Bryan Caplan may make his living in higher education – but for the most part, he believes that education is a useless experience.
On today’s show, the author of “The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money” explained why college is about conforming, not learning.
“If you really think about all the classes … throughout your life, how many can you safely forget after the final exam?” Caplan asked. “And why do employers care?”
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article provided courtesy of TheBlaze.
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This is a rush transcript and may contain errors.
GLENN: So I personally think that the world is changing so fast, that — that you’re not going to recognize it in ten to 15 years. Your kids. If you have a five or 6-year-old, they probably will never have a driver’s license.
Maybe that’s a little early. But, you know, if they come of age at 2030 or so, they’re probably not going to have a driver’s license. They won’t probably believe that you were ever allowed to drive a car, at some point.
Things are changing are just the car industry, with Uber. What’s going to happen to the taxi jobs with Uber? What’s going to happen with the Uber jobs, with self-driving cars, with self-driving trucks? That’s 5 percent of the workforce. What do we do on education?
I have been reading a lot lately on — on high-tech. And the book I’m currently working on is life 3.0. Being human in the age of artificial intelligence. And it is really good because of the questions half an hour in it.
But it talks a little bit about educating your kids. And there are three things for the future that, if you want your child to be successful, there are three things that you really need to focus on.
One, does their future job, the thing they want to do, does it require interacting with people and using social intelligence? Because robots are not going to be able to do that. Computers can’t do that. They can be an accountant. They can be a driver. But they’re not going to be — they’re not going to have social intelligence yet. And they’re also not going to be great with interacting with people. So you don’t want to be the person that takes the x-ray or is the x-ray tech that is getting it ready for the doctor. You want to be the doctor.
Does it involve creativity and coming up with clever solutions? And does it require working with an unpredictable environment.
Those three things are what your kids — you should be preaching to your kids and talking to your kids about on their future career or your future career. Those three things.
I contend that the current education system is — it does require — it is teaching people how to socially interact and use social intelligence.
But it is putting you in a box on that. Because it’s killing the other two things. Does it require creativity and coming up with clever solutions?
No. There’s no clever solutions. They’ll tell you exactly what the answer is, and you dare not disagree. And the third one is, does it require working in an unpredictable environment? No. Every college is a safe zone.
We are killing the opportunity for our kids by using this kind of educational system. Now, there is a — there is an actual professor, that is part of this institution, who has just written a new book, the case against education.
STU: Yeah, The Case Against Education from a professor. I love that. Bryan Caplan, he’s the author of the book. He’s an economics professor at George Mason University. And he joins us now.
GLENN: Bryan, how are you?
BRYAN: Doing fantastic.
GLENN: Very good.
How do you respond to those three questions and the idea that the educational system is teaching us to live in a box that no longer exists or will no longer exist?
BRYAN: Well, I mean, the truth is that the economy is changing much more slowly than people realize. The high tech sectors that you’re talking about are only a small part of the economy. The world is changing a lot more between 1945 in the ’70s, than it has in the last 30 years.
GLENN: So I’m specifically talking about the thinking creatively and thinking out of the box, to be able to adapt to whatever comes.
BRYAN: Yeah. Let me put it this way. You know, if we could do something much less than that, it would be a big improvement of what we have. I mean, right now, just to get kids able to read and write and do basic math would be an improvement for a lot of them. I mean, creativity, most jobs are not creative. So — meaning, like it would be great for tech people to be creative. But if you could just get basic skills up to a reasonable level, that would be a lot better than what we have.
GLENN: So if you had a — you know, a 10-year-old that you were raising now, are they —
BRYAN: I have an 8-year-old.
GLENN: You have an 8-year-old?
GLENN: Are you preparing them for college as it is now?
BRYAN: Basically. So a lot of what I say in my book is that, even though the world is changing dramatically, colleges have been locked in the same system for about 1,000 years. And here’s the amazing thing: Modern employers keep rewarding people with fancy college degrees, even though it doesn’t seem like they’re adapting to the modern world very well. And my main story is that the point of college isn’t really to train people for the future anyway. It’s more to jump through a bunch of hoops and show off and say, “Hey, look at me, I can do a lot of what most people can’t do.”
STU: This is the difference in the book. The difference between signaling and capital. Can you explain what those things are and what the difference is?
BRYAN: Yeah, sure. So human capital story is basically the one that parents and teachers and propaganda say about education. Which is, you go into school, and they pour skills into you. You learn reading, writing, math, all this great stuff. And at the end, you are a transformed child. You know how to do all these things. And then you’re suddenly employable.
