Review of Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education

If ever a book existed that I’d judge harshly by its cover—and for which nothing inside could possibly make me reverse my harsh judgment—Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education would seem like it.  The title is not a gimmick; the book’s argument is exactly what it says on the tin.  Caplan—an economist at George Mason University, home of perhaps the most notoriously libertarian economics department on the planet—holds that most of the benefit of education to students (he estimates around 80%, but certainly more than half) is about signalling the students’ preexisting abilities, rather than teaching or improving the students in any way.  He includes the entire educational spectrum in his indictment, from elementary school all the way through college and graduate programs.  He does have a soft spot for education that can be shown empirically to improve worker productivity, such as technical and vocational training and apprenticeships.  In other words, precisely the kind of education that many readers of this blog may have spent their lives trying to avoid.

I’ve spent almost my whole conscious existence in academia, as a student and postdoc and then as a computer science professor.  CS is spared the full wrath that Caplan unleashes on majors like English and history: it does, after all, impart some undeniable real-world skills.  Alas, I’m not one of the CS professors who teaches anything obviously useful, like how to code or manage a project.  When I teach undergrads headed for industry, my only role is to help them understand concepts that they probably won’t need in their day jobs, such as which problems are impossible or intractable for today’s computers; among those, which might be efficiently solved by quantum computers decades in the future; and which parts of our understanding of all this can be mathematically proven.

Granted, my teaching evaluations have been [clears throat] consistently excellent.  And the courses I teach aren’t major requirements, so the students come—presumably?—because they actually want to know the stuff.  And my former students who went into industry have emailed me, or cornered me, to tell me how much my courses helped them with their careers.  OK, but how?  Often, it’s something about my class having helped them land their dream job, by impressing the recruiters with their depth of theoretical understanding.  As we’ll see, this is an “application” that would make Caplan smile knowingly.

If Caplan were to get his way, the world I love would be decimated.  Indeed, Caplan muses toward the end of the book that the world he loves would be decimated too: in a world where educational investment no longer exceeded what was economically rational, he might no longer get to sit around with other economics professors discussing what he finds interesting.  But he consoles himself with the thought that decisionmakers won’t listen to him anyway, so it won’t happen.

It’s tempting to reply to Caplan: “now now, your pessimism about anybody heeding your message seems unwarranted.  Have anti-intellectual zealots not just taken control of the United States, with an explicit platform of sticking it to the educated elites, and restoring the primacy of lower-education jobs like coal mining, no matter the long-term costs to the economy or the planet?  So cheer up, they might listen to you!”

Indeed, given the current stakes, one might simply say: Caplan has set himself against the values that are the incredibly fragile preconditions for all academic debate—even, ironically, debate about the value of academia, like the one we’re now having.  So if we want such debate to continue, then we have no choice but to treat Caplan as an enemy, and frame the discussion around how best to frustrate his goals.

In response to an excerpt of Caplan’s book in The Atlantic, my friend Sean Carroll tweeted:

It makes me deeply sad that a tenured university professor could write something like this about higher education.  There is more to learning than the labor market.

Why should anyone with my basic values, or Sean’s, give Caplan’s thesis any further consideration?  As far as I can tell, there are only two reasons: (1) common sense, and (2) the data.

In his book, Caplan presents dozens of tables and graphs, but he also repeatedly asks his readers to consult their own memories—exploiting the fact that we all have firsthand experience of school.  He asks: if education is about improving students’ “human capital,” then why are students so thrilled when class gets cancelled for a snowstorm?  Why aren’t students upset to be cheated out of some of the career-enhancing training that they, or their parents, are paying so much for?  Why, more generally, do most students do everything in their power—in some cases, outright cheating—to minimize the work they put in for the grade they receive?  Is there any product besides higher education, Caplan asks, that people pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for, and then try to consume as little of as they can get away with?  Also, why don’t more students save hundreds of thousands of dollars by simply showing up at a university and sitting in on classes without paying—something that universities make zero effort to stop?  (Many professors would be flattered, and would even add you to the course email list, entertain your questions, and give you access to the assignments—though they wouldn’t grade your assignments.)

And: if the value of education comes from what it teaches you, how do we explain the fact that students forget almost everything so soon after the final exam, as attested by both experience and the data?  Why are employers satisfied with a years-ago degree; why don’t they test applicants to see how much understanding they’ve retained?

Or if education isn’t about any of the specific facts being imparted, but about “learning how to learn” or “learning how to think creatively”—then how is it that studies find academic coursework has so little effect on students’ general learning and reasoning abilities either?  That, when there is an improvement in reasoning ability, it’s tightly concentrated on the subject matter of the course, and even then it quickly fades away after the course is over?

More broadly, if the value of mass education derives from making people more educated, how do we explain the fact that high-school and college graduates, most of them, remain so abysmally ignorant?  After 12-16 years in something called “school,” large percentages of Americans still don’t know that the earth orbits the sun; believe that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones and that only genetically modified organisms contain genes; and can’t locate the US or China on a map.  Are we really to believe, asks Caplan, that these apparent dunces have nevertheless become “deeper thinkers” by virtue of their schooling, in some holistic, impossible-to-measure way?  Or that they would’ve been even more ignorant without school?  But how much more ignorant can you be?  They could be illiterate, yes: Caplan grants the utility of teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic.  But how much beyond the three R’s (if those) do typical students retain, let alone use?

