Bryan Caplan  

How I Love Education

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When I write about education, I suspect I come off as a philistine.  You might even boil my position down to: "Students are bored, and aren't acquiring job skills, so their education is a waste of time and money."  But what about learning for its own sake?  Why do I seem so closed to the possibility that education is a merit good that human beings ought to consume to uplift their souls?

This question is awkward for me because, unlike many economists and libertarians, I actually believe in merit goods.  For example, I believe that opera - especially 19th-century German opera - is the objective pinnacle of musical achievement.  Given my stance, it's also natural to see great intrinsic value in the study of philosophy, history, literature, and the like.  Truth be told, "impractical" education is central to my whole sense of identity.  How can I live with myself when I ridicule the magic of education?

My answer: I love education too much to respect the mediocre substitutes that schools actually offer.  How do these substitutes fall short of my ideals?

1. Education, like opera, is only a merit good when it's done right.  Real-world opera, happily, usually is done right.  Real-world education, in contrast, is a travesty.    Most educators are boring.  They fail to bring the liveliest of subjects to life.  They focus on irrelevant details and hollow technique.  And in the social sciences and humanities, many of the "great ideas" and "great thinkers" aren't just wrong, but stupidly wrong. 

Take Marxism.  As far as I'm concerned, it's no more a merit good than creation science.  Grasping the thoughts of economically illiterate 19th-century hate-mongers is not a crucial ingredient of a life well-lived.

2. Education, like opera, is only a merit good when experienced by minds capable of seriously appreciating it.  Exposing bright, artistic minds to opera is great.  Pushing opera on apathetic NASCAR fans is a waste of time - and can easily ruin the experience for genuine opera aficionados.  The same goes for philosophy, history, literature, and the like.  Exposing bright, logical minds to philosophy is great.  Pushing philosophy on apathetic undergraduates is a waste of time at best. 

Sure, there's some uncertainty about who's really open to great ideas.  But there's far less uncertainty than educators like to tell themselves.  Convincing a random student that "epistemology is fascinating" is virtually impossible.  In the typical UC Berkeley class for philosophy majors, I rarely found more than two or three students who cared enough about the subject to study it on their own initiative. 

Can't education be improved?  Yes, but major reform is unlikely.  As long as professors make money while ruining great subjects, and the labor market rewards students for feigning interest, the charade will go on.

My standards may seem unreasonably high.  But they're typically realized in, for example, the Institute for Humane Studies' summer seminars.  A few professors who love teaching and have something they're burning to say deliver two or three lectures a piece.  A few dozen self-selected students from around the world show up and happily participate.  The students receive no academic credit, just a week of learning, sharing, and debating mind-blowing ideas. 

I love these summer seminars.  They're beautiful.  They're a merit good.  And they bear almost no resemblance to the official coursework students have to endure to get a diploma.



COMMENTS (22 to date)
KnowPD writes:

What do you think the correlation is between people who value education as a merit good and those who make productive workers in the economy?

Dan Hill writes:

Education is not a merit good, learning is.

For most people in our education system it is a means not an end. For the minority of people who love learning, it is an end in itself. They are becoming less and less reliant on traditional education institutions for their learning, further dumbing down the system...

Adrian writes:

You prefer your 19C German hatemongers to be musical (Wagner) rather than philosophical (Marx)? So Lohengrin but not The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon...

Peter St. Onge writes:

"Grasping the thoughts of economically illiterate 19th-century hate-mongers is not a crucial ingredient of a life well-lived."

Now that's a quotable, Bryan!

Hugh writes:
Pushing opera on apathetic NASCAR fans is a waste of time

Yes, if they're apathetic about NASCAR, that's not a good sign.

allen writes:

Simply, merit goods are luxuries and in the current climate in higher education, pretty expensive luxuries.

The willingness of the public to pay for merit goods is a function of wealth and right now we're not feeling wealthy. A person who might like to buy steak, i.e. get doctorate in Eastern European languages, is deterred due to the lack of demand for the skill such a degree indicates. So they buy burger and get a degree in some more marketable area.