And obviously, there’s something to that. But if you really think about all the class of these things throughout your life, how many can you safely forget after the final exam?
I mean, I don’t know about you. But I think 75, 80, 90 percent of classes, once you’re done with the final exam, you never need to know this stuff again. But then why do employers care? And that’s where signaling comes in. It says, you know, whenever you do anything impressive, when you go and get an A in your Aristotle class or complete four years of Latin, or any accomplishment that’s irrelevant to virtually any job you’ll ever do, still when you put that on your transcript, employers look and say, wow, look at what this kid did. I think he’s worthy of being trained to be a secretary.
STU: That is — essentially, the education system as — what it’s signaling, designed to do, not to actually teach people things. But to be able to signal to employers that in theory, you’re smart enough to do something else.
BRYAN: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly.
You start getting sorted. So think about this, there’s two ways you can raise the value of a diamond. One is to be an expert gem smith who cuts it perfectly to make it great. The other one is to be the guy with that monocle on his eye. And he looks at it, and he goes, oh, look at this. This thing is a wonderful diamond. Yes, I’ll put a Grade A sticker on it. A lot of what the education system does, is the second thing. They’re not really cutting you and making you great. They’re looking at you and putting a sticker on you and saying, see, this is worthy of being hired for certain kinds of jobs. And if you don’t get the sticker, it’s like, no, not good enough.
GLENN: So there’s — there’s another theory out there that has been popular. Called Common Core. Which this is, in my opinion, what Bill Gates was trying to solve. He was trying to put that sticker on you really early. By, you know, really watching you closely and then sorting you out for the right job.
I don’t think that education is — for me, education — good education is not teaching me what to think, it’s — it’s teaching me how to think. It’s teaching me how to find answers.
And that’s not what we’re doing now. We’re teaching answers. You learn them. You test them. You forget. And then you go and be a little worker bee.
That’s not the future.
BRYAN: So, Glenn, you’re being an optimist there. Even the idea that kids are learning a lot of stuff is really optimistic. So if you especially just look at what adults know about any of the substance they learned in school, they’ve forgotten almost all of it. So if you get an education system that actually durable taught them even a bunch of facts, that would be better than what we have. Sure, it would be great if we teach them how to think. But that’s really a moon shot.
GLENN: So let’s go there. I’ll take a quick break. And then we’ll come back. And tell me how bad the education system is. And then, what do we do about it? And I’m looking for much more simple answers. What do I do about it as a parent?
STU: You may have witnessed the first time anyone has ever come on the program and accused Glenn of being an optimist. We’ll get back to that in a minute. It’s Bryan Caplan. It’s The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money.
GLENN: We have Bryan Caplan on. He is the author of the book The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is A Waste of Time and Money.
It’s interesting to me or ironic that he is a university professor, and the book is published by Princeton Press. And he is saying, there’s real problems here, and we need to have a discussion.
So let’s talk a little bit about — quickly, the problems of education and how bad they are.
BRYAN: All right. Well, I mean, if you just go and measure the literacy and numeracy of adults, say about a third to a half, are — are — their skills are so bad, you would almost call them illiterate enumerate. On the other hand, if you go over to college graduates, I would say that basically their literacy and numeracy, kind of what you would look for in high school graduates.
STU: That’s a problem. That seems like that would be a problem.
GLENN: So —
BRYAN: Yeah. I mean, like the amazing thing is, I look out my window here in Philadelphia and see this amazing society. You know, how is it that we’re able to get it done when people’s skills are so poor?
And the truth is, most of the time, people learn on the job by practice. And most of what you fail to learn in school never comes up again anyway. So thank God for that.
GLENN: So MIT, for instance, you can audit every single class online for free.
BRYAN: Oh, yeah.
GLENN: If you did that, you make the case, that really wouldn’t be — that would be very useful in the current system because there’s no little stamp of approval that says, MIT loves you. Right?
BRYAN: Yeah, that’s exactly right. You didn’t even have to wait for this. I never heard a professor that kicks out visitors. Professors love it when someone comes to their class. Someone actually wants to learn what I have to teach. This has never happened before. They get a tear in their eyes. But almost no one takes you up on this offer, because people don’t really want the learning so much as that sticker.
STU: That is amazing. Because you talk about this with — with graduation years, versus intermediate years. In your first and second year in college, is not as valuable as your graduate year.
But it’s not like they’re waiting until your last year of college, until they start teaching you things of value. It really does explain that the stamp of approval is really what we’re looking for when we get into the system.