Caplan also poses the usual questions: if you’re not a scientist, engineer, or academic (or even if you are), how much of your undergraduate education do you use in your day job?  How well did the course content match what, in retrospect, you feel someone starting your job really needs to know?  Could your professors do your job?  If not, then how were they able to teach you to do it better?

Caplan acknowledges the existence of inspiring teachers who transform their students’ lives, in ways that need not be reflected in their paychecks: he mentions Robin Williams’ character in The Dead Poets’ Society.  But he asks: how many such teachers did you have?  If the Robin Williamses are vastly outnumbered by the drudges, then wouldn’t it make more sense for students to stream the former directly into their homes via the Internet—as they can now do for free?

OK, but if school teaches so little, then how do we explain the fact that, at least for those students who are actually able to complete good degrees, research confirms that (on average) having gone to school really does pay, exactly as advertised?  Employers do pay more for a college graduate—yes, even an English or art history major—than for a dropout.  More generally, starting salary rises monotonically with level of education completed.  Employers aren’t known for a self-sacrificing eagerness to overpay.  Are they systematically mistaken about the value of school?

Synthesizing decades of work by other economists, Caplan defends the view that the main economic function of school is to give students a way to signal their preexisting qualities, ones that correlate with being competent workers in a modern economy.  I.e., that school is tacitly a huge system for winnowing and certifying young people, which also fulfills various subsidiary functions, like keeping said young people off the street, socializing them, maybe occasionally even teaching them something.  Caplan holds that, judged as a certification system, school actually works—well enough to justify graduates’ higher starting salaries, without needing to postulate any altruistic conspiracy on the part of employers.

For Caplan, a smoking gun for the signaling theory is the huge salary premium of an actual degree, compared to the relatively tiny premium for each additional year of schooling other than the degree year—even when we hold everything else constant, like the students’ academic performance.  In Caplan’s view, this “sheepskin effect” even lets us quantitatively estimate how much of the salary premium on education reflects actual student learning, as opposed to the students signaling their suitability to be hired in a socially approved way (namely, with a diploma or “sheepskin”).

Caplan knows that the signaling story raises an immediate problem: namely, if employers just want the most capable workers, then knowing everything above, why don’t they eagerly recruit teenagers who score highly on the SAT or IQ tests?  (Or why don’t they make job offers to high-school seniors with Harvard acceptance letters, skipping the part where the seniors have to actually go to Harvard?)

Some people think the answer is that employers fear getting sued: in the 1971 Griggs vs. Duke Power case, the US Supreme Court placed restrictions on the use of intelligence tests in hiring, because of disparate impact on minorities.  Caplan, however, rejects this explanation, pointing out that it would be child’s-play for employers to design interview processes that functioned as proxy IQ tests, were that what the employers wanted.

Caplan’s theory is instead that employers don’t value only intelligence.  Instead, they care about the conjunction of intelligence with two other traits: conscientiousness and conformity.  They want smart workers who will also show up on time, reliably turn in the work they’re supposed to, and jump through whatever hoops authorities put in front of them.  The main purpose of school, over and above certifying intelligence, is to serve as a hugely costly and time-consuming—and therefore reliable—signal that the graduates are indeed conscientious conformists.  The sheer game-theoretic wastefulness of the whole enterprise rivals the peacock’s tail or the bowerbird’s ornate bower.

But if true, this raises yet another question.  In the signaling story, graduating students (and their parents) are happy that the students’ degrees land them good jobs.  Employers are happy that the education system supplies them with valuable workers, pre-screened for intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity.  Even professors are happy that they get paid to do research and teach about topics that interest them, however irrelevant those topics might be to the workplace.  So if so many people are happy, who cares if, from an economic standpoint, it’s all a big signaling charade, with very little learning taking place?

For Caplan, the problem is this: because we’ve all labored under the mistaken theory that education imparts vital skills for a modern economy, there are trillions of dollars of government funding for every level of education—and that, in turn, removes the only obstacle to a credentialing arms race.  The equilbrium keeps moving over the decades, with more and more years of mostly-pointless schooling required to prove the same level of conscientiousness and conformity as before.  Jobs that used to require only a high-school diploma now require a bachelors; jobs that used to require only a bachelors now require a masters, and so on—despite the fact that the jobs themselves don’t seem to have changed appreciably.

For Caplan, a thoroughgoing libertarian, the solution is as obvious as it is radical: abolish government funding for education.  (Yes, he explicitly advocates a complete “separation of school and state.”)  Or if some state role in education must be retained, then let it concentrate on the three R’s and on practical job skills.  But what should teenagers do, if we’re no longer urging them to finish high school?  Apparently worried that he hasn’t yet outraged liberals enough, Caplan helpfully suggests that we relax the laws around child labor.  After all, he says, if we’ve decided anyway that teenagers who aren’t academically inclined should suffer through years of drudgery, then instead of warming a classroom seat, why shouldn’t they apprentice themselves to a carpenter or a roofer?  That way they could contribute to the economy, and gain the independence from their parents that most of them covet, and learn skills that they’d be much more likely to remember and use than the dissection of owl pellets.  Even if working a real job involved drudgery, at least it wouldn’t be as pointless as the drudgery of school.

