and wrist-bands to “show you care”.
10. Again, these leftists are the upper class who are controlling all this, what makes you think they want to hear from you about how they’re wrong about it?
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