BRYAN: Yeah, exactly. This is true for high school. True for college. True for graduate school. It’s crossing the finish line that has most of the reward. If you do 3.9 years of college and then give up, the labor market barely gives you anything. Your application still goes in the trash with the other applications of people who didn’t finish college. But you just get right over that finish line, and then a lot of doors open up for you.
Which, again, would be very puzzling if the main thing that you were learning in school were your job skills. But if you’re trying to show, hey, look at me. If you say — want four years, I do what you say. When you say jump, I say how high, not how can I weasel out of this.
If you’re that kind of person, then employers take you seriously. And, you know, striking if you go to countries where college lasts three years. Then, of course, it’s the third year that really counts a lot. It’s all just about what is the social expectation, and if the people who fulfill it, they look good, the world likes them, and employers like them — and if you fall short, then, oh, no, you’re not good enough.
GLENN: You, in fact, in the book said we need a lot less education. What do you mean by that?
BRYAN: Right. So if you just go back to 1945, back then maybe 25 percent of American adults finished high school, and yet back in those days, with a high school degree, you could become a manager. You could get all kinds of high status jobs. Now, of course, you can’t. There’s been quite a bit of research just looking at what’s happened to the labor market over these last 70 years or so, is the main thing that’s happened, is that jobs become more cognitively demanding. And now you need to have these college degrees to do the kind of work that we do today.
Whereas, the main thing that’s happened, that for one in the same job, you need extra degrees in order to even get your foot in the door. And both stories are somewhat true. But the second story is the main story.
You know, now we have lots of waiters with college degrees. Bartenders with college degrees. Cashiers with college degrees. Parking lot attendants with college degrees.
And, you know, this is pretty bizarre if you think about it. It’s like, do you really need these degrees to do the job? No, but if you want to go and get a job at a good restaurant now, for example, a college degree really helps.
GLENN: That’s unbelievable. We’ll come back and I’ll start to apply this to our lives and our children, and what do we do about it?
Economics professor, George Mason. University. Author of the book, the case against education. Bryan Caplan, when we come back.
GLENN: Hello, America. Welcome to the program. So glad that you are here. We’re spending a few minutes with Bryan Caplan. He’s an economics professor. George Mason University. He’s the author of The Case Against Education. And he’s also going to be speaking today at the public library of Philadelphia. It’s free. If you would like to, you know, get a free education. Today at 7:30.
So, Bryan, let me just speak for, I think, the average person in America, whether it is a parent, a person going to college or thinking about going to college — we know the — we don’t know it like you do.
I mean, the stats that you lay out are — are pretty frightening, of what — of how bad education is right now. However, I think most people kind of know. Especially conservatives.
I think they send their kids saying, they’re going to have all this debt. They’re building water parks at universities now. They’re not really getting a real education. In fact, I’m sending them almost against my will, because I’m afraid of what those professors and what these universities are going to teach my kids on social justice and all this nonsense. But every parent — most of them will say the same thing — but they’ve got to have a degree.
So what do we do right now? There’s two questions: One, what do we do as a society? But let’s start with, what do we do right now as a parent or somebody that has to go to college?
BRYAN: Right. Well, the first thing to ask yourself is, how good was your kid in high school?
The idea that every kid should go to college is — makes sense if you can know for sure your kid can finish. But completion rates are shockingly low. So only about 40 percent of full-time students will finish a bachelor’s degree in four years.
After five years, it’s up to 55 percent to finish. But there’s a really big chunk that just don’t finish.
And as I was saying, if you don’t finish and you don’t get that diploma, then the payoff is really crummy. So I would say the very first thing is, was my kid good enough in high school, to think he’s going to finish? Right now, I’d say for maybe a third to a half of students going to college, you know, the right answer is no.
In a way, you might say, well, thank goodness we don’t have to pay for this stuff now. And then we need to look for something else for my kid to do, at least until he gets serious enough to start studying.
GLENN: I’m friends with Mike Rowe. And this is something that he has been fighting.
BRYAN: Oh, yeah.
GLENN: And that is this instinct. This knee-jerk answer. Well, it doesn’t matter. They have to go to college. What, do you want them to be a janitor the rest of their life?
BRYAN: Oh, yeah. And, of course, there are tons of other jobs. Many of them high-paying that don’t — that, still, to this day, don’t require college. Plumber, electrician. If you just go — like you say, if you go through government statistics, what are high-paying jobs that don’t require college? You know, there are still a lot of them. There are ones where especially upper middle-class families, they don’t really know anyone who does these jobs anymore, so it’s kind of hard for them to really visualize it. But they’re out there.
