The Case Against Education

//The Case Against Education

I’ve been reading the economist Bryan Caplan’s new book, The Case Against Education with great interest. His is very much a contrarian point of view: that most of the time and effort spent on the project of education is wasted. Cue steep intake of breath.

He’s not saying time and money spent on an individual’s education is a waste, but that the billions of tax dollars spent on educating society is, in large part, misplaced. He compares an individual’s education to standing up in a concert; if one or two people stand up then they’re guaranteed a better view of the stage. But if everyone stands up, no one really benefits.

Caplan’s argument is essentially an economic one. He argues that all the studies which link education to GNP etc. fall victim to a fundamental misconception. The value of education comes from what it signals. This concept of signalling is new to me, but entirely plausible. Most of the economic value of education is derived from what it reveals about who we are. If a student leaves school with 5 good GCSEs it signals their basic competency. If you leave with 3 A levels then we can infer that you’re at least moderately intelligent and moderately hard-working. If you check out with a first from Cambridge, employers will pay a premium for your services because they’re betting you’re super bright, highly motivated and very conscientious. All traits which predict excellent performance in a cognitively demanding job.

However, Caplan’s argues that the substance of what is taught in a school curriculum is largely pointless. He reckons that few of the things we’re taught in school, beyond basic literacy and numeracy will actually provide us with any ability to do our jobs better, and that a vocational over an academic education is a much better bet. Most of what students learn in history, geography, science and modern foreign languages fails to translate into what most people need to know later in life. Doing a PhD in Romantic poetry is useless in terms of what you spend your time reading and writing about, its only value derived from what writing a thesis reveals about your character.

He also attacks humanistic arguments that education is an enriching process that turns us into better human beings. Whilst he readily concedes that this may be a lovely dream for a few, the vast majority of school students shun any form of high culture and that this is an essentially frivolous enterprise.

These are all pretty solid arguments, and I found myself nodding along as I read, enjoying such a robust, forthright, well thought through and articulated assault on the aspects of education I so value. This is the best argument against an academic education for all that I’ve encountered to date, and I’d suggest that all those folk who’re arguing for ’21st century skills’ and the like could enjoy a real boost to their credibility by reading it.

But, much as I’m enjoying Caplan’s arguments, I’m pretty sure he’s wrong. What he misses is the effect of education on our minds. To be fair, he does address the finding that education seems to add to our intelligence. There’s good evidence that we get a boost of 3 IQ points for each year we spend in school. Caplan’s doesn’t dispute this, but he does point out that most of the evidence seems to show that these gains tend to fade out with time. He notes, with some triumphalism, that, “education raises ‘crystallised intelligence’ but not ‘fluid intelligence.” As regular readers will know, crystallised intelligence refers to our ability to apply what we know, whereas fluid intelligence is our ability to reason without prior knowledge. It should therefore be fairly unsurprising that education is only likely to improve our knowledge, and not our ability to do without it. I’ve argued previously that increasing crystallised intelligence is a sensible, pragmatic goal for education.

Caplan claims that the “major worry” about whether education can raise intelligence is that gains do not last, and that because of this the effect of education “may not be entirely hollow, but it is largely hollow” and while maybe not “entirely temporary” its effects are “largely temporary.” What should we think about this?

Well, first, we shouldn’t be surprised that the effects of education are not permanent. This would be like expressing surprise and disappointment that the effects of exercise are not permanent. If we want to be healthier, we should eat well and exercise. If we stop exercising and start pigging out on burgers we will become less healthy. This stands to reason. Thinking that the effects of education should be entirely different is a brand of magical thinking that ignores the laws of entropy. The effect of education is to change our environment and, if we want to be cleverer, just as if we want to be fitter, we have to work at it. Inhabiting a cognitively challenging environment, taking to smart people, reading interesting books helps to provide that environment.

The bits of education that may be more permanent are the facts and procedures we learn. Although it feels like we forget a great deal of what we learn in school, in actuality, we know huge amounts that we don’t know we know, and have no memory of memorising. My favourite example, to which I return time and again is this: we know we know how to read, but we don’t know we know all the phoneme/grapheme correspondences that make fluent reading possible. Anything we’ve automatised is, almost by definition, permanent. So, if you know your times tables, the geographic relationship of continents to each other, or that the Georgians preceded the Victorians, this is stuff you don’t have to think about. These are things you just know. As such they are what you think with.

