What Is Education For?

The libertarian capitalist vision of childhood is bleak. The left needs a bright and exciting alternative.

Education has no clear purpose. That’s not a criticism, it’s just an observation that there are numerous conflicting visions of what education is “for.” What are we actually trying to do for kids by making them go to school, and why are we trying to do it? If it’s an attempt to help kids understand things they’ll need to know in their daily lives, much of contemporary education makes little sense: Very few of us will use chemistry or algebra or French. But it would be very helpful to know how to cook a good breakfast, negotiate a pay raise, or defuse an argument. If education is about making “model citizens,” well, we would probably expect civics to be treated in a little less cursory a fashion. Maybe education is about teaching job skills, providing abilities that will prove useful in making a living. Maybe it nourishes souls and expands horizons. Maybe it’s just a way to keep as many kids as possible in a room together and therefore out of trouble. Or maybe it doesn’t do much of anything at all.

Libertarian economist, George Mason University professor, Cato Institute adjunct, and Freakonomics contributor Bryan Caplan has written The Case Against Education, in which he argues forcefully that it’s the last one. Education, he says, does very little for kids. Or rather, it teaches them very little, which is different. Caplan says that while there is no doubt that the more years of education you receive, the better off you’re likely to be in life, this is mostly unrelated to anything you’ve actually been taught. One standard view of the value of an education is that because employers are willing to pay more for more educated workers, people must be getting something important out of school that pays off. Caplan points out that this is not necessarily the case. The fact that more education leads to a higher salary does not mean that school is actually teaching anybody anything. It could just be “sorting” students who have relevant traits, “signaling” to employers which people have the most potential to succeed at their jobs.

Think about this like an obstacle course. If we have a group of people clamber up rocks, shimmy down ropes, and, yes, jump through hoops, the ones who make it to the end might have showed that they’re the best candidates for a physically demanding job. But it’s just a test, a selection process designed to expose traits that candidates already possess. It’s a “signal.” It hasn’t actually taught anybody anything, except how good they are at swinging from ropes. For Caplan, this is what education is mostly about. It’s a test of endurance and ability. In contrast to “human capital” theories that emphasize the body of valuable intellectual assets students acquire through schooling, Caplan believes that education is largely a credentialing process. An employer doesn’t want people with high school diplomas because of anything they’ve been taught in high school, but because they want the sort of people who get high school diplomas, e.g., those who have habits like showing up on time, following directions, being able to assimilate new facts quickly, etc. Or, more cynically, they want the sort of people with the financial resources and family support to make it through high school.

This does not mean that school teaches nothing, and Caplan concedes that basic literacy and numeracy are obviously important. But it does mean that a colossal amount of time and resources are being wasted. After all, if you could tell which candidates were going to complete the obstacle course after the first stage, would there be any need for 10 additional stages? Plenty of jobs that require college degrees don’t actually require any skills learned in college; there’s no reason they couldn’t be filled by people with high school diplomas, saving the students four years and a pile of money. Caplan asks:

Think about all the classes you ever took. How many failed to teach you any useful skills? The lessons you’ll never need to know after graduation start in kindergarten. Elementary schools teach more than reading, writing, and arithmetic. They also require history, social studies, music, art, and physical education. Middle and high schools add higher mathematics, classic literature, and foreign languages—vital for a handful of budding scientists, authors, and translators, irrelevant for everyone else. Most college majors don’t even pretend to teach job skills. If you apply your knowledge of Roman history, Shakespeare, real analysis, or philosophy of mind on the job, you have an odd job.

The “uselessness” of education leads Caplan to downright radical conclusions. While typical criticisms of the existing education system focus on how the system is working, Caplan’s objection is to the system itself. He believes that “there’s way too much education” and that “typical students burn thousands of hours studying material that neither raises their productivity nor enriches their lives.” He considers himself the ally of every student who has ever sat in class, looking despairingly at the ticking clock, wondering when they’re ever going to use any of the stuff they’re being taught. You’re not, Caplan says, and that’s the problem.

When Caplan begins talking about the implications of his “signaling” theory, things take a turn for the disturbing. Because he believes education is bad and useless, he supports drastic cuts to public support for it:

Government heavily subsidizes education. In 2011, U.S. federal, state, and local governments spent almost a trillion dollars on it. The simplest way to get less education, then, is to cut the subsidies. This would not eliminate wasteful signaling, but at least government would pour less gasoline on the fire.

