A Case Against Public Education

Bryan Caplan,

Release Date
May 22, 2017



Prof. Bryan Caplan argues that public funding for education doesn’t make sense. Watch the full interview on the Rubin Report
Caplan claims that educational degrees communicate a signal of worth rather than delivering valuable skills or information. Second, he argues that public education does not lead to a knowledgeable citizenry, since surveys show high school and college graduates are poorly informed on basic civics and history.

    1. “Bryan Caplan on College, Signaling and Human Capital,” (podcast) Prof. Caplan appears on the EconTalk podcast with Russ Roberts to discuss the ideas in his forthcoming book, The Case Against Education 
    2. “Educational Signaling, a Fad Whose Time Has Come,” (blog post), Prof. Caplan answers a critic of the idea that degrees are mostly about signaling– includes links to the original article critiquing his view. 
    3. “Education Vs. Schooling” (video). Historian Steve Davies argues that meaningful education and schooling as we know it are two different things:

Bryan Caplan: So I just wrapped up a book one education called The Case Against Education where I argue for defunding education. [inaudible 00:00:17] “Isn’t that bad for you?” Well yeah, it would be bad for me if people listened. But still my conscience says this is the right thing to do.
Dave Rubin: Okay, so sell me on that. I went to a public elementary school, public junior high, public high school. I went to State University of New York at Binghamton, which was hugely subsidized by the government, I think it was around $9,000 a year. I got a great education. Why am I wrong on that?
Bryan Caplan: I went to public schools right in this neighborhood, actually. The heart of my case is something called the [signaling 00:00:46] model of education. This is a fancy term for a common sense idea, just says that a lot of the reason why education pays is not that it’s teaching useful job skills, but rather you’re jumping through hoops to show off for employers. So just think about all the classes that you ever had to take and then how few of them are actually relevant to the job that you do. You actually probably have a job where you do use more of what you studied, although-
Dave Rubin: I was a political science major, so there you go.
Bryan Caplan: But just think about all the classes that were required where you would not have been allowed to graduate without going through all of them. I always have this example. Imagine you’re like one Aristotle short of college graduation, and yet you want to finish that class. Why? Because you’re gonna use the Nicomachean Ethics on the job? Probably not. Rather because you want that diploma and employers will just throw your application right in the trash unless you have the diploma.
Dave Rubin: But do you lose something doing it your way because of just a certain breadth of knowledge? Now I’m not saying that every class should be mandated and of course they stick you things that shouldn’t be necessary. But just that, in terms of college, specifically, that that’s where you should get a broad sense of knowledge. Would that be at risk then?
Bryan Caplan: Well, here’s the thing. It’s not at risk because almost no one gets it now. That is the harsh truth is that, if you just go and look at what graduates of the current system know, it is next to nothing. So there have been some great, nationally-representative surveys of what American adults know about government, about history, about economics, and the answer is they know next to nothing. So if you were to defend the system saying that people need breadth of knowledge, well it’s not in defense of the current system because the current system is not giving it to them.
The way that I like to think about it is that typically American college graduate is lucky to maybe answer half of the most basic questions you can imagine on civics. Now you might say, “Well, that was still worthwhile.” I say it’s not worthwhile because what do you call someone who knows half their letters? What do you call someone who knows half their letters?
Dave Rubin: An idiot?
Bryan Caplan: Illiterate.
Dave Rubin: Yeah, okay.
Bryan Caplan: If you know half your letters, you are illiterate. You’re not half-literate if you know half your letters. You are illiterate because you can not read. Some might say if you know half the basic facts about US history or about American government, you don’t know half of what you need to know. You just don’t know it at all. You don’t have a clue.
Dave Rubin: If you think there are one and a half branches of government, we’re in a lot of trouble.
Bryan Caplan: You just don’t have a clue about what’s going on, and that’s what the current system has given us. So when people say, “Wouldn’t this be a disaster?” I say, “Well, you might say the current system is a disaster, but what I’m proposing wouldn’t be worse.”
Now there’s always the question, “Well, but why not go and redouble our efforts so the people really do learn the stuff?” The people generally forget what they learn very quickly. So on test day, actually, I believe that most of the students in the civics class probably actually kind of knew their stuff. But what psychologists call fade out is so enormous. Just the way like, in one ear, out the next. If you don’t keep testing it, you don’t keep using it, you lose it.
I mean, this is some of the most interesting research in psychology. There’s a lot of research on fade out in school, where you go and you teach the kids something, and then you go and measure it one or two years later in school. But the really scary fade out is from school to adulthood, because the kids in school, at least they kind of know, “I’m gonna have to learn this again. I might get tested on it again.” But once you finally graduate, that’s it. That’s the end.
So there’s a fantastic study of retention of higher mathematics throughout life. Algebra and geometry. Within a couple decades, most people who took those classes are back to where they were before they even actually started the classes. The only people who remember their algebra and geometry are people who go all the way up to calculus. So if you go all the way to calculus, then you go and retain algebra and geometry for the rest of your life. But you have to go way beyond a subject to actually retain the basics. This all fits with like I say, use it or lose it, or … Tiger Mom Amy Chu has a great slogan. “Every day you don’t practice is a day you get worse.” This does go with, “Well, so why bother people teaching things that they’re just gonna forget anyway?” This is part of my critique of what’s wrong with throwing so much money at education.
Now of course none of this denies that schools do teach some useful material, but again, my view is, all right, again. For the useful material, most people can pay for it, most peoples parents can pay for it. Then if there’s going to be any role for government, let it be for the small minority kids whose parents are not able to take care of them or charity’s not taking care of them. For just that last sliver of people, if there’s going to be a role for government, let it be that. So don’t throw money at a problem. There’s going to be money, let it be narrowly targeted to be mindful that you are taking money from taxpayers without their consent. At a minimum, you owe them a responsibility to spend the money well. I think that seems like a really basic thing-
Dave Rubin: I think we’ve given up that minimum a long time ago.
Bryan Caplan: Yeah, but you know … So it’s one thing to say, “Look, this is so important that you have to pay whether you like it or not. Too bad.” But to then go and spend that money heedlessly? It seems like a true human rights abuse to take someone for money at gunpoint and then just blow it.