This is the real prize. Caplan argues that somewhere between 30-80% of what we learn in school is useless because most of us never think about these things in our day-to-day lives. This misses the fact that what we know changes our neural architecture and becomes the substance of what we think with.

If I’m right, the goal of using education to raise crystallised intelligence and increase the base of what children can think with is likely to be both more or less permanent, and far more significant than an economic, instrumentalist view can reveal.

I’ve not yet finished The Case Against Education, and am hoping Caplan will provide further challenge to the prevailing wisdom in the pages to come. But, on the basis of what I’ve read so far, I can wholeheartedly recommend what I’m finding a bracing and important book.



  1. 3goodthings2017 March 17, 2018 at 1:20 pm - Reply

    What I totally love about your posts is your constant ability to enjoy and embrace people and points of view you disagree with. I believe this is a shift in perspective that larger society is hugely short on, and is massively important as an anti fascist stance. You model it brilliantly. Thank you – great post, keep up the great work of forcing us all to actually think, rather than just sound off in the great internet echo chamber!!!

  2. Tom Burkard March 17, 2018 at 2:26 pm - Reply

    I covered the ‘signalling’ debate in my MA dissertation and it’s pretty hard to disagree with Caplan on this score. However, schooling isn’t going to go away: its essential function of warehousing children so their mothers can go to work ishere to stay. In an ideal world we might choose to turn children loose on the world at age 14, which was what we did with most of them until not long ago. A lot of education is wasted on the young–my first stab at a BA was largely made tolerable by the social life, but in truth I was dying to get out and do a grown-up job. The second time around at the half-century mark was altogether more rewarding intellectually–it really did change the way I think about the world.

    This said, I fundamentally disagree with Caplan. No one could visit a school like Michaela and conclude that the best that has been thought and said cannot be eagerly embraced by children of all abilities–so long as it is competently taught, and fundamental knowledge (including literacy and numeracy skills) is instilled before teachers start the climb up Bloom’s Pyramid. In a way, Caplan reflects snobbishness of the worst kind: I’ve had more interesting and intellectual challenging conversations over a few pints with my fellow NCOs in the Royal Pioneers and over cups of tea on building sites than I later found in the staff room of the comprehensive where I taught.

    • jamesisaylestonebulldogs March 17, 2018 at 3:07 pm - Reply

      I agree. The case for education is more than economic. Even though most children may not embrace any but popular culture this is no excuse for not teaching it. I have read about history teaching at Michaela and been impressed by what they seem to be doing with all abilities. Such a change from the stick men diagrams and pointless historical activities I have seen in some schools – particularly for lower sets – and sadly in the education of our children and grandchildren. It particularly depresses me considering that much of the adult population is interested in history, yet schools killl that interest in children.

      • Tarjinder Wilkinson March 18, 2018 at 2:52 pm - Reply

        Would be interesting to know if his argument is based on US students only. If so, to what extent does this hold true for other countries.

        His assumption = essentially everyone has had a similar education are simply not true and we know it. Progressive education guts knowledge and replaces high culture with “relevance”. I would be interested in reading the book to see to what extent he drills into the data and to what extent he thinks through what will happen if changes he thinks should be made are made.

  3. johnmatthewsg March 17, 2018 at 4:25 pm - Reply

    I’m glad to see this is being picked and read up by educationalists in the UK as I agree it also a very important book (but that be because it adheres to a lot of my own biases).

    Yes he does argue against the academic education had little use in gainful employment but he also shows that we don’t pick up the ‘soft skills’ in any meaningful transferable way such as a prog debater might make. It’s a pox on all your hourses book which is what makes it a thrilling read.

    In defense of his point of that 30-80 % we learn is useless where you say it ‘changes our neural architexture’ I think Caplan might say that why not learn something useful then you can both have the benefit of ‘changes our neural architexture’ and knowledge/skills that will help in the future. ie why read 19th century english when you could be doing a cv I think is an example he uses.

    If there is one thing I would like teachers and others involved in education to take away from Caplan is that teaching is not the ‘most important job in the world’ as I so often see on my twitter feed. It’s that kind of attitude which has led to these insane work loads we have and high Ofted accountability IMO.

    The biggest part he’s missed (not finished myself yet) is that if kids arn’t in education then it would be a huge burdan on parents and especially women as it would probably fall on them to take time off work.