Given his conclusions, and the way he arrives at them, Caplan realizes that he’ll come across to many as a cartoon stereotype of a narrow-minded economist, who “knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.”  So he includes some final chapters in which, setting aside the charts and graphs, he explains how he really feels about education.  This is the context for what I found to be the most striking passages in the book:

I am an economist and a cynic, but I’m not a typical cynical economist.  I’m a cynical idealist.  I embrace the ideal of transformative education.  I believe wholeheardedly in the life of the mind.  What I’m cynical about is people … I don’t hate education.  Rather I love education too much to accept our Orwellian substitute.  What’s Orwellian about the status quo?  Most fundamentally, the idea of compulsory enlightenment … Many idealists object that the Internet provides enlightenment only for those who seek it.  They’re right, but petulant to ask for more.  Enlightenment is a state of mind, not a skill—and state of mind, unlike skill, is easily faked.  When schools require enlightenment, students predictably respond by feigning interest in ideas and culture, giving educators a false sense of accomplishment. (p. 259-261)

OK, but if one embraces the ideal, then rather than dynamiting the education system, why not work to improve it?  According to Caplan, the answer is that we don’t know whether it’s even possible to build a mass education system that actually works (by his lights).  He says that, if we discover that we’re wasting trillions of dollars on some sector, the first order of business is simply to stop the waste.  Only later should we entertain arguments about whether we should restart the spending in some new, better way, and we shouldn’t presuppose that the sector in question will win out over others.

Above, I took pains to set out Caplan’s argument as faithfully as I could, before trying to pass judgment on it.  At some point in a review, though, the hour of judgment arrives.

I think Caplan gets many things right—even unpopular things that are difficult for academics to admit.  It’s true that a large fraction of what passes for education doesn’t deserve the name—even if, as a practical matter, it’s far from obvious how to cut that fraction without also destroying what’s precious and irreplaceable.  He’s right that there’s no sense in badgering weak students to go to college if those students are just going to struggle and drop out and then be saddled with debt.  He’s right that we should support vocational education and other non-traditional options to serve the needs of all students.  Nor am I scandalized by the thought of teenagers apprenticing themselves to craftspeople, learning skills that they’ll actually value while gaining independence and starting to contribute to society.  This, it seems to me, is a system that worked for most of human history, and it would have to fail pretty badly in order to do worse than, let’s say, the average American high school.  And in the wake of the disastrous political upheavals of the last few years, I guess the entire world now knows that, when people complain that the economy isn’t working well enough for non-college-graduates, we “technocratic elites” had better have a better answer ready than “well then go to college, like we did.”

Yes, probably the state has a compelling interest in trying to make sure nearly everyone is literate, and probably most 8-year-olds have no clue what’s best for themselves.  But at least from adolescence onward, I think that enormous deference ought to be given to students’ choices.  The idea that “free will” (in the practical rather than metaphysical sense) descends on us like a halo on our 18th birthdays, having been absent beforehand, is an obvious fiction.  And we all know it’s fiction—but it strikes me as often a destructive fiction, when law and tradition force us to pretend that we believe it.

Some of Caplan’s ideas dovetail with the thoughts I’ve had myself since childhood on how to make the school experience less horrible—though I never framed my own thoughts as “against education.”  Make middle and high schools more like universities, with freedom of movement and a wide range of offerings for students to choose from.  Abolish hall passes and detentions for lateness: just like in college, the teacher is offering a resource to students, not imprisoning them in a dungeon.  Don’t segregate by age; just offer a course or activity, and let kids of any age who are interested show up.  And let kids learn at their own pace.  Don’t force them to learn things they aren’t ready for: let them love Shakespeare because they came to him out of interest, rather than loathing him because he was forced down their throats.  Never, ever try to prevent kids from learning material they are ready for: instead of telling an 11-year-old teaching herself calculus to go back to long division until she’s the right age (does that happen? ask how I know…), say: “OK hotshot, so you can differentiate a few functions, but can you handle these here books on linear algebra and group theory, like Terry Tao could have when he was your age?”

Caplan mentions preschool as the one part of the educational system that strikes him as least broken.  Not because it has any long-term effects on kids’ mental development (it might not), just because the tots enjoy it at the time.  They get introduced to a wide range of fun activities.  They’re given ample free time, whether for playing with friends or for building or drawing by themselves.  They’re usually happy to be dropped off.  And we could add: no one normally minds if parents drop their kids off late, or pick them up early, or take them out for a few days.  The preschool is just a resource for the kids’ benefit, not a never-ending conformity test.  As a father who’s now seen his daughter in three preschools, this matches my experience.

Having said all this, I’m not sure I want to live in the world of Caplan’s “complete separation of school and state.”  And I’m not using “I’m not sure” only as a euphemism for “I don’t.”  Caplan is proposing a radical change that would take civilization into uncharted territory: as he himself notes, there’s not a single advanced country on earth that’s done what he advocates.  The trend has everywhere been in the opposite direction, to invest more in education as countries get richer and more technology-based.  Where there have been massive cutbacks to education, the causes have usually been things like famine or war.

So I have the same skepticism of Caplan’s project that I’d have (ironically) of Bolshevism or any other revolutionary project.  I say to him: don’t just persuade me, show me.  Show me a case where this has worked.  In the social world, unlike the mathematical world, I put little stock in long chains of reasoning unchecked by experience.

Caplan explicitly invites his readers to test his assertions against their own lives.  When I do so, I come back with a mixed verdict.  Before college, as you may have gathered, I find much to be said for Caplan’s thesis that the majority of school is makework, the main purposes of which are to keep the students out of trouble and on the premises, and to certify their conscientiousness and conformity.  There are inspiring teachers here and there, but they’re usually swimming against the tide.  I still feel lucky that I was able to finagle my way out by age 15, and enter Clarkson University and then Cornell with only a G.E.D.