He believes there should be far more emphasis on vocational schooling, to the point of putting kids to work. He even has a section entitled “What’s Wrong With Child Labor?” in which he says that the employment of children is no worse than school and is far more useful:

When children languish in school, adults rush to rationalize. Making kids sit at desks doing boring busywork may seem cruel, but their pain trains them for the future. Why then is child labor so reviled? Toil may not be fun, but it too trains kids for their future.

At the college level, Caplan believes that students should be discouraged from pursuing “useless” degrees (i.e., the ones that do not increase their employment prospects):

Why should taxpayers fund the option to study fine arts at public expense? Instead, shut down the impractical departments at public colleges, and make impractical majors at private colleges ineligible for government grants and loans. Deprived of impractical options, some students will switch to practical subjects. Won’t plenty of others respond to narrower options by cutting their schooling short? Hopefully. If students refuse to stay in school unless they’re allowed to waste public money, taxpayers should call their bluff.

He wants to increase the cost of college, so that fewer students will attend, on the theory that if far fewer people went to college, college degrees would no longer be necessary. As he says:

Shift the cost of education from taxpayers to students and their families. Raise tuition for public colleges. Cut subsidies. Turn grants into loans. Charge borrowers market interest rates. Impose at least some tuition for public high school. From a normal perspective, such proposals provoke the horrified reaction, ‘Attendance could fall!’ From a signaling perspective, the right response is, ‘Lower attendance is what we’re going for.’

By contrast with those who lament the indebtedness of millennial college graduates, Caplan thinks student debt is a thoroughly good thing, because it punishes people for pursuing college degrees:

Student debt has the same upsides. Students who know they’ll eventually pay for their education may still make foolish decisions. But at least they have an incentive to weigh their options—and wonder how they’ll repay their debts with an anthropology degree. Contrary to populists, student loan programs are one of the least dysfunctional parts of the status quo. Subsidized loans definitely encourage college attendance, but subsidies are too low to encourage it much. Compared to overall taxpayer support for education, loan programs are a rounding error—in part, no doubt, because student debt survives bankruptcy.

Caplan’s argument starts out persuasively and quickly turns dystopian. One moment Caplan is talking about the question of what credentials mean to employers, then the next moment he is advocating bringing back child labor, eliminating anthropology departments, totally privatizating primary and secondary education, and saddling college students with even-greater mountains of non-dischargeable debt. Alarmingly, because Caplan is a strong writer and lays out his points clearly, his book carries readers easily from the academic discussion of “signaling” versus “human capital” theories of education to these dire prescriptions. It can be difficult to spot exactly where things have gone off the rails. Like the story of the boiling frog (if you boil a planet slowly, nobody will notice that all the frogs are dead until it’s too late), we can nod along with reasonable-sounding libertarian arguments without noticing just how crazy they’ve gotten.

Illustrations by Nick Sirotich

It should go without saying (but these things so seldom do) that Caplan’s proposal will worsen the existing stratification of education across social classes. Who will be getting the vocational education, sent off as a preteen to the Amazon warehouses or down the bitcoin mines? You can bet it won’t be the children of Beverly Hills High School. Likewise, rich parents won’t stop sending their kids to get arts degrees or to read Aristotle in the original Greek. But once all the public colleges raise tuition and cut their film departments, it’s working class students who will lose their limited opportunities to explore “useless” subjects as undergrads. And while economists might assume that “disincentivizing” students through heavy loan interest will “nudge” them toward more optimal academic choices, in reality many of them will likely keep making the economically foolish choice to follow their dreams. Odds are these students will simply end up in even more impossible debt holes than they are in already. It’s unclear whether the “incentives” from more expensive student loans work, but it’s certainly clear that poor people, people of color, and women all get disproportionately hurt.

A deeper problem here, as anyone who isn’t a libertarian economist will have noticed, is Caplan’s narrow definition of the “usefulness” of education. He treats “value in the job market” as education’s main measure of worth. The debate over whether education teaches job skills or just offers signals is an interesting one, but it contains a hidden premise: that what we’re supposed to be doing is preparing kids to be good employees. Of course, if that’s how you measure the worth of teaching, then the arts aren’t worth a damn, because, as Caplan points out, artists starve. (Unless they go to work for advertising firms.) But while liberals and conservatives alike often speak of education as if it’s mostly supposed to be a pipeline to a skilled job, there are humanistic approaches (i.e. the ones that see people as more than productivity machines) with somewhat different views of what education ought to be doing.