So the solution is to either drop the cost of luxury degrees or get the economy moving again.

rpl writes:
Take Marxism. As far as I'm concerned, it's no more a merit good than creation science. Grasping the thoughts of economically illiterate 19th-century hate-mongers is not a crucial ingredient of a life well-lived.
Really, Bryan? How are students supposed to conclude that Marx was wrong without first understanding what it was that he was arguing? Should they just accept it on faith because you said so?

And what would you give as the context for the 20th century cold war? Should we teach that as "Us vs. the people who believed a bunch of stupid stuff that isn't even worth talking about"? What would you have thought of that when you were a student?

Most importantly, isn't it worth teaching about failed ideologies so that people don't reinvent them and decide to try them out? It sounds to me like you're saying that it isn't worth teaching students to recognize and refute bad ideas. That can't be right.

Sarah writes:

So is this an innate quality? Being the kind of person who can appreciate education? I don't think so -- I think it's very contingent.

I've been, at different times, a very good student (motivated, curious, intellectually mature) and a very bad student (lazy, apathetic, anti-intellectual.) That's the thing about youth -- people change fast. People may be terrible students until they find the topic that changes their lives. Or until they grow out of an oppositional identity.

We push education on bad students, and I'm not entirely sure this is a bad thing...I'm lucky that I wasn't just tossed aside when I was going through a bad-student phase.

Blake writes:

By this logic, does the rise of the adjunct professor not count as a move in the right direction? I see adjuncts as people wiilling to teach for alnost nothing, who are burning to say something and desparate to find an audience.

liberty writes:

Some others here - rpl and Sarah especially - have made pointed to some of the fallacy (in my opinion) of what you say. To be honest, you sound a bit elitist.

People, it turns out, are people. They grow, they are capable of learning. They *want* to learn. Humans are curious. Many NASCAR fans might enjoy opera if given the chance to see it. And opera fans might even enjoy NASCAR.

People experience life and they want to understand - and part of that understanding is also learning mistakes others have made, and coming to understand why they made them, and as they learn about these historical lessons, contributing to human knowledge and social knowledge and cultural understanding and change. Even a small child can often offer great insight as they learn (as a parent I'm sure you must know that).

To imagine that most people cannot learn to an "advanced" level, or to imagine that learning should be restricted to learning only what some elite have decided is correct - at that moment in time - is to underestimate and undervalue humanity and limit humanity's growth potential - not just economic growth potential but growth in our collective understanding, our cultural knowledge and our scientific knowledge.

Even Marx was not wrong about everything - and what he was wrong about is critical to understand. Societies that value every person's ability to learn and teach, where higher learning is valued and widespread and intelligent media is widely shared, and history and science and the arts are enjoyed by all (or most) are societies that are dynamic, evolving, and advancing societies - in a well-rounded, not just economic, sense.

In my opinion the US is behind other "advanced" societies when viewed this way. And I don't think your attitude about education as expressed in this post is likely to help turn that around.

Roger Sweeny writes:

liberty,

Bryan is not saying that anyone "should be restricted to learning only what some elite have decided is correct - at that moment in time."

He is saying that it is a bad idea to force people to sit in classrooms and be exposed to "what some elite [professors and administrators] have decided is correct - at that moment in time."

Ken B writes:
... professors make money while ruining great subjects ...

You mean due to bad incenives Cosi fan Tutte

Michael Thomas writes:

On Marx, this sticks in my craw, because I think Marx is an important historical figure.

Marx is ultimately and critically flawed, which I guess is why I would cede the argument to Caplan in the end. However, you are not going to understand the evolution of the history of economic thought in the 19th and 20th centuries without understanding Marx at a more than casual level (and you ought to bring Aristotle to the table with you when reading him). Perhaps my defense only works for specialists and Caplan's point is more about what we should be teaching to survey students. In that case, you don't need Marx when you have the Keynes and Hayek rap videos to set the stage of dialectic tension in economics as a social science. Marx vs. Capitalism is giving way too much credit to Marx as merely one writer (and not a particularly clear and concise one).

