Bryan Caplan  

Beach Critiques The Case Against Education

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Here are some detailed critical comments on my new book from Josh Beach, published with his permission.

Dr. Caplan,

I recently finished your new book.  It is a very important and timely book.  I found your arguments very clear, well reasoned, and convincing, albeit within the range of uncertainty you discussed.  I also found it very funny in parts and I enjoyed your sense of humor.  The topic of signaling and credentialism is very important, and not a topic that the educational community has paid enough attention to.

With that said, there are some serious flaws with your book that I want to make you aware of.  Over the next few years, I hope that you will consider revising and expanding the book because I really think you make a serious contribution on a very important topic.

1.  First, you need to reconsider your core terminology.  You are really presenting a case against "schooling" or "public schooling," not a case against "education," as you explain in the later chapters that you believe in the power of education and the possibility of human capital gains.  In the educational community, we have a long tradition of distinguishing between "education" (learning, development, and personal growth) from "schooling" (going to and conforming to the institution of school).

2.  Second, you need to get into the literature on "institutions" in sociology, economics, and political science, especially the "neo-institutionalsm" of the past few decades, which includes the "bringing the state back in" institutional analysis of political structure when studying all types of social issues.  State and quasi-state schooling has been a social institution for thousands of years, and continues to exist primarily as a non-rational social institution.  Your focus on a rational economic analysis of the ends of schooling as preparation for the job market is partial, at best, and really neglects the main function of schooling as a social acculturation process and a state-sponsored accrediting agency (credentialism goes back many thousands of years to ancient China).  And just because you can remove schooling does not mean that you can remove signaling, as there has always been signaling in human societies (and thus social and political inequality), and most likely there will always be signaling.  If you abolish the public school and academic credentials, what other forms of signaling will take its place?  And as part of a study of the institutional of schooling, it would be important to delve more deeply into the sociology of the school as a community institution that brings people together.  I am thinking of Putnam's "bowling alone" thesis, as the school is one of the most important institutions to bring people together socially, which you never really address in your book.

3.  Third, you are wrong to suggest that you do not need to make a case for your political philosophy of libertarianism.  While this philosophy may only marginally effect your core argument, it directly affects your policy prescription at the end of the book (abolish public schooling and/or privatize it).  You lay out a meticulous theoretical case for signaling theory vs. human capital theory at the heart of the book.  You need to do the same with rival political philosophies once you step into a very different argument about public policy, which is a political argument that must address the public good. 

4.  Related to point three, your policy prescription is simplistic and utopian, if not anarchistic.  In policy debates, one must debate not only the merits of new public policy, but costs of switching policies.  If we did end public schooling as you argue, what would be the effect on laid off teachers and administrators and also the educational businesses dependent on public schooling, not to mention the social effects of lost community institutions and rituals (think of the social importance of sports teams for local communities).  What would be the economic costs of abolishing public schooling?  Wouldn't it flood the labor market with credential and exacerbate the signaling problem for decades until all these laid off teachers retired or died?  What would be the social effect on local communities?

5.  Finally, you need to look at other countries for empirical examples.  Is there a county that represents some/all of your ideal?  Specifically, you need to research South Korea and read Seth's book Education Fever.  South Korea has had a largely privatized education market, but you will find that it is the most over-credentialed country on the planet, with not only massive degree inflation that is out of step with the labor market, but the process of schooling (both public and private) is a heavy burden on kids from K-college.  I lived and taught in Korea for a year, did some research, and was horrified by what I saw.  South Korea is perhaps an extreme outlier, but it proves that lack of state sponsored public schooling will not necessarily reduce signaling/credentalism because of the deeper, institutional importance of education and schooling for South Korean society.

A last small point to address: you did not cite anything from W. Norton Grubb who is one of the leading economists of education, which I found baffling.  I would encourage you to look at his research on the labor market value of degrees, spending on education, and his best book called the "Education Gospel."

Again, I really enjoyed your book and I think it is a very important contribution.  But I think the educational community will largely ignore it because you do not offer any serious alternative, nor do you address the deeper social purposes of schooling and education.