In undergrad, on the other hand, and later in grad school at Berkeley, my experience was nothing like what Caplan describes.  The professors were actual experts: people who I looked up to or even idolized.  I wanted to learn what they wanted to teach.  (And if that ever wasn’t the case, I could switch to a different class, excepting some major requirements.)  But was it useful?

As I look back, many of my math and CS classes were grueling bootcamps on how to prove theorems, how to design algorithms, how to code.  Most of the learning took place not in the classroom but alone, in my dorm, as I struggled with the assignments—having signed up for the most advanced classes that would allow me in, and thereby left myself no escape except to prove to the professor that I belonged there.  In principle, perhaps, I could have learned the material on my own, but in reality I wouldn’t have.  I don’t still use all of the specific tools I acquired, though I do still use a great many of them, from the Gram-Schmidt procedure to Gaussian integrals to finding my way around a finite group or field.  Even if I didn’t use any of the tools, though, this gauntlet is what upgraded me from another math-competition punk to someone who could actually write research papers with long proofs.  For better or worse, it made me what I am.

Just as useful as the math and CS courses were the writing seminars—places where I had to write, and where my every word got critiqued by the professor and my fellow students, so I had to do a passable job.  Again: intensive forced practice in what I now do every day.  And the fact that it was forced was now fine, because, like some leather-bound masochist, I’d asked to be forced.

On hearing my story, Caplan would be unfazed.  Of course college is immensely useful, he’d say … for those who go on to become professors, like me or him.  He “merely” questions the value of higher education for almost everyone else.

OK, but if professors are at least good at producing more people like themselves, able to teach and do research, isn’t that something, a base we can build on that isn’t all about signaling?  And more pointedly: if this system is how the basic research enterprise perpetuates itself, then shouldn’t we be really damned careful with it, lest we slaughter the golden goose?

Except that Caplan is skeptical of the entire enterprise of basic research.  He writes:

Researchers who specifically test whether education accelerates progress have little to show for their efforts.  One could reply that, given all the flaws of long-run macroeconomic data, we should ignore academic research in favor of common sense.  But what does common sense really say? … True, ivory tower self-indulgence occasionally revolutionizes an industry.  Yet common sense insists the best way to discover useful ideas is to search for useful ideas—not to search for whatever fascinates you and pray it turns out to be useful (p. 175).

I don’t know if common sense insists that, but if it does, then I feel on firm ground to say that common sense is woefully inadequate.  It’s easy to look at most basic research, and say: this will probably never be useful for anything.  But then if you survey the inventions that did change the world over the past century—the transistor, the laser, the Web, Google—you find that almost none would have happened without what Caplan calls “ivory tower self-indulgence.”  What didn’t come directly from universities came from entities (Bell Labs, DARPA, CERN) that wouldn’t have been thinkable without universities, and that themselves were largely freed from short-term market pressures by governments, like universities are.

Caplan’s skepticism of basic research reminded me of a comment in Nick Bostrom’s book Superintelligence:

A colleague of mine likes to point out that a Fields Medal (the highest honor in mathematics) indicates two things about the recipient: that he was capable of accomplishing something important, and that he didn’t.  Though harsh, the remark hints at a truth. (p. 314)

I work in theoretical computer science: a field that doesn’t itself win Fields Medals (at least not yet), but that has occasions to use parts of math that have won Fields Medals.  Of course, the stuff we use cutting-edge math for might itself be dismissed as “ivory tower self-indulgence.”  Except then the cryptographers building the successors to Bitcoin, or the big-data or machine-learning people, turn out to want the stuff we were talking about at conferences 15 years ago—and we discover to our surprise that, just as the mathematicians gave us a higher platform to stand on, so we seem to have built a higher platform for the practitioners.  The long road from Hilbert to Gödel to Turing and von Neumann to Eckert and Mauchly to Gates and Jobs is still open for traffic today.

Yes, there’s plenty of math that strikes even me as boutique scholasticism: a way to signal the brilliance of the people doing it, by solving problems that require years just to understand their statements, and whose “motivations” are about 5,000 steps removed from anything Caplan or Bostrom would recognize as motivation.  But where I part ways is that there’s also math that looked to me like boutique scholasticism, until Greg Kuperberg or Ketan Mulmuley or someone else finally managed to explain it to me, and I said: “ah, so that’s why Mumford or Connes or Witten cared so much about this.  It seems … almost like an ordinary applied engineering question, albeit one from the year 2130 or something, being impatiently studied by people a few moves ahead of everyone else in humanity’s chess game against reality.  It will be pretty sweet once the rest of the world catches up to this.”

I have a more prosaic worry about Caplan’s program.  If the world he advocates were actually brought into being, I suspect the people responsible wouldn’t be nerdy economics professors like himself, who have principled objections to “forced enlightenment” and to signalling charades, yet still maintain warm fuzzies for the ideals of learning.  Rather, the “reformers” would be more on the model of, say, Steve Bannon or Scott Pruitt or Alex Jones: people who’d gleefully take a torch to the universities, fortresses of the despised intellectual elite, not in the conviction that this wouldn’t plunge humanity back into the Dark Ages, but in the hope that it would.

