I have a friend who, long ago, took his admission to Columbia University primarily as an opportunity to play basketball, at which he excelled. He was not especially interested in academics, despite his intelligence. As a freshman, however, he fell under the spell of Columbia’s core curriculum. He eventually became a scholar and a civic leader, and among other accomplishments, founded a college. College made him better not just in one way, but many. It shaped his mind, his ambitions, his character; it oriented him to a life of active citizenship; it made him someone who not only inhabits but advances our civilization.
These days it is not hard to find those in the academy who decry our civilization as racist, patriarchal, oppressive, and thoroughly without merit. They would not agree that my friend was changed for the better by his college education. They might well say the reverse: instead of becoming “woke,” he became a tool of the system. But even these missionaries of multiculturalism would admit that college changed the man, even if they disagree vehemently on whether it was for the better.
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Then there is Bryan Caplan, the George Mason University economist whose The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money, reduces the life-changing power of education to a secondary consideration…at best. It’s nice when it happens, he allows, but it is “sadly rare,” and not really what the “education system” is all about. Caplan professes to find what he calls “inspiring education” to be “valuable for its own sake.” But he believes very little education is actually inspiring and very few students want it.
The Case Against Education is a complex, well-argued book, but Caplan devotes little attention to what he sometimes calls “the soul” and sometimes “the whole person.” He is certainly aware that the non-utilitarian side of higher education looms large in how colleges and universities present themselves, devoting a chapter, “Nourishing Mother,” (the direct translation of alma mater) to the ways that the liberal arts might enhance the soul. “I embrace the ideal of transformative education,” he writes. “I believe wholeheartedly in the life of the mind. What I’m cynical about is people.” He means that the students are, by and large, “philistines,” and the teachers are, by and large, “uninspiring.” And yet the machine rattles on, with some 20 million students consuming billions of dollars of educational services that do little or nothing to improve their minds, or souls.
Because we know from the start that Caplan’s aim is to diminish the importance of those aspects of higher education germane to the formation of mind, character, and civilization, we ought to be alert to exactly how he does this. A section of The Case Against Education on “The Paper Tiger of Political Correctness” does little to reassure. “Even extreme left-wing dominance leaves little lasting impression,” it concludes. Higher education in general, however, does raise “social liberalism and economic conservatism.” It says something about Caplan’s own political views—mainly libertarian—that he sees these outcomes as neither troubling nor solidly connected to the professoriate’s political views.
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That approach ignores several crucial distinctions. Even if we stipulate that a large majority of all students are not swayed by classroom advocacy, the most intellectually active subset of the student body might be. It’s entirely plausible that the absence of many ideas and subjects from the curriculum has important consequences. Leaving students ignorant of every aspect of the American Founding except for chattel slavery may not turn them into political progressives, for example, but deprives them of the tools and perspectives needed to weigh progressives’ arguments.
Caplan’s worry-free view of the professoriate’s political leanings is expressed most clearly in a chapter where he assesses the “soul” and the humanistic purposes of college. A self-described “cynical idealist,” Caplan admits that these purposes exist but treats them dismissively. He has taken this approach before. Caplan is known for two other provocations, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies (2007) and Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids (2011). In The Case Against Education he strikes the same dissonant chord: the decisions we pride ourselves on as good, rational, and prudent are in fact profoundly irrational. Or, if they have an underlying rationality, it comes from playing out a logic we’re at pains to deny.
Spending time and money to go to college is justified, Caplan argues, as a way to convince potential employers that you’ll be a reliable worker: a diligent, ambitious team-player who follows the rules rather than breaking or questioning them. Going to college might also be useful for the small minority of students who can afford to indulge “personal tastes” that they mistake for “culture.” Caplan lays out this thesis with a dark cynicism reminiscent of Machiavelli or Thomas Hobbes. His graduate students “want to do my job,” Caplan writes. “I show them how it’s done. But the vast majority of my students won’t be professors of economics. They won’t be professors of anything.” Or, again, “People at the top of their class usually have the trifecta: intelligent, conscientious, and conformist.”
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Caplan’s book is nearly 300 pages of this knowing abrasiveness, embedded in more gentle explanation of why we devote so many dollars and years to study subjects of little moment to our post-baccalaureate lives. The belief that American higher education develops the students’ knowledge and skills to prepare them for the sophisticated demands of the contemporary workforce—“human capital purism”—is mostly wrong, Caplan argues. “What does the average American learn in school besides basic literacy and numeracy?” Not much: “severe ignorance” describes the majority of America’s college graduates, a state of affairs that “may not be a death blow for human capital purism, but it is an awkward fact.”
Caplan believes that “signaling” accounts for “at least one-third” of what students do in school and of an educational credential’s financial rewards. “Signaling” is no illusion foisted by credentialed idiots on naïve employers. What gets signaled is quite real: a fairly reliable amount of information about the prospective “productivity” of the college graduate. The hitch is that the signal derives its power not from what the student supposedly knows, which may be a great deal or very little, but from the evidence that the graduate possesses qualities suitable to the employer’s needs. Among these are some that colleges do not typically boast about, such as being “willing to tolerate serious boredom.”
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The book has built-in appeal to a readership already inclined to dismiss our colleges and universities’ extravagant claims to promote social justice or critical thinking. Even those who think that college degrees are “I.Q. laundering,” a way for employers to sort out the smart people after the Supreme Court case Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1971) made I.Q. tests a legal liability, will find little support from Caplan.
Nevertheless, he concedes, “Education remains the modern economy’s surest stairway to prosperity.” The “educational premium” persists because employers realize that the college degree is a reliable proxy for job performance, as opposed to underlying ability. Ability and performance, of course, have something to do with one another, but performance is what counts. That fact would explain why online credentials have, so far, failed to impress employers. Education “signals more than brains and work ethic. It also signals conformity—submission to social expectations.” And so far, online education is unconventional and non-conformist.
A lucid thesis chased relentlessly through a thousand complications makes for an impressive book. At the same time, The Case Against Education comes across as soulless. Caplan takes pleasure in debunking our illusions, but to regard higher education’s civilizing mission as a merely personal taste is mistaken. Employers look for brains, hard work, and conformity, but fellow citizens seek more from themselves and their countrymen. We also look for the spark of deeper knowledge, the commitment to a nation and culture we share. At its best, a college education equips its graduates to discern and seek these good things. Doing so isn’t a waste of time or money.