Ironically, Caplan’s view of the education system has a lot in common with that of some leftists and Marxists. Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, in their 1976 book Schooling In Capitalist America, argued that schools were primarily sorting devices for employers. Capitalists, they said, loved public schools, because they were a taxpayer-subsidized way of training people for jobs: “The reasons why most larger employers supported public education are apparently related to the non-cognitive effects of schooling—in more modern terms, to the hidden curriculum.” That “hidden” curriculum is teaching obedience and diligence, the traits that will turn kids into a compliant cogs in the economic system. Bowles and Gintis say that high GPAs are correlated with “dependability, perseverance, consistency, following orders, punctuality, and deferring gratification” while low GPAs are correlated with “creativity, aggressiveness, and independence.” In fact, here’s Noam Chomsky, sounding a lot like Caplan:

[Schools] reward discipline and obedience, and they punish independence of mind… You’re not supposed to think, you’re supposed to obey, and just proceed through the material in whatever way they require. And in fact, most people who make it through the education system and into the elite universities are able to do it because they’ve been willing to obey a lot of stupid orders for years and years… The values are, you’re going to be a factory worker somewhere—maybe they’ll call it a university—but you’re going to be following somebody else’s orders, and just doing your work in some prescribed way. And what matters is discipline, not figuring things out for yourself, or understanding things that interest you—those are kind of marginal: just make sure you meet the requirements of a factory.

Of course, there can still be a debate over the extent to which schools are “selecting” for these traits or “training” for them. But more importantly, while the leftists see the fact that schools are actually just serving an economic function as an indictment of the hideous oppressive character of contemporary capitalism, Caplan sees it as a thoroughly good thing. He’s just worried it’s not being done efficiently enough! Schools would be even better at churning out workers if they sent kids to work right away instead of bothering to pretend that they are cultivating young minds and fostering curiosity.

A leftist—or any person whose soul hasn’t been totally corroded by capitalism—might be tempted, then, to say that Caplan is missing the whole point of education. Sure, it might not be giving kids what they need on the job. But our lives should be more than our jobs. The point isn’t to train people, it’s to introduce them to the world’s knowledge so they can figure out what they want to do.

Caplan has a response to this, however. Education is just as lousy at this as it is at job training. As he says:

You might defend this allegedly “useless” education on humanistic grounds. Teachers habitually claim to enrich students’ lives or broaden their horizons. As a professor, I don’t just sympathize with these arguments; I’ve lived them. The great ideas have enriched me, and I try to pay it forward. To effectively defend education, however, you need to do more than appeal to humanistic ideals. You need to ask: How often do academics successfully broaden student’s horizons? Empirically, the answer is bleak: while great teachers can turn students into Shakespeare fans, Civil War buffs, avant-garde artists, and devoted violinists, such transformations are rare. Despite teachers’ best efforts, most youths find high culture boring—and few change their minds in adulthood.

In fact, he thinks that for all educators’ highfalutin rhetoric about “expanding horizons,” students don’t actually have much interest in learning about ideas, and it’s a waste of time for teachers to try to force them to share teachers’ own views of what is worth knowing:

I’m cynical about students. The vast majority are philistines. The best teachers in the universe couldn’t inspire them with sincere and lasting love of ideas and culture. I’m cynical about teachers. The vast majority are uninspiring; they can’t convince even themselves to love ideas and culture, much less their students. I’m cynical about “deciders”—the school officials who control what students study. The vast majority think they’ve done their job as long as students obey.

Anyone who has watched a roomful of young eyes glaze over during an high school English class might be tempted to agree. But it might not be that students are “philistines.” Rather, it might be that subjects are, in general, taught atrociously, that there are few truly inspiring teachers in the classroom who know how to make ideas come alive. The reason “academics rarely broaden students’ horizons” might have a lot more to do with the academics than the students. Caplan gives up very quickly, and without much evidence, on the possibility of engaging the majority of young people in history, literature, the sciences, and the arts. But showing that students aren’t being engaged isn’t proof that they can’t be engaged.

The truth is that Caplan is probably right that the experience of school, for most students in the country, is boring and useless. When the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence asked high school students how they were feeling, 75% of them answered with negative emotions like “tired,” “bored,” and “stressed.” But that doesn’t mean that they’re a bunch of incurious dopes cut out only for manual labor. The insight that “school sucks” is not original to Caplan, and plenty of critics of education have said it over and over. Unlike Caplan, their response has not been to advocate getting rid of school entirely and sending children to work, but thinking very seriously about what education ought to be like. Alternative schooling models like Montessori and Waldorf schools try to eliminate the tedious, obedience-training aspects of school, and remove the structural barriers that stand between students and real knowledge. The progressive education movement has a century-long history, and has produced thousands of experiments around the world in new ways of organizing schooling. There is variation in whether students enjoy school, have good relationships with their teachers, and see schools as supportive environments. Figuring out ways to investigate and improve those things is central to serious projects for education reform.