When the US Congress was debating whether to cancel the Superconducting Supercollider, a few condensed-matter physicists famously testified against the project.  They thought that $10-$20 billion for a single experiment was excessive, and that they could provide way more societal value with that kind of money were it reallocated to them.  We all know what happened: the SSC was cancelled, and of the money that was freed up, 0%—absolutely none of it—went to any of the other research favored by the SSC’s opponents.

If Caplan were to get his way, I fear that the story would be similar.  Caplan talks about all the other priorities—from feeding the world’s poor to curing diseases to fixing crumbling infrastructure—that could be funded using the trillions currently wasted on runaway credential signaling.  But in any future I can plausibly imagine where the government actually axes education, the savings go to things like enriching the leaders’ cronies and launching vanity wars.

My preferences for American politics have two tiers.  In the first tier, I simply want the Democrats to vanquish the Republicans, in every office from president down to dogcatcher, in order to prevent further spiraling into nihilistic quasi-fascism, and to restore the baseline non-horribleness that we know is possible for rich liberal democracies.  Then, in the second tier, I want the libertarians and rationalists and nerdy economists and Slate Star Codex readers to be able to experiment—that’s a key word here—with whether they can use futarchy and prediction markets and pricing-in-lieu-of-regulation and other nifty ideas to improve dramatically over the baseline liberal order.  I don’t expect that I’ll ever get what I want; I’ll be extremely lucky even to get the first half of it.  But I find that my desires regarding Caplan’s program fit into the same mold.  First and foremost, save education from those who’d destroy it because they hate the life of the mind.  Then and only then, let people experiment with taking a surgical scalpel to education, removing from it the tumor of forced enlightenment, because they love the life of the mind.

140 Responses to “Review of Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education”

  1. Jay L Gischer Says:

    I liked school. I was disappointed when it was cancelled. I would go to classes just because they were interesting.

    It sounds like Caplan did too.

    And it’s mighty hard to deal with students, like those at GMU, who really aren’t into it the way you are. I’ve been there. It’s discouraging.

  2. asdf Says:

    Maybe you knew this guy at MIT:

    I like his take on education better (from the above interview):

    “The first priority has to be, it seems to me, to lend to those to be
    educated a mastery of their own language so that they can express
    themselves clearly and with precision, in speech and in writing. That’s
    the very first priority. The second priority is to give students an
    entree to and an identity within the culture of their society, which
    implies a study of history, literature, and all that.

    “And the third, very close to the second, is to prepare people for living
    in a society in which science is important, which means to teach them
    mathematics, or at least arithmetic, and the fundamental skills
    important to observing the world.” Sort of the opposite of Caplan’s version.

    (unrelated) I remember hearing of some study claiming that students who graduated from Ivy League universities did, on average, much better financially in their lives than those who didn’t. But, they also found, students who got accepted into Ivy schools and went somewhere else, did about as well as those who actually went to the Ivys.

  3. Matt Says:

    Thanks for writing this, Scott. When confronting an ideological gulf, it must be so tempting to take the easy way out and score points with low-effort snark and gotchas, but this kind of considered engagement and critique is really valuable. (At least, I like to think it is — maybe I just enjoy reading it!)

  4. Alyssa Vance Says:

    I love your writing, and I agree with much of what you say about the value of apparently pointless “ivory tower” research. But I must point out that no one who’s old enough to be a tenured professor had to pay $250,000, plus loan interest, to attend college. I suspect that many would change their minds about the “priceless” value of college if they had to physically hand the professor $250 for each one-hour class.

  5. Alyssa Vance Says:

    Rather than campaigning directly against “education”, to me, the most obvious angle-of-attack is to give students resources to help them organize, lobby, and demand reasonable policy change at their horrible schools. They’re the ones who have to live with it every day, so they have the most motivation. But when I was in school a decade ago, there were virtually no resources for this, and the situation is scarcely better now. On the flip side, this lack of any existing tools means that, per diminishing marginal returns, you should get a lot from each dollar spent. It only takes a few hours and $20 to set up a half-decent website and forum.

    “Your teachers are always telling you to behave like adults. I wonder if they’d like it if you did. You may be loud and disorganized, but you’re very docile compared to adults. If you actually started acting like adults, it would be just as if a bunch of adults had been transposed into your bodies. Imagine the reaction of an FBI agent or taxi driver or reporter to being told they had to ask permission to go the bathroom, and only one person could go at a time. To say nothing of the things you’re taught. If a bunch of actual adults suddenly found themselves trapped in high school, the first thing they’d do is form a union and renegotiate all the rules with the administration.” – Paul Graham

  6. Ken Arromdee Says:

    “Rather, the “reformers” would be more on the model of, say, Steve Bannon or Scott Pruitt or Alex Jones: people who’d gleefully take a torch to the universities, fortresses of the despised intellectual elite, not in the conviction that this wouldn’t plunge humanity back into the Dark Ages, but in the hope that it would.”

    You’re interpreting “I want to destroy the educators” as “I want to destroy education”. These are not the same thing. It’s possible to believe that the universities are full of leftists teaching leftism and yet not oppose teaching itself.

    It would be like interpreting your desite to tear down the Republicans as a desire to tear down government.

  7. Tim Makarios Says:

    A lot of what you suggest would make school less horrible sounds very similar to what I’ve heard about Montessori schools, though I have no direct knowledge of them myself.