    • David Didau March 17, 2018 at 5:11 pm - Reply

      “I think Caplan might say that why not learn something useful then you can both have the benefit of ‘changes our neural architexture’ and knowledge/skills that will help in the future. ie why read 19th century english when you could be doing a cv I think is an example he uses.”
      This is a great point, but, I think, fundamentally wrong. Do we really want to narrow horizons further by only having the knowledge of how to record your fitness for a job? By learning about things that are ‘useless’ in a purely practical sense, we are still changed. We may never have cause to use this knowledge, we may never consciously think about it again, but it makes us able to think thoughts otherwise unthinkable. The fact that we don’t know what we know, doesn’t make this implicit, tacit knowledge useless. The truth is, we only have the faintest notion of what it might be not to be able to think the way we do when we encounter people who know far less than we do, and come away startled at how constrained their thought and experience is.

      That said, I agree with you about the hero-teacher complex enjoyed by so many virtue-signalling teachers – for most of us, formal education will only be icing on the intellectual cake.

      • johnmatthewsg March 18, 2018 at 11:24 am - Reply

        On the narrowing the curriculum I find myself really conflicted. My heart wants as broad as curriculum as possible such as that set out by someone like Martin Robinson in Trivium but then I see a 1000 students every year at my FE college who still struggle with basic maths & English on their 2nd and 3 rd resits.

        Can’t help but think they would’ve been better served by doubling up on those subjects (I think there’s broad agreement here with Caplan they’re most important) and cutting back on other subjects.

        You would here cries of course that arts/mfl etc is only for the elite/smart kids but it seems to me at least it seems the pragmatic choice given how vital they are to future employment.

        • Tarjinder Wilkinson March 18, 2018 at 3:04 pm - Reply

          Enter primary education = has been a progressive paradise of non-learning the basics. Without serious critique and revision of what we do from EYFS onwards (admittedly at home too) there will be no change further up. Gutting primary of pseudoscience is a job in itself but I suggest looking at Quirky Teacher and Clare Sealy’s blogs.

          Too often secondary/FE teachers themselves get dewey-eyed about young ones and this needs to stop. Young children are on the whole robust, curious and want us to teach them everything we know so they can be and feel clever (in themselves not always against others either).

          More than anything my 12 years as a primary teacher has taught me that they need us to be the adults while they get to be children – we can’t burden them with their own socialisation and to figure out what they need to learn.

          Most controversially perhaps – we need to stop pumping “white mc left-wing progressive minded bleeding heart women” into primary. This is one area where I call for diversity of not only people but thought as well. The reason why improving primary is hard is because it’s become a job creation scheme for this particular type of person. The group think is almost impenetrable and it’s only by changing the workforce itself that we can improve outcomes here.

          • Tarjinder Wilkinson March 18, 2018 at 3:05 pm

            And you know who I mean – they are the feminists playing victim card right now as they know their dominance is being challenged.

          • Tom Burkard March 19, 2018 at 8:56 pm

            Well said–your last paragraph sums up my reason for advocating that England adopt the American Troops-to-Teachers programme, which succeeded in getting a lot more mature, working-class, male and minority teachers into the profession. As a side benefit, in the service no one waits for the magic moment when you ‘discover’ what happens when you pull the pin on a hand grenade.

            For all that Gove tried to implement it, he was obstructed every step of the way by the blob and especially the DfE, which tied the programme up with so many restrictions that it was impossible for other ranks to participate.

        • David Didau March 19, 2018 at 3:43 pm - Reply

          Caplan argues that maths and English at GCSE level are a waste of time – the only purpose they serve in his view is signalling that you’re intelligent, hardworking and conformist enough to tick the box. Instead he argues just for basic numeracy and literacy followed by vocational ed. He’d definitely get rid of the arts a MFL as being economically worthless.

      • James March 19, 2018 at 3:54 pm - Reply

        “By learning about things that are ‘useless’ in a purely practical sense, we are still changed”, I agree completely and the best teachers I’ve had and the best books I’ve read have changed the way I’ve looked at the world. The question remains: what percentage of people are changed, by how much, and what is the “value” of that change. (and how much of that change would we see anyway just through students developing, whether they were in education, work or … neither)

        This is especially important when considering how much government should fund education. I think Caplan’s argument would be that the value of such a change is a lot lower than we get when we spend on other things.