To end, I want to make the case for the human capital theory in relation to your neglect of history and the historical analysis of schooling: For thousands of years, schooling has been mostly about signaling and social inequality.  The use of public schools for human capital was only invented relatively recently in the 19th century, and even then, really trying to address the teaching of useful skill was not developed until the progressive education movement in the early 20th century.  Thus, even though the signaling/human capital ratio might be very skewed towards signaling, I think you would find that historically schooling was 100 percent signaling so the 20 to 50 percent of human capital development in schooling has been a hard earned social achievement, which perhaps could get even better with future reforms of the curriculum and process of schooling.  I've attached the proof copy of my new book, which makes the case for a serious re-imagination of what "literacy" means in the 21st century and how the school curriculum, especially in high education, could be reformed so as to enable more human capital development.

All my best in your future endeavors, and I ordered your book on voter ignorance, which I'm eager to read.

Josh Beach

COMMENTS (6 to date)
HH writes:

Re #1, I tweeted to Bryan back in 2014, and he replied that he avoids pedantic semantics:

See the exchange here.

I wrote in response on a now-defunct blog that he's making his case unnecessarily difficult because people have positive views of "education" and at best neutral ones of "schooling." Why immediately create a defensive reaction in the reader who probably thinks education is a good thing?

robc writes:


The subtitle of the book does say "Education System", which translates to "schooling" in my brain, so I do think he made the distinction within the title of the book (just not in the main title).

Keith K. writes:

"Your focus on a rational economic analysis of the ends of schooling as preparation for the job market is partial, at best, and really neglects the main function of schooling as a social acculturation process and a state-sponsored accrediting agency (credentialism goes back many thousands of years to ancient China)."

"Social acculturation process" to my ears = "Social indoctrination" or "propaganda". I agree with this sentiment, but I do not see why this would be a feature. It seems to me to be another point that Caplan to could make in the book to show why the current system to be destroyed: the fact that it is molded by the ruling elite to keep their preferred social structure in power.

I also do not find his South Korea point particularly convincing, or even true in the way he has presented it. He seems to be presenting it as a private system, whereas the wiki for "Education in South Korea" directly contradicts what he claims. From what I have seen it appears that the Korean government spends something like $7000-8000 per student on education each year. It's true that the SK's use a ton of private schooling also or tutoring on top of that, but that seems to be more due to underlying cultural norms around education and employment. He needs to make a stronger case that the underlying public institutional environment in SK is not also pushing this effect.

JK Brown writes:

Mises commented on the "Social acculturation process" of public and compulsory schooling. He did cede that it would work in areas of cultural homogeneity, but became oppression in areas of diverse nationalities. Given the current drive toward diversity, compulsory public schooling becomes, problematic.

If one leaves to the parents the choice of the school to which they wish to send their children, then one exposes them to every conceivable form of political coercion. In all areas of mixed nationality, the school is a political prize of the highest importance. It cannot be deprived of its political character as long as it remains a public and compulsory institution. There is, in fact, only one solution: the state, the government, the laws must not in any way concern themselves with schooling or education. Public funds must not be used for such purposes. The rearing and instruction of youth must be left entirely to parents and to private associations and institutions.
--Mises, Ludwig von (1927). Liberalism (pp. 115-116)

Thaomas writes:

Why isn't "acculturation" a valid and productivity-enhancing part of human capital accumulation?

Frank P. writes:

Very interesting book, and one whose thesis I intuited 35+ years ago in high school, to the point that I mentioned it (in so many words) during my interviews for college admission.
That said, I agree that the lack of empirical examples struck me as something of an obvious oversight. I don't know anything about the South Korean education system, but wasn't our own system in days gone by closer to that which Caplan proposes we (re)turn to? Surely we didn't always spend 6.2% of GDP on education, and -- as he noted -- in the old days many fewer Americans graduated from high school and college. Likewise, some other developed nations right now are spending closer to 4% of GDP on education. Why didn't Caplan compare our current system with these more efficient systems to buttress (or not) his argument?

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