  8. anon Says:

    My first association was this:

    “the system became widely utilized as the major path to office”…”the exams were based on knowledge of the classics and literary style, not technical expertise”…” common culture helped to unify the empire and the ideal of achievement by merit gave legitimacy to imperial rule, while leaving clear problems resulting from a systemic lack of technical and practical expertise”

  9. Adam S Says:

    Hi Scott! I assume you’ve seen this paper on classical hardness of random circuit sampling?

    Any chance of a nice expository blog post on it? 🙂

  10. Timothy Johnson Says:

    I read Caplan’s book recently, and had a very similar impression. But in particular, I wish that he had analyzed other countries, instead of focusing just on the US.

    It seems like the US education system is easy to criticize, but he wants to go further and claim that we have no idea how to make an effective education system. And he seems to ignore the obvious counterclaim that there are effective education systems elsewhere.

  11. Matthieu Says:

    At last someone has a solution to school shootings.

  12. Richard Gaylord Says:


    there is no such thing as’ libertarian economics’ despite the efforts of murray rothbard (and others connected to the von mises Institute) to conflate the austrian school of economics (which caplan rejects) with libertarianism, calling the result, anarcho-capitalism (a name coined in 1969 by Karl Hess who later rejected it – see “anarchism without hyphens”). libertarianism is strictly a political philosophy and libertarians are actually voluntaryists. as such, they support ANY economic system based on non-coercive interactions (see the writings of walter block who, upon the death of his mentor, rothbard, became the doyen of austrian economics).

    note: and those libertarians who self-identify as econo-physicists (there seems to be a lot of hyphenated fields created by merging two separate (some would say disparate or even incompatible) fields are definitely NOT supportive of the austrian school of economics which rejects in toto the mathematicalization of economics.

  13. B. Says:

    “large percentages of Americans […] believe that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones”
    Yes… and that’s true! OK, not without any air, but that’s a pretty uncommon setting.

  14. Scott Says:

    B #13: I think you can actually show them the famous video with the hammer and feather dropped on the moon, and they don’t know what will happen. And even after seeing it, presumably those in the 10-15% of Americans who think the moon landings were faked, or aren’t sure, will be unimpressed. 😉

  15. Scott Says:

    Richard #12: I don’t actually know what that obsessive definition-chopping has to do with anything. I meant: George Mason University has the economics department where the faculty are most friendly to libertarian politics.

  16. Scott Says:

    Timothy #10: While US public education, like US healthcare, is famously especially screwed up, Caplan is emphatic that he thinks education is mostly wasteful signaling everywhere in the world (though he has some good things to say about vocational training in Germany). And after all, much of his criticism focuses on universities, which (unlike public education) the US seems to do sufficiently well that students from all over the world still want to come to our universities—-though Caplan would say that that’s yet again about signaling, not about what the students actually learn.

  17. Scott Says:

    Adam #9: Yes, of course I’ve seen that paper—one author (Umesh) is my former advisor, another (Adam) is my former PhD student, and a third (Bill) is my former summer student!

    This paper nicely fills in a hole in our picture of the complexity of random circuit sampling, by showing that exactly calculating the output probabilities of such circuits is #P-hard on average. This is something I’d idly wondered about but never saw how to do, and there are very cool new ideas needed to do it.

    The new result complements what Lijie Chen and I did a year ago for random circuit sampling, which gets a much stronger conclusion (i.e., that no polytime classical algorithm can even pass a certain verification test passed by the quantum circuit), but only at the expense of a much stronger hardness assumption.

    Just so we’re on the same page, the real dream here would be to show that even approximating the output probabilities of random quantum circuits is #P-hard on average—that’s what you’d need to conclude (e.g.) that approximate sampling must be classically hard unless the polynomial hierarchy collapses. And the new paper doesn’t do that, just as no one has proved the analogous conjectures for BosonSampling or any other sampling-based quantum supremacy proposal. But the new result does bring the state of #P-hardness knowledge for random circuit sampling—i.e., for what Google, IBM, and others might actually be able to do with ~50 qubits in the next year—up to speed with what Alex Arkhipov and I had shown for BosonSampling.

  18. Richard Gaylord Says:

    re: comment #15. i suggest that you be more precise in what you say. words have meaning. sloppy wording usually indicates sloppy thinking. according to you, it would be fine to identify the faculty in any discipline, X, that has (irrelevant) libertarian (or socialist) political leanings, as libertarian (or socialist) X, which of course would be nonsense. economics is an academic discipline and associating it with specific political adjectives misidentify the field. i am sure that economists (like physicists and computer scientists) would prefer that their subject not have political identifiers attached to it. i certainly am not a ‘libertarian physicist’, although i am both a libertarian and a theoretical physicist.

  19. Boaz Barak Says:

    Thanks Scott. I haven’t read the book but one immediate question that arises for me is the following: the policies of no state sponsored education and relaxed child labor laws are not some radical experiment that has never been tried. These were the policies throughout much of human history and are still the de facto policies in several countries. These policies don’t seem to have the effect that Caplan thinks they have.

    Also, any kind of training, whether it’s sports or military bootcamp, or learning some of the vocational skills that Caplan so likes, involves aspects that are not necessarily fun or easy. So it’s not surprising that students sometimes are thankful for a snow day.

    All that said, I’m certainly seeing many students at Harvard that try to maximize what they get from their education, choosing the most challenging courses and within these courses ofnten doing much more than was required of them.