        I agree that this is probably the weakest part of his book. I also think education could provide more value to the public good if changed dramatically, sadly this would reduce the numbers of people who, for example, develop a passion for creative arts.

  4. Mark Carstens March 17, 2018 at 5:12 pm - Reply

    Thank you for your well-reasoned synopsis of the book. As always, I appreciate the detail and elaboration in your words.

    As an educator, it’s easy for me to get mired in the curriculum standards we teach to without questioning their value beyond the content and intellectual rigor they offer to my students. But I’ve read enough of your work, and that of others who write on how we learn, to know that education is much more than an economic proposition. Granted, we are charged with preparing students for whatever future they choose, but we can only speculate at what that future holds and, too, the livelihood that awaits them. Given that, we mostly, it seems, teach them “how” to learn and hope the knowledge they accumulate makes that learning possible by creating a foundation for what they learn next.

    And so it’s frustrating for everyone in my classroom when one of my charges raises the question, “When will I ever use this in real life?” followed closely by “I hate… (fill in the blank),” and my response is, “Because you don’t want a ten year old making ‘opt out’ choices for the adult you’ll be someday.” That seems to settle the argument for the most part, but I know that neither one of us is satisfied with the outcome.

    In the end, maybe the real question isn’t whether or not Caplan’s hypothesis is validated in whole or part, but rather *why* we still measure our education system by the same, economically focused yardstick, and then wonder why we often find our kids so uninspired by much of the content that the system has to offer them. It’s an important discussion we keep trying to have, so maybe this book will accelerate or broaden our thinking on that score.

    • Tom Burkard March 17, 2018 at 11:06 pm - Reply

      I don’t think education is measured by an economically focused yardstick. Mostly, it’s measured by subjective assessments which are designed primarily to protect a dysfunctional system where pupils retain very little of what they’ve been taught. And the great irony of it all is that the kind of routine testing which has been demonstrated as being the most effective means of securing learning in long-term memory is struggling to make a comeback against vociferous opposition from the gate-keepers of progressive orthodoxy. I am sure that they really believe that testing is oppressive and makes children mentally ill, but my experience and that of other teachers who actually use routine testing is that it’s the best way to get children enthused about a subject: it conveys to them that this knowledge is really worth having. Like it or not, kids are competitive little sods, and it’s not at all difficult to use this instinct constructively.

    • James March 19, 2018 at 3:37 pm - Reply

      Caplan addresses this at length in the book. He looks into studies of far transfer, “learning how to learn” and other general thinking skills and finds that for the vast majority of students the effect is very small. I’m not fully convinced by Caplan’s argument but I think it’s important to address the evidence he puts forward.

      As a second point when he suggests an economic yardstick it’s not in the lay use of the term. He means list everything you value about education (change of mindset, value of babysitting students, signalling, improved skills, reduced crime, etc.), convert each of these to a financial figure and sum to find the total value of education. When he says economics, he does not just mean how much students make when they graduate.

      • David Didau March 19, 2018 at 3:49 pm - Reply

        Yes, good points well made James. I certainly don’t want to offer a caricature of Caplan’s argument.

  5. ijstock March 18, 2018 at 12:13 pm - Reply

    It has to be right that the real legacy of education is not economic – even if it can be put to that use. It is in the ability to control one’s unruly mind, and bring it to bear on the necessities and desirabilities of life. It is also about the ability (as a writer in today’s Guardian puts it) to pursue truth – whatever that may be. And perhaps more importantly, in these times, the enhanced ability to scrutinise the world for what may after all only be *false* ‘truth’. It also seems to me entirely valid in a secular world for individuals to be encouraged to find fulfilment and flow in their lives, and that is worth doing for its own sake. I haven’t read this book – but it sounds as though it’s an economist proving the obvious – that his own discipline cannot provide the answers on this conundrum that it is commonly believed it can.

    • Tarjinder Wilkinson March 18, 2018 at 3:06 pm - Reply

      Well it would be good to get him to argue against Taleb that’s for sure!!

    • David Didau March 19, 2018 at 3:45 pm - Reply

      I’m with you LJ, except that I’d urge everyone to read it – it’s smart, funny, well-researched and provides a strong counterblast to everything else you’ll have read on education.

  6. Michael April 5, 2018 at 7:08 am - Reply

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