If your kid is super bored sitting listening to some windbag go and talk about some abstract stuff, then, yeah, really you should look into getting your kid vocational education. And instead of pressuring him to do something that he’s probably just has no interest in, find something that he has — that actually engages him. And, of course, that doesn’t require you to have four years of college debt, which is pretty crazy if your kid is going to drop out anyway.
STU: You break this into kind of the selfish return and the social return. Which is an interesting way of looking at it. Because you go through really the numbers of the selfish return on education, which a lot of times can turn out better, even financially for a lot of kids to not go to college. Because they don’t have all that debt.
But can you talk a little bit about the social return? What’s the actual path forward for us, when you’re talking about policy and how to design an education system that actually works for the country.
BRYAN: Sure. So if you remember I was talking about human capital versus signaling. So there’s the optimistic view that college is actually transforming you into a skilled and able adult. And then there’s the not-so-optimistic view that I’m pushing, that most of it is just about putting a stamp on your forehead and saying, good enough to be trained. All right?
Now, selfishly speaking, it doesn’t really matter why employers will reward you for getting your degree. Who really cares why they’re doing it. But from the point of view of society, from the point of view of taxpayers, it makes a huge difference. Because if school is really actually remolding our youth into the skilled workers of the future, then it’s making our whole society richer. But if the main thing you’re doing is putting stickers on people’s foreheads, you can’t get rich by putting a bunch of stickers on people’s heads. So there’s really a saying, you’re in the top 25 percent of the distribution. Then when you go and you encourage education, the main thing you do isn’t get skilled workers. It just means you have to spend more and more years in school, just to get on to first base, just to go and start learning the job.
GLENN: Yeah. I will tell you, there’s a lot of people that I have met — and I’m in media. So it’s slightly different. But nobody takes the college person seriously. Like, oh, you have some latest information. You’ve got some new. Okay. That’s great. Watch. Because they usually don’t walk into a job. They’ve got that great degree.
But they don’t have any practical experience. They don’t really have practical understanding, many times of what we’re doing. It really is, okay. You’re smart. So we’ll train you from the beginning on how to do things.
BRYAN: Yeah. This really is one of the greatest frauds on campus. The communications major is enormous. And yet, every year, they graduate more communications majors than the total number of jobs in every kind of media that exists. So, you know, it’s a major that you’re preparing them through your job, Glenn. And yet, of course, you can’t have a million kids get to be Glenn Beck.
STU: Nor do we want them, by the way. We don’t want a million Glenn Becks, believe me.
GLENN: That’s a really bad thing. Yeah. One is enough.
Nor do I know the people that really excel in media, really excel, you know, were the top of their class and the one that we just had to have from Harvard. That’s generally not them.
BRYAN: Right. The nice thing about that entertainment is that there is a very clear market test, which is, do people actually watch you? Whereas, for a lot of jobs, being on a team, it’s like, well, is this person really pulling their weight or not? So there’s some confusion there.
And then — you know, say you’re not going to — you’re not going to keep someone employed just because you hired them and they’re on the team, if you — if they’re on the radio. Whereas, for a lot of jobs, once you get hired, people will keep you there, at least until the next recession comes along. And they just, well, we got to get rid of somebody. So how about the person who is a huge disappointment?
STU: We’re talking to Bryan Caplan, author of The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money.
Bryan, the way we’ve moved toward signaling, when it comes to universities, does that explain great inflation at some level, where we’ve seen back in the day, it used to be 10 or 15 percent of kids got A’s in classes. And now it’s sometimes 60 and 70 percent.
BRYAN: Yeah, that’s a great question. So it’s actually pretty weird when you think about it. Because if the main thing that college is doing is signaling, you might think that there would be a lot of pressure on us to really separate the great students from the good ones, from the not so good one.
GLENN: Hello. Oh, my gosh.
STU: Lost him there.
GLENN: There he is.
BRYAN: Professor to give out better grades.
STU: We lost you in the middle there. Can you give that to us one more time?
BRYAN: Right. So it has a lot more to do with universities are nonprofits, and the professors are regarded as basically artists. You can’t tell them what to do.
And so, you know, if we really wanted to maintain the purity of the signal, we would have kept the high standards. But it’s just so much easier for a professor to go and give high grades to everyone. And then the students don’t complain. Since it’s nonprofit, there’s no one at the top saying, we must maintain our brand at all costs. You professors get in line. So I think that’s more of what’s going on.