Perhaps if we were to single out one 19th century figure in socialism to contend with, Robert Owen would be better. This way we can compare and contrast Owen and Henry Ford from the 20th century and ask questions about their similarities and differences (as well as the implications for pure capitalism).

rpl writes:

Roger,

Isn't this what Bryan's argument really amounts to: We should stop forcing students to sit in classrooms and be exposed to "what some elite have decided is correct" and start forcing them to sit in classrooms and be exposed to "what I [i.e., Bryan] have decided is correct." If you look back at his posts on the subject, it's basically a litany of all the things we teach in school that he feels are useless and should be dumped in favor of the things that he feels are important.

If you stop to think about it, as long as you have a curriculum, you're pretty much stuck with an "elite" (the people who decide what goes into the curriculum) and the stuff they "have decided is correct." That's pretty much what it means to have a curriculum. Bryan can argue about what ought to go into the curriculum, of course, but if he's going to do that, then in my opinion he really needs some better arguments than "It doesn't prepare you for a job" or "It's stupid."

RAH writes:

I think Bryan is right in his implication that having intellectual passions is to a great extent innate. First of all, it requires a decently high IQ. Something is not going to be fun if thinking about it for more than five minutes makes your head hurt. That's why the average man is far fascinated by sports than he is by economics or philosophy, despite the fact that the education system introduces him to more intellectual subjects. It's not because sports is more inherently fascinating.

So there's an IQ minimum that you must have, before we even get into personality traits. Therefore, it's not surprising that even at an elite school like Berkley very few are going to be motivated to do any kind of study on their own.

As far as not tossing aside bad students, the question is whether making 100 students take a class so one can find an intellectual passion is worth it.

guthrie writes:

This post deeply resonates with me. However I, along with others it seems, object to the use of the word ‘apathetic’ along with a secondary signifier such as ‘NASCAR’. I’ve noticed that many fans of NASCAR can display no apathy whatsoever when presented with a subject they enjoy, such as repairing an engine for example, or (as with at least one of my friends), handling mortgages for a bank.

If one wants to see a bunch of bored 10 year olds, tell them you’re teaching them something. You’ll see them perk up once you have them clean out the fish tank, or struggle to learn juggling, or what have you.

This, to me, implies that it’s actually the teacher’s job to inspire the kind of excitement that draws the student to grasp various subjects. Perhaps a teacher ‘doing it right’ is one who invests his time in figuring out how each student best learns? If the students fail, or are bored, maybe the teacher isn’t ‘doing it right’ or may not even be teaching the right subject? Perhaps it’s the mark of a true teacher who can inspire this kind of interest in a majority of her students for a given subject?

Bryan, I think one of the main objections that people might have to your position is the implication that ‘learning is innate for some but not for others’. However, clearly things like reading, writing, and math are learned activities, so this implication doesn’t quite jibe with what in our world is a commonly shared experience of being taught how to read (for example).

I think you may need to find new and different ways of explaining that what you’re presenting doesn’t necessarily mean that human beings are ‘stuck’. That people aren’t doomed by their genetics to boring, ignorant, and unfulfilling lives. What you seem to be saying is quite the opposite, but it doesn't always come across.

JKB writes:

The summer seminars sound terribly similar to the folk school concept. In the US, the folk schools tend toward the traditional arts but that is not a requirement. The concept is for self motivated individuals to come together for non-competitive learning, sharing and debate.

Adult learning at community colleges is a take on the folk school but gets tangled up with the baggage of formal education and the university. Namely, the conditioned response to teacher-fed classroom with low student contribution we all learned by third grade. The idea that school, and therefore learning, is pain, unpleasant and to be avoided when not required by law or promise of greater earnings.