  20. Scott Says:

    Richard #18: The whole question is moot, because Caplan explicitly identifies himself as libertarian in the book, and even points out where it might be relevant (“even if you’re not a libertarian like me, willing to accept X, you should still agree to the following weaker claim Y…”). If someone writes a book arguing for a radical change to education policy, then the broader political commitments that inform their arguments are clearly, obviously relevant in a way they wouldn’t be if the book was about physics.

  21. Scott Says:

    Boaz #19: Yes, I completely agree with your observation! It’s closely related to an observation I made in the post: that if Caplan is right, it’s strange how the trend has always and everywhere been toward more education spending as countries get richer and more technological, without a single exception as far as I’m aware. When massive cuts to education do happen, the real-world causes tend to be things like famine or war.

    I think Caplan would stress that none of this tells us the direction of causation. Do countries get richer because they educate more, or do they educate more because they’ve gotten richer—and because “credentialing arms races,” wasteful though they might be, are a trap that’s caused by the same forces everywhere, and that no country that can afford mass higher education has yet figured out how to escape?

    Still, as I said, I think Caplan’s case would be a hell of a lot stronger if he could point to just one example, anywhere in human history, of a society that chose to educate less and became more prosperous as a result.

  22. Boaz Barak Says:

    Scott #21: Let me see if I get this straight. Is Caplan’s theory that the only thing that stands in the way of solving a huge market failure that costs trillions of dollars and wastes around 10% of people’s lives is for someone to invent a personality test for conscientiousness and conformity?

  23. Felipe Pait Says:

    To test the hypothesis that the main point of education is signaling pre-existing qualities, one could devise an experiment in which a whole country increases its level of education, so that having a degree would not mean much in relative terms. If the theory is correct, then the country would not become much wealthier as a result.

    This experiment has been performed several times, notably in Prussia in the 18th century, in America in the 19th, and in South Korea in the 20th. The results are overwhelming. The improvement in productivity from education is several times larger than the salary premium from a degree. (Of course education could have other benefits as well.)

    Caplan’s theory of signaling is incorrect.

  24. Scott Says:

    Boaz #22: Basically, yes. More precisely, his claim is that there’s no known way for someone to prove their conscientiousness and conformity, in a difficult-to-fake way (which of course is crucial here, we don’t the slackers saying “oh yeah, I’m soooo conscientious, that’s 100% me”), without some sort of certificate that attests to having actually been conscientious and conformist for a long period of time.

  25. Neel Krishnaswami Says:

    I haven’t read the book, but I did read his article in The Atlantic. Bryan Caplan claims to be using the Spence signaling model as the basis of his argument, but the evidence he marshals does not satisfy the preconditions of the model.

    In the Spence signaling model, you have two types of workers, good and bad, which employers cannot distinguish between. Furthermore, education is postulated to be a good which both types of workers can buy, which (a) does not affect worker productivity, and (b) is more costly for bad workers than for good workers, and costs bad workers more than the difference in marginal productivity between good and bad workers.

    Concretely, suppose a good worker can produce $10 worth of value, and a bad worker can produce $5. Furthermore, suppose that education costs a good worker $3, and costs a bad worker $6. In this case, if an employer offers educated workers $10 and uneducated workers $5, then good workers will seek to get an education (since 10-3 = 7, and 7 > 5), and bad workers won’t (since 10-6 = 4, and 4 < 5).

    However, the way that sheepskin effects work in real life doesn’t match the Spence model. Empirically, there is a wage premium for getting a degree, period. There is a very small difference in earnings between a high school diploma and 7 semesters of college, and a huge one between 7 semesters and getting a degree. This is inconsistent with the Spence model, because there is a huge difference in cost between 0 and 7 semesters of college, and a very small one between 7 and 8. Since differential cost is the reason you get a separating equilibrium, we must reject the idea that college is an example of the Spence signaling model.

    His argument rests upon equivocating between the informal English meaning of signal and the technical meaning. I find this sketchy.

  26. Scott Says:

    Felipe #23: Caplan would probably argue that the countries were changing in many other ways at the same time—industrializing and so forth—and that those changes caused both the wealth increases and the education increases, rather than the education causing the wealth. Does history provide any more controlled experiments that could settle this?

  27. Scott Says:

    Neel #25: That’s a technical objection that Caplan himself would be the best-placed to answer. FWIW, though, he says in the book that, while he draws on previous work on educational signalling theory, he also departs from it on various points. In particular, “intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity” appears to be his construction. Regarding the student who drops out after 7 semesters of college, he’d probably say that, while that student certainly invested plenty of money, he or she failed to demonstrate the conscientiousness and conformity to social expectations that employers are looking for—and that the sheepskin effect, severely penalizing such a student in salary, is evidence for his model rather than against it.

  28. JimV Says:

    It may be that education is not just a filter for those who will work hard and conscientiously, but a way to train people to do those things. One trains for a marathon by running longer and longer distances. Very few people could run a marathon without such practice, regardless of what a personality test would indicate.

    Also, in my experience, the brains of most middle-school and high-school students are not fully developed and they need rules and discipline. In fact, many of them still need that in college. What those rules and discipline should be is debatable, but they have to exist.

    (Great review – lots of good points by Caplan and by you in rebuttal .)

  29. Matthias Görgens Says:

    Boaz, you wouldn’t just have to invent a test that works in the lab. You’d need one that can’t be cheated (at least not well) by people with strong incentives to do so.

  30. Felipe Pait Says:

    Scott #26: Prussia was a backward agricultural state when it started the push towards universal education, which eventually led to unification of Germany, which surpassed the previously wealthier European powers. Education came before industrialization, and I would say the same is true about Korea. In the US, industrialization was led by the states that had introduced universal education earlier on.

    I don’t want to get into details or more obscure examples because that would involve research. By the way the “smoking gun” is not very persuasive – not completing a degree, whatever the reasons are, is obviously correlated with future difficulties advancing in a career. I have heard the argument that education is almost a luxury good, or a form of conspicuous consumption – from the Brazilian left. It is arrant nonsense.

    However, in its defense, the book brought about your blog post, which I found thoroughly excellent!

  31. JJJ Says:

    At some point in the not-so-distant future it will probably be possible to measure conscientiousness and conformity with fairly good accuracy via some combination of genetic tests and/or brain scans. However inertia and political considerations will likely limit the effect for a long time, at least in the West.

  32. Scott Says:

    Felipe #30: Another possibility consistent with Caplan’s broad thesis would be that, if your population is totally illiterate and innumerate, then mass education really can lift them out of poverty, but that somewhere between there and our current situation, where many people remain in school till age 30, you hit a point of diminishing returns.

  33. jonathan Says:

    I am also a professor. I also went to an elite undergrad, and absolutely loved my college experience.

    Now I teach at a Big State University (call it BSU). My students are doubtless above average in intellect (I think the average SAT score here is >1200). I teach in a major with perhaps slightly above-average students.

    I’m absolutely convinced that (credentialism aside) most of my students would be better served not going to college. Realistically, what I teach them will not have much practical value to them after they graduate, and few of them are intellectually curious enough to benefit from it in other ways. Even if this were not so, empirically most of them forget most of what they manage to learn anyway, and judging by their exams that wasn’t much to begin with.

    Then you come to research. Okay, I grant you that some basic research has tremendous value — in a sense, it lies at the foundation of most of the worthwhile things our species has produced. But only a small fraction of research accounts for this. My best guess is that at least 90% of it has basically zero (or maybe negative) value; and a good chunk of what’s left has marginal value at best.

    Now I’m open to the argument that we can’t reliable tell in advance which research will be part of that 90%. But I think we can take a pretty good guess and cut our research output down by at least 50% without costing us much (that’s a conservative estimate). Then we can get those researchers (mostly smart people) to do something useful.

  34. jonathan Says:


    All that said, I agree that a critical question here is, if we drastically cut down on schooling, what replaces it? Sure, I can think of something that sounds like a huge improvement over the current system; but how confident are we that something like that would be the result?

    Right now our society essentially finances basic research by taking huge amounts of money from kids engaged in a massive education signaling game, and using that to pay researchers engaged in an academic publication signaling game. By luck, the undergraduate and research status hierarchies line up.

    (And somehow we also convince people to give us more of their money after they graduate. And we have professional sports teams attached to our universities for some reason.)

    Granted, this is an obscene Rube Goldberg device which produces huge wastage of resources, including the time and money of students, and the brainpower of most of the researchers (a significant chunk of humanity’s intellectual elite) doing pointless research, plus spending time serving as glorified high school teachers. But critically, this process *also* finances most of the basic research that lies at the root of almost everything worthwhile our species has done in the last few centuries. Not to mention giving a true education to the (admittedly small) fraction of kids that can truly benefit from it.

    How confident are we that blowing this thing up is a good idea?

  35. Felipe Pait Says:

    Scott #32: It must be true that there is a point where full time education has diminishing or negative returns. I don’t think any country has reached it yet, although certainly there are individuals who stay in school way after they stopped learning much that’s useful. Your point in the post, that in the case of bad schools this moment is reached very early on, is on the mark!

  36. Boaz Barak Says:

    Scott #24, Matthias #29. I understand that constructing a test for conscientiousness and conformity that can’t be cheated might be non trivial, but it still doesn’t seem to be a “curing cancer” or “proving P \neq NP” level of challenge.

    If Caplan is right, it seems that even a test that takes a year to administer and costs $100K would still be a bargain. (And again, even if in the U.S. there are some legal restrictions on certain tests, there are plenty of other countries where that would not be an issue.)

    I think there are also many societies (Japan comes to mind) where many people have already certifiably demonstrated “conscientiousness and conformity” by the time they finish middle school.

  37. Neel Krishnaswami Says:

    Scott #27: I suspect your remark is close to what Caplan would say, but it’s a good example of equivocating between the informal and technical notions of signal.

    In particular, the 7-semester effect is completely compatible with a human capital model! Namely, suppose that (a) college teaches independence and conscientiousness and reliability all those good things (as JimV suggests in #28) over a four year period, and (b) that the educational process works some, but not all, of the time. Then a student dropping out just before graduating is certainly revealing the information that the treatment failed, but it absolutely is not a signal in the technical sense, since this is a model in which education is not useless.

    Caplan seems to treat all kinds of revealed information at all as a Spence-style signal, and uses this to argue vehemently against (among others) the human capital model. This is a really serious analytical mistake.

  38. rc Says:

    Thank you for your review.

    I’ve heard of this book and I must confess that another (much
    less thorough) review I’ve read left me with mixed feelings …

    I’ve not (yet?) read the book myself. From your review,
    Caplan’s analysis sounds to me as a realistic