STU: Because it seems like there’s a series of incentives. Because if I’m now sending my kid to college because I want them to get that piece of paper, if at the end of this, where I’ve spent all of this money, I don’t get that piece of paper, there’s — I’m not going to want to continue that process with the next kid. And it feels like there’s an incentive for colleges to be able to push these people through and give them the piece of paper whether they want it or not, because that’s all I’m really asking them for in the first place.
BRYAN: Yeah. I mean, that sounds right, until you take a look at the low graduation rates. If colleges really wanted to just pass people along, they would just cut standards even more than they already have. Which, it’s a little scary to think about.
But, I mean, there is a point, where you say, how low can we have the standards, before the students — before everyone will get over them? A lot of it is honestly just to get the students to even bother to show up in class. Typical college class has maybe 60 percent attendance on an average day. Forty percent, a lot of those kids are the ones that are not going to get it through. A reasonably good student can still squeak by, even not attending all that often. Standards are strangely low. And yet, there are many standard students that fall below even those low standards.
GLENN: If I could reflect what I think people feel for a second, Bryan, we — we are concerned about the standards, obviously. We’re concerned about the price. Because how do we or our kids afford this.
But we are also — growing concern. And I hear this from the left as well. They are very concerned about the things like the freedom of speech and thought on campus. And it is becoming — it feels as though it is becoming dangerous to the republic, to get this indoctrination sometimes. And when you’re talking about all these problems, you’re saying, we need to fix this.
From the inside of these powerful institutions, you’re a freak. Aren’t you? Or do others — is there a movement inside to say, we have real problems, and we’ve got to change this.
BRYAN: So here’s the thing. You know, professors vary very widely amongst themselves. Different departments are very different. So, here’s the main thing I would say just to help people calm down a bit. Most professors are so boring, that the brainwashing doesn’t work.
And most — and attendance is so low, that a lot of the students are not hearing the stuff that you don’t want them to hear. So, I mean, it’s important to keep in mind, that, you know, when students — even when they’re getting a grade for the class and everything else, a lot of them just stay in the room and play video games. And — and, like, even when they’re in the classroom, their minds are wandering. They’re not paying that much attention. So I agree that if you just look at the syllabi or if you just listen to a recording of many lectures, then you say, this is horrible. Kids are being taught this stuff. But the reasons to feel at least somewhat less bad about it, is if you were to go and turn the camera around and look at the face of the students and see how they’re sleeping and not paying that much attention, and bored out of their minds. There is actual like empirical research where they try to see how much does college change students minds. And, you know, it doesn’t seem to change them that much. Again, the kids you see on the news, those are the ones that — it’s a small minority of kids that really love this stuff and want to be activists. But most kids don’t want to be activists. They want to play video games.
GLENN: I have a friend who is in college, and they sent a screenshot of one of their tests that happened in science, just last week.
Which of the following answers do you think characterizes the political views of the person to your right? He or she is the founder of the alt-left, leaning liberal, middle of the road, leaning conservative, founder of the alt-right. Your answer. The next one was: Which of the following answers characterize your political views?
I’m a founder of the alt-left, leaning liberal, middle of the road, leaning conservative, founder of the alt-right.
Can you, for the life of you, figure out what that has to do with science?
BRYAN: I mean, if I were in that class, I would be curious if the professor is trying to get on your show. You know, maybe they’re saying, hey, I want to go and show how brainwashed these kids are. I mean, if you’re brainwashing people, the last thing you want to do is call attention to the brainwashing. You just want to act, I’m not brainwashing them. It’s just oxygen we’re breathing here. It’s not anything anyone someone should be paying attention to. So maybe it was an effort to politicize science. Although, maybe it was just the professor was curious about what kinds of kids he’s teaching. I don’t know.
GLENN: Bryan Caplan. He is the author of The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money.
And he is going to be speaking again tonight. The public library of Philadelphia. Tonight at 7:30. Thank you so much, Bryan. Good to talk to you.
BRYAN: All right. Fantastic to talk to you.
STU: Once again, he’s going to be speaking at the free public library in the city of the Super Bowl champion, Philadelphia Eagles.
GLENN: At least according to Amazon —
STU: Alexa, that’s right. Yeah. BCaplan.com. Or @Bryan_Caplan. I mean, really, if you want to dive in and really see what’s happening to our education system, there’s a lot of material. We only scratched the surface about.
GLENN: Really — page 41 is terrifying. Absolutely terrifying.