Caplan, however, simply gives up. Even if kids do like the “useless” stuff, he says, what good is it? They will only grow up to be disappointed when they find out what the economy actually rewards:

. . . Teachers expose students to an ossified list of subjects: music, art, poetry, drama, foreign language, history, government, dance, sports. Some kids respond eagerly, especially to music and sports. Yet the greater their excitement, the greater their ultimate disappointment: almost no one grows up to be a violinist, painter, poet, actor, historian, politician, ballet dancer, or professional athlete.

To which we say: exactly. The problem isn’t the kids, but that we live in a world in which history and ballet are valued so little compared with, say, devising new credit default swaps or more new ways to target advertising directly at people’s hopes, fears, and insecurities. Sure, if you can make money by issuing payday loans but not by writing plays, it makes a certain amount of “sense” to give kids usury lessons and cut the drama department. But this isn’t the only alternative, and it puts culture into a death spiral: The less anybody ever hears about beautiful, diverse, and varied things in school, the fewer people will develop any interest in them, which means fewer people will value them. If you think playwrights are poorly-compensated now, wait until the libertarian future in which nobody even knows what a play is. (Also: How many adults are disappointed that their middle school focused too much on music and not enough on job training? How many of them wish they had been child laborers instead of doing fingerpainting? Come on.)

We should be wary of arguments that particular kinds of knowledge are useful because they’ll be helpful “on the job” or in some instrumental fashion. After all, if it turns out that they aren’t useful, we may still want to make a case for them. At the same time, Caplan also has a very myopic view of what jobs actually are and what is instrumentally useful in them and in life generally. He admits that he’s never actually helda real job outside the academy, and it shows. He suggests that people don’t need to know history unless they’re going to be history teachers. This is deeply and obviously wrong. Studying history is essential to understanding what is happening around you. If you don’t know anything about the context you live in, you become stupefied. You won’t get half the jokes on Seinfeld or The Simpsons, let alone be able to think clearly about issues of public importance. You’ll be totally blind to the way that history stamps itself on the present, and the features of contemporary society that exist because of what happened before. You will also be uniquely gullible and will fall victim to political propaganda. If you don’t understand the history of the Vietnam War, the Korean War, and the Iraq War, you won’t know why “humanitarian” U.S. military intervention should be viewed skeptically. If you don’t understand slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow, you won’t understand the origins of the black-white wealth gap or the forces that shaped contemporary residential segregation. You will fumble through life blindly and stupidly, without really knowing who you are, where you came from, or what the world is.

Even ordinary jobs can require, or at least benefit from, supposedly “useless” knowledge in unexpected ways. When Sparky worked full-time at a marina, he had to know things about marine biology (whale names, habits, migratory patterns), geology (nature of islands, rock reefs), history (facts about area, use of islands), mechanics (ability to talk about and occasionally fix boats, repair docks, assemble computers), contract and employment law (deal with employees and also contract with other businesses for things like dive trips), and education (prepare sample syllabi to sell school group trips) for what was essentially a low-wage job. Specific knowledge doesn’t have to relate to job requirements, though. Any job that requires relating to people benefits from the possession of general knowledge. But of course that doesn’t only matter for jobs. Human beings get along better when they have common reference points, and can talk about common facts. If someone doesn’t know what World War II was, or what bacteria are, it’s not just that the world becomes scary and confusing, it also becomes harder to talk to others. And, more importantly, without common reference points for things outside our own experience, it becomes harder to empathize with others and to understand why their perspectives might be different from our own.

Caplan tries to show the uselessness of education by pointing to statistics on how few facts people remember from their school days; they can’t remember whether an electron is larger than an atom, etc. But this may misunderstand what exposure to the sciences actually does. True, very few people use algebra after they finish “learning” it. They do, however, carry away a sense of what algebra is. That may not seem like much, but it could be crucial: There’s a big difference between “not knowing much about biology” and “not even knowing what biology is.” I may not understand a physicist’s equations, but it’s a whole new level of ignorance if she introduces herself and I wonder what physics even is.

If we are to offer a meaningful and powerful alternative to instrumental conceptions of learning, we have to be clear about what that might involve. One reason Caplan’s arguments can be tempting is that we haven’t really articulated what schooling ought to be about. This leaves a big prescriptive vacuum where, after making some empirical and commonsense claims, Caplan can slide in unnoticed and present his slashing and burning as the only available solution. And it can result in liberals and progressives trying to defend school on economic, return-on-investment grounds, insisting that sociology degrees are unexpectedly useful in the workplace, or that the average wage worker will someday use their French subjunctives. (Although they probably will use their Spanish subjunctives, which is why Spanish should be mandatory.)