Obviously, some retain or obtain the desire for learning for learnings sake in spite of the "school helplessness" induced by formal instruction. However, your "apathetic NASCAR fans" are really just many of those who didn't make it through school with learning as a living attribute alive but rather were bayonetted when they stumbled on the long, inexorable march to higher education.

Perhaps you don't see it since your position and reported history indicates you stumbled little in your education. Others, do not come to study skills by organic revelation and fall behind. It is odd that "how to study" is one topic the education system will not explicitly provide the student. It is as though McDonalds was willing to teach the fry cook the theory and nature of the frenched potato but leave him to his own devices when learning how to cook the fries.

Foobarista writes:

On Marx, you should study him for the same reason you should be aware of the Bible and other primary religious works (even if you're a full-frontal atheist): his ideas shaped the philosophy and thinking of much of the modern world.

Even if you study him to attack his ideas, you still need to be aware of them. If you don't understand why Marx's ideas _didn't_ work, how will you avoid being influenced by them?

guthrie writes:

This post deeply resonates with me. However I, along with others it seems, object to the use of the word ‘apathetic’ along with a secondary signifier such as ‘NASCAR’. I’ve noticed that many fans of NASCAR can display no apathy whatsoever when presented with a subject they enjoy, such as repairing an engine for example, or (as with at least one of my friends), handling mortgages for a bank.

If one wants to see a bunch of bored 10 year olds, tell them you’re teaching them something. You’ll see them perk up once you have them clean out the fish tank, or struggle to learn juggling, or what have you.

This, to me, implies that it’s actually the teacher’s job to inspire the kind of excitement that draws the student to grasp various subjects. Perhaps a teacher ‘doing it right’ is one who invests his time in figuring out how each student best learns? If the students fail, or are bored, maybe the teacher isn’t ‘doing it right’ or may not even be teaching the right subject? Perhaps it’s the mark of a true teacher who can inspire this kind of interest in a majority of her students for a given subject?

Bryan, I think one of the main objections that people might have to your position is the implication that ‘learning is innate for some but not for others’. However, clearly things like reading, writing, and math are learned activities, so this implication doesn’t quite jibe with what in our world is a commonly shared experience of being taught how to read (for example).

I think you may need to find new and different ways of explaining that what you’re presenting doesn’t necessarily mean that human beings are ‘stuck’. That people aren’t doomed by their genetics to boring, ignorant, and unfulfilling lives. What you seem to be saying is quite the opposite, but it doesn't always come across.

MingoV writes:

I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Caplan's viewpoints on education in this post. (Though I'm not an opera lover.)

I was a medical student in the late 1970s, and I was astounded that a large proportion of my classmates disliked learning. Why would someone who dislikes learning choose a career requiring four years of college, four years of medical school, at least three years of residency training, and lifelong continuing education? I admit that some of the college and med school lecturers were poor. But, many were good: they explained concepts well, they were enthusiastic, and they obviously loved their subject. That was heaven for us lovers of learning.

I worked hard to become a good educator when I taught medical students. My efforts were appreciated by a minority of students. Most gave me poor evaluations because I required students to thoroughly understand the subject matter, and I wrote tough tests. I gave up a few years ago. By my estimate, less than 10% of medical students appreciate good teaching. Most of the rest want only to memorize enough to pass easy tests and get diplomas. They don't care if they learn enough to adequately practice medicine. (That's why I won't seek medical care from young physicians unless I know that they were in the "love to learn" group.)

RogC writes:
I rarely found more than two or three students who cared enough about the subject to study it on their own initiative

This appears to have become the norm instead of the exception. In interviewing developer & finance job candidates we always ask questions about what books they have read recently and which websites / forums are their favorites in the area being discussed. The results can be very disappointing as a large number of candidates seem to have no personal involvement with their field of study & work outside of specific assignments given to them.

Tom Addison writes:

I'm assuming that in order to dismiss Marx as you have done you must have read his ideas in the first place? Doesn't this mean that we need people to read the “low standard” educational material in order to decide which is the more "meritable" stuff, which I'm assuming therefore is a merit in itself?

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