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In Hans Christian Andersen’s fable, two swindlers sell their ruler a garment that dishonest people supposedly cannot see. The ploy works until a child, unencumbered by social pressure to deny what is plainly true, observes that the emperor has no clothes.

What if that story had a different ending? What if nobody listened, and the ruse continued, and the child grew up to become a libertarian economics professor at George Mason University? He might well have written Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money.

The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money
by Bryan Caplan
Princeton University Press, 466 pp. Credit:

These kinds of books often lack the courage of their title’s provocations. Not this one. Caplan, a career educator, really is a staunch skeptic of most of the personal, social, and economic benefits of education. He calls for no less than ending public education as we know it and massively reducing the number of people with high school and college degrees. To prosecute his case, he has assembled a pile of academic studies, including some showing alarmingly subpar literacy and mathematics skills among college graduates. Most people would see these statistics as a reason to make education better. But to Caplan they’re a reason to make education disappear.

Caplan’s main critique is that most formal education is ineffective and alienated from the skills and knowledge that typical jobs require. Reading, math, and some sciences are worthwhile, he concedes, but everything else is a waste. “There really is no need for K–12 to teach history, social studies, art, music, or foreign languages,” he writes. “The class clown who snarks, ‘What does this have to do with real life?,’ is on to something.” If you can’t easily match a subject with a marketable job skill, he believes, it shouldn’t be taught in school.

Yet despite all that irrelevant and ineffective learning, people with degrees still get paid a premium by the labor market. And market signals are a central source of capital-T truth for any committed libertarian. If education is so useless, why do employers continue to reward it?

This question is a central obstacle confronting Caplan’s argument, and he devotes much of the book to answering it. The disconnect between earning and learning, he says, is explained by a phenomenon called “signaling.” The argument goes like this: Educational credentials are evidence that people have genuinely valuable traits: intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity. The education system has been constructed to sort and select people who already have those qualities, and so we’re all trapped in the collective delusion that schools impart them. Only the shock of radical disinvestment in public education, Caplan claims, will wake us up and set us free from this ruse.

Caplan is not wrong about the existence of signaling and its kissing cousin, credentialism, which describes the tendency of job categories to accrue more degree requirements, sometimes unnecessarily, over time. But these are banal and unchallenged ideas in the economics profession. Caplan’s core argument is about the size of signaling relative to authentic learning. In his estimation, signaling accounts for a full 80 percent of the economic benefits of education. He spends long chapters arguing against the views of “human capital purists”—
hypothetical economists who believe that the labor market only rewards actual job skills, regardless of credentials, and who supposedly dominate the field.

But the truth is that these purists are rare, if they exist at all. Caplan’s fellow economists already believe in signaling. They just don’t agree that it represents anything close to 80 percent of the value of a typical degree. Even Michael Spence, who won the economics Nobel Prize for more or less inventing signaling theory in a 1973 paper, eventually grew concerned about how it was being interpreted. In his 2001 Nobel lecture, Spence warned that people who use job markets to illustrate signaling run the risk of concluding, wrongly, that education doesn’t contribute to productivity. This wrongheaded argument is the essence of The Case Against Education.

Caplan is so thoroughly convinced of his thesis and (to his credit) so determined to address every known argument against it that he crosses the line into assuming his conclusions: education can’t be responsible for the positive results it seems to produce, because something else must be. Eric Hanushek, a conservative economist and well-known skeptic of public school funding, has documented a strong relationship between average scores on international tests and the growth rates of national economies. Put simply, well-educated nations become prosperous nations, and no country has become well educated without large, sustained investments in public education. But Caplan remains “unconvinced.” Instead, he insists that the test scores “reflect a deeper—and far less malleable—ability that promotes success in virtually every line of work: intelligence.”

There is no good reason to believe this is true. Consider the Baltic states: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Estonian students score very high on the PISA, the most well-known and widely used international test of student learning in science, reading, and math. Latvian and Lithuanian results are much worse. Are we to believe that three small, contiguous former Soviet satellite states, each with between one and three million people, have large underlying differences in the raw intelligence of their populations? Or, far more plausibly, that Estonia’s schools are simply better run?

But to concede that it’s possible for countries to have better or worse education systems would make it harder for Caplan to reach his radical conclusion: “Government should stop using tax dollars to fund education of any kind.” Even small subsidies, Caplan believes, will tempt policymakers to backslide toward the injustice that is public schooling. Caplan arbitrarily compares public spending on education to national defense before describing support for both as a “resplendent banquet.” He says nothing about the pervasive and obvious inequality in how school funding is distributed to impoverished children, millions of whom attend schools that are not resplendent in any way.

“There really is no need for K–12 to teach history, social studies, art, music, or foreign languages,” Bryan Caplan writes. “The class clown who snarks, ‘What does this have to do with real life?,’ is on to something.”

If policymakers followed Caplan’s advice and restored education policies last seen before the Industrial Revolution, what would happen? The rich would no doubt still spend their own money to teach their children economically useless subjects like history, art, and music—just as they do, almost without exception, today. The evidence of that free market somehow doesn’t count. And what about the children of the 99 percent? “Deregulate and destigmatize child labor,” Caplan advises. Really.

There is a better, shorter book inside The Case Against Education, called The Case That Signaling Is a Real Thing More People Should Understand. It might have provided a useful challenge to complacency and self-satisfaction about education, reminding people that credentialing regimes can serve to reinforce existing power and privilege. When it comes to education policy, signaling is like Marxism: a bad theoretical foundation for organizing society, but a useful perspective to keep in mind.

But Caplan is determined to prosecute the signaling case to extreme and unjustified degrees, for reasons that sometimes seem oddly personal. “Autobiographically,” he writes, “my doubts about the social value of education long predated my discovery of political philosophy. What undermined my faith? Firsthand experience. Soon after starting kindergarten, I started to realize, in a childish way, that I’d never use most of the material my teachers taught.” By junior high, he “gamed the system” with “crude signaling theory,” working as little as possible to get A’s in “boring and useless” classes. Then, at the end of high school, he discovered libertarianism, an admittedly “eccentric” philosophy that still drives his “strong moral presumption against taxpayer support for anything.”

We ought not rely on childish insights and adolescent philosophies to guide our national investment in public schools. The education emperor’s garments might be more ragged than many people would like to admit. But that’s an argument for repair and reform, not for leaving untold millions of children exposed to the winter of

Kevin Carey

Kevin Carey directs the education policy program at New America.