Monday, June 1, 2020

The Case for The Case against Education

In The Case against Education Bryan Caplan argues that education is primarily about signaling certain traits as opposed to learning useful skills, and that much of it is a waste for society. Here are some of my thoughts on the book:

  • Agree with much of the book. It shouldn't surprise most people to hear that schools teach a lot of useless stuff.
  • Caplan focuses on the US but it would be interesting to look at other countries. For example, Caplan dismisses online education as unlikely to become accepted by employers, but Open University is a remote learning option founded in 1969 that is a respectable option in many countries.
  • Caplan's big claim is that schools mainly signal certain traits (such as intelligence and conscientiousness), and he particularly emphasizes that schools signal "conformity" and that employers care strongly about it. I think this depends a lot on industry and the culture of the companies. For example, tech companies seem less concerned about conformity, though perhaps that's why many of them don't require college degrees. Other companies may still require degrees but they may just be conformist themselves without actually requiring conformists for the job. If it became more accepted to not go to college and to hire without degrees, how many companies would still insist on it?
  • Instead of just theorizing about what employers are looking for, it would be interesting to actually check. Big companies have specific criteria they look for when hiring applicants, and they also study the traits of their successful employees. For example, see this article on Google's hiring practices.
  • Not sure if Caplan gets this critique too often but in certain cases I think he gives school too much credit. For example, he says practical majors like engineering primarily involve learning useful skills. In my experience with Computer Science, much of the major consisted of theoretical math instead of practical topics. (That's why there's a practical-focused programming course called The Missing Semester of Your CS Education).
  • Caplan says some pretty extreme things, such as saying there should be zero government funding of education, or that it would be better if education was more expensive. As if the cost of education in America isn't high enough! There are better ways to beat credential inflation than making education more expensive, and ways that would be less unfair to lower-income people. For example, one could encourage companies to do more interviewing or hiring on a college-blind basis (I think the hiring platform triplebyte tried this to some extent.)
  • This may be an issue in general with books, but I'm not sure how much I remember from the middle of the book. I think people can just read the beginning and end of the book to get the gist of it.

(Review originally posted to Reddit.)

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