A Libertarian Attack on American Education

From his comfortable and secure position on the economics faculty at George Mason University, staunch libertarian Bryan Caplan has seemingly bitten the hand that feeds him by going after the wastefulness of our misguided approach to tax-payer funded public education. This heretic has gleefully endeavored to reveal some of the “ugly truths” whose avoidance keeps us locked into an expensive status quo. An economist who claims a broad familiarity not only with labor economics but also research in sociology and education, he takes on shibboleths that guide our thinking about the utility of education.

The book is challenging because the complicated explanations of the causal connections between educational achievement and earning power, personal health, social mobility and social cohesion. But it is most challenging because it calls into question some of our bedrock beliefs. Additionally, the super confident tone of one of “the smartest kid in the room” will rankle the defenders of the core curriculum and the tradition of humanities instruction. Caplan often seems like the aggressive college debater who armed with a file box full of index cards wants to not just beat his opponents but to crush them. Yet even though he is driven by a concern for the bottom line, we should pay attention to his ideas for he makes his case far more convincingly than conservative Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

One of Caplan’s key ideas has to do with what he calls “signaling.” He’s primarily interested in the ways in which college serves as job preparation. He positions himself against “human capital purists” who believe that jobs are earned through the demonstration particular acquired skills and knowledge directly related to the job. While Caplan does not discount the role of human capital (he estimates it at no more than a 20% factor), he believes that the diploma itself represents the appearance rather than the substance of job-related skills. The employer hires the person who is ready to be trained not the person already trained. It’s not what you know it’s that you finished.

The diploma signals a modicum of intelligence but it primarily signals two other factors: conscientiousness and conformity. The job candidate has demonstrated over four or more years a certain tenacity in the achievement of a goal. The candidate has also demonstrated the submission to a set of social expectations. The diploma is the coin of the realm; a job aspirant without a college diploma cannot simply claim that he has the requisite skills or that they have been achieved in ways other than by sitting in a college classroom for 40 or more courses.

Indeed, Caplan even speculates that the desirable workplace traits exist prior to college matriculation. The skills and disposition that are already in place prior to entry are what enables one to achieve the diploma. The college experience may add little to what is already intact. That’s why students who are accepted at prestige universities fight mightily to get in and then avoid challenging coursework in order to pad their resumes with extra-curriculars.

Caplan challenges the notion that a college education, rich in the humanities and social sciences, produces a well-informed citizenry. Comparative surveys reveal that Americans are among the least well-informed people in the industrial world. Twelve years of compulsory education have done to address the dearth of knowledge about a host of issues, especially the political. The anti-intellectual strain in American culture is manifested in the election of Donald Trump but also in many college students’ choices for beer and circuses.

This sentiment is echoed by a recent Salon piece by Sophia McClellen in which she calls America a nation of ignoramuses. As a people we are far better at listing three of the seven dwarves than we are at identifying three members of the Supreme Court. A low information citizenry has offered an attractive target for the disinformation campaigns waged Russian cyber-operatives who have used bots and trolls to exacerbate social conflict.

Equally dubious is the claim that colleges teach advance critical thinking skills. Caplan presents educational research which shows that students have a difficult time transposing problem-solving skills to a new domain. To be able to solve a causal analysis problem in economics is no guarantee that one can solve a similar problem in environmental science. Colleges may aspire to help students “learn how to learn,” but the results are not encouraging.

Caplan also finds the fears of conservatives that colleges are sites of liberal/radical indoctrination to be overblown. Studies in attitude shifts over the course of a college career reveal that political dispositions remain essentially intact. The progressive faculty in the humanities departments are failures because most students leave college with conservative economic views.

From Caplan’s point of view, academic apologists defend their enterprise by claiming that a college education is valuable not only as job preparation but also because it “feeds the soul” and “creates an identity.” The accepted wisdom is that the humanities provide constant opportunities for enrichment and vision expansion. Caplan attacks the defense of the professorate’s “mere hobbies” in two ways. First, he cites the CIRP-UCLA survey to show that students do not share the goals of their professors. While upwards of 90% list “finding a good job” as an important goal of college, fewer than 50% express enthusiasm for “developing a philosophy of life.” Philistine students are bored by the mandatory exposures to high culture and lack the mental discipline to work with sophisticated ideas, many of which challenge their simplistic views of life. Furthermore, the professors who teach what they themselves were taught are insufficiently inspiring to create the spark; humbly Caplan includes himself in the ranks of the mostly ineffective .

Secondly, the products of high culture are available through the internet and thus self-initiated projects of enrichment are possible in ways that they were never before. [Caplan bemoans the fact that universities, protective of the brick and mortar status quo, have not moved more aggressively into online education, especially given its high utility as a way of delivering job related skills.]

If one accepts the predominance of signaling as opposed to human capital development then Caplan believes that secondary and post-secondary education is a dysfunctional and wasteful system. More than a trillion dollars of government money was spent on education in 2010-2011, significantly more than was spend on defense, a portion of the budget that many education promoters believe is seriously out of whack.

So what are Caplan’s solutions? The austerity-minded economist would like to see a radical reduction in the government’s support for higher education which he believes would be better in the long run by establishing true market value to the product. Also, the upward spiral of credentialing (where a college degree is required for a job filled quite adequately in the past by a high school graduate) would end. Social justice would be achieved by removing the necessity of poor families to take on huge college loans so that their children can labor at ordinary jobs, ones that in the past would require only a high school diploma.

It is demonstrably true that a college degree increases one’s earning power over a lifetime by approximately 30%, yet the same earnings over a lifetime might be achieved if one eliminated the multi-year cost of tuition and reclaimed the work opportunity and salary sacrificed by partially or fully stepping out of the work force during one’s college years. Forego college (and avoid loan debt) and you might start your young adulthood $100,000 ahead.

Caplan would also like to see a reconceptualization of and a massive reinvestment in vocational education, a domain stigmatized for too long. German employment policy is the model here. When a nation employs 900,000 plumbers and 3,800 historians, then the amount of time devoted to the teaching of history (most of which is forgotten) has little practical social value. He would also like to see the relaxation of child labor laws following the principle that often the best preparation for a job is not formal education but another job. A record of constructive employment should be a way for young people to demonstrate to future employers that they possess intelligence, conscientiousness, and capacity for conformity and as college graduates become fewer in number employers will not be able to demand high level credentialing.

Caplan believes that the present structures serve neither the needs of the individual and society. His preoccupation with discovering the maximum utility in preparation for employment leads him to cast a cynical eye on most everything that contributes to inefficiencies in the system. Caplan knows that his project – the dismantling and defunding of public education – is quixotic. The educational establishment will be slow to give up its entrenched power, even if grudgingly agrees with some of Caplan’s documentation of the system’s failures.




About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

One thought on “A Libertarian Attack on American Education

  1. Jim Moses
    April 10, 2018 at 1:45 pm

    Very interesting and astute analysis. Thanks. We Education Profs will take this as a shot across the bow to be followed by the policy onslaught from Betsy. LOL

    Jim Moses

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