Bryan Caplan  

A Bloom-ish Defense of Education

That great classical liberal n... EconTalk and Chalk?...
Here's an email from an anonymous reader, criticizing my views on education.  Reprinted with his permission.

So here is some anecdotal evidence in support of your thesis.  I'm a working stiff (first in law, now in the financial sector) - but an absurdly overeducated one (PhD and JD).  What I learned in four years of college, five years of grad school and three years of law school did nothing for my career.  Maybe 0.5% of the law school curriculum was useful when I practiced law.  Being a lawyer is like being a plumber: you learn on the job.  I suspect the other professions are mostly the same.  What I got out of my education was the stamp of approval - pure signaling.  I suppose if I had stayed in academia the stuff I learned in grad school (e.g., the scholarly literature in my field) would have been more helpful, so the usefulness quotient would have been somewhat higher than 0.5%.  You'll have a better sense of that than I have.

But I remain stubbornly attached to the overblown, romanticized, Allan Bloom-ish view of liberal education.  My story here isn't all that persuasive, I concede.  In those twelve years of higher education, there were maybe four or five teachers who really moved me and changed my path for the better.  That's it...but I think it's enough to sustain the (massively wasteful) ideal.  If high culture (plus love) is the only thing that makes our existence worthwhile, then a bit of waste in pursuit of the goal is to be expected.  (I'd rather that the waste not be at taxpayer expense, but that's a separate topic.)  Would I have eventually found all of those books, artworks, etc. without the handful of great teachers?  Sure, probably.  I put nearly all of my free time, energy and resources into things like literature, philosophy, travel, cuisine and theater.  (I won't feel insulted if you distrust this self-report.)  So even with respect to the stuff I care most deeply about I'm 98% self-taught.  But I think the 2% I learned in school justifies my higher education.  It helped to kick-start me.  It planted seeds.  I met some good people.  If the schools had been better, and if I had been a harder-working and humbler student, the percentage would be a bit higher.  So: two cheers (or maybe a cheer and a half) for liberal education.

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COMMENTS (10 to date)
mike writes:


one thought that keeps crossing my mind on your ideas (I have read many of your articles here, and maybe a handful of critiques / review of your book, but I haven't read your book, so perhaps you address this there).

Existing businesses and certainly existing professionals (lawyers, accountants, nurses, drs etc) have a MASSIVE incentive to increase education requirement to act as huge barriers to entry into their career fields, which makes their own financail prospects much more secure. Obviously the education industry is happy to have their budgets increased, and "free" school and loans / subsidies work well for politicians, but I think its the protection by raising barrier to entry into fields is the main reason there isn't a strong market force to get over this "signaling" issue.

A further point, is technology is probably the field where education and pedigree matter way less than any other high paying field, and low and behold you see many, many coding schools ,online training, and "self-taught" hackers hired even by the big guys.

Probably biggest reasoning is there are no licenseing requirements and tech (on a big, multi-million job scale) is less than 30 years old, not a 100 years like law, medicine, finance, govt, industries etc.

Just thought my point might further strengthen your position (unless you already argue this and I have yet to see it!)

JFA writes:

The email author seems to think that this inspiration could only come from college and grad school professors. Why can't that inspiration come from middle school and high school teachers. This is obviously not something that Bryan advocates, but half the spending on higher ed could be put into getting better teachers in middle and high schools, raising the probability that many more kids (not only those who reach grad school) could have access to those teachers.

Do I think this would happen? I don't know. There are several other contingencies in school administration and status seeking wrapped up in being a college professor that might prevent it, but hoping for the best in my alternate scenario is probably better than inspiring only a select number of college students at huge costs.

Dave Smith writes:

With enemies like that, who needs friends.

Seth Green writes:

"I'd rather that the waste not be at taxpayer expense, but that's a separate topic."

Isn't that *exactly* the topic?

Daniel L Lurker writes:

Sure, 99.5% waste works for this apparently successful Ph.D/JD. But even if we accept that there are no other ways to find high culture or inspiration, he is in the minority.

I'd bet dollars-to-donuts that the median grad student doesn't read a blog of EconLog quality, or embrace life as a bon vivant or intellectual. They are careerists, and many of them go to weak schools just to get a credential at a particular level. (For instance, an HR person who takes an online course to get a Master's degree to be eligible for a higher paying job in government.)

And then there is the fact that many graduate students fail out or are forced to stop because of other things that come up in life.

The author's initial argument struck me as absurd. But it gets even weirder when you consider how unrepresentative of grad students this guy likely is.

Alan Goldhammer writes:

This recent Op-Ed is perhaps the best rejoinder to Professor Caplan. Perhaps his idea of doing away with public support of education might work in some fields but it's very difficult to see how applicable it would be to STEM fields (disclosure: my two degrees in chemistry come from public universities and I finished my scientific training on a fellowship from the National Institutes of Health). Similarly, the agricultural sciences benefitted (and still do) strongly from the Morrill Act that established the Land Grant university system way back in 1862.

I'm still puzzled as to why Professor Kaplan continues to teach at a public university that receives both state and federal funding. I did read his essay in The Atlantic a couple of months ago. Is an education at George Mason a solution to this or just another part of the problem that he analyzes?

Floccina writes:

I assume that he would agree that we need to stop increasing funding for education and maybe even start to walk it back to 1960 levels.

robc writes:


That article makes a common economic mistake: It covers the seen, but fails to deal with the unseen.

Hilleman going to college was great for him and the world.

But what was the opportunity cost of his scholarship? In that case, probably not enough to offset him. But how about adding up all of the costs of land grant universities over the years. How much lost opportunity was there?

It is harder to calculate because it is disperse across a large population and it is unseen. There are no counteracting Hilleman type stories. Or maybe there are, and we just don't know them. Who knows what Inventor X would have done if he had had just $2 more dollars in his wallet than he had due to taxation for the land grant schools. Maybe he bought a cheaper part and it didn't work and he gave up.

Its a BS story, but that is the problem with the unseen. We don't know what all the little margins add up to.

Alan Goldhammer writes:

@robc - Of course you can make the argument about opportunity costs. That being said there are ample examples of advances in research of all kinds that were made through the university research system. Some of this work would only be done in that type of setting because of the market imperatives and the focus on large potential profit projects. The other part of this is the training of future researchers/inventors which you do not address in your comments.

john hare writes:

Shouldn't research be funded as research and not gerrymandered as education funding?


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