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The Case Against Education

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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.

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