So what’s the alternative? What is school for? For the first 12 years of kids’ conscious lives, we put them in a room and try to fill them with knowledge. What should that be? What about college? To what extent should learning be driven by the preferences of parents or kids themselves? Also, if public schools start trying to make kids learn interesting things, and private schools keep teaching them the things that will make them rich, won’t the wealth gap worsen? Does capitalism give us no other option but to pursue the bleak Caplan vision?

We shouldn’t hesitate to speculate on radical, even highly unusual possibilities. Though we don’t think it should be strictly “vocational,” education should obviously be more practical and active. There’s no excuse for the fact that students aren’t taught basic skills like tying a knot, sewing a button, defusing a bomb, fixing a toilet, baking a loaf of bread, planting a garden, etc. Animal care should be a requirement; establishing relationships with animals is important and every school should have them. Nathan remembers being jealous of a neighboring high school in Florida that used to have cats on campus. What about plant identification? A high school degree should require one to be able to identify at least 80 percent of the plant life in one’s community. The fact that nobody knows which plants are which is a disgrace.

We can introduce college-level subjects at a much younger age in simplified form. Kids are perfectly capable of learning philosophy. Not the academic kind, perhaps, but as critical thinking (e.g., asking questions like “How do we know to trust our teachers?” “Why are things the way they are?” “Is a bird a process or a thing?”) Try teaching music and art appreciation; don’t just have kids feebly try to learn to play the recorder. Introduce them to Miles Davis, or show them how hit songs are made. We should expand the range of material taught in English class. Give kids books they will actually like, don’t make teens read Nathaniel Hawthorne and forget to introduce them to Kurt Vonnegut. Sparky remembers that in his high school, the literature teacher had the class critically examine Dan Brown books, and the students loved it. Something cool should happen every schoolday, whether it’s an explosion in chemistry class or the examination of a historical artifact or the building of a Rube Goldberg contraption or the performing of a play/dialogue. Bring in less dogma, foster more creativity. Make recess longer. Make things more hands-on. Do more field trips. Reward quality of thinking rather than strict obedience (e.g., it matters more if a student has nothing to say about the reading than if they’re late to class). Don’t do anything excruciating to them. (Caplan seems to endorse a lot of this, actually, saying that unstructured play is good, but his whole scheme will ensure that the rich kids get the fun stuff and the poor kids get busboy lessons.)

It may well be true, as Bryan Caplan argues, that as things stand education is a bad deal, societally speaking. We can buy that a lot of the economic benefit comes from signaling, and that spending money on things like Common Core and standardized testing could be making things worse because the gains are illusory. This doesn’t mean, however, that the solution is drastically decreasing resources. That would just be putting all the burdens education is trying to bear (lifelong return-on-investment and publicly-subsidized training for corporate life) onto the backs of students and parents. Plus, why should only rich kids get to spend four years pursuing an arts degree? It shouldn’t just be the students who are willing to toil to pay off crushing debts who get to spend their college years exploring irrelevant subjects that interest them.

In fact, we need to put more resources into education, but we also need to change our thinking. It’s not because kids are “natural philistines” if they’re bored, but because we don’t prioritize (or spend the money on) the kind of extraordinary learning experiences that would engage even the most intransigent or apathetic child. If foreign language classes aren’t good enough for people to retain languages, then let’s introduce foreign exchange programs. Send them around the world on the public dime.

We’re not cynical about students—we think everyone can be enriched—but to do that we need to turn away from the economic benefits of education and actually focus on that enrichment. Let’s do the things Caplan says he wants (more play, a broader canon), but let’s do it for every child, not make it dependent on family ability to pay. If rich parents think it’s worthwhile to pay for private schools with 15-person classes and seminar environments, let’s guarantee that to the children of Baltimore and Detroit. If teachers are downtrodden and fatigued and not inspiring, then let’s fucking pay them. Teaching should be a prestige job and there’s no reason it can’t be.

There are many possible visions for what education could and should be. But the one thing it shouldn’t be is preparation for wage work. Attempts to destroy education in the name of efficiency are going in exactly the wrong direction. Instead of more efficiency, we need less of it. Students should be finding out about all of the fascinating things in our big, wonderful world, not being fitted and measured for future drudgery. What is education for? It’s for becoming a person, not a worker.

Here more about education from Sparky Abraham and Nathan J. Robinson by becoming a Patron of the Current Affairs Podcast today and listening to the bonus episode “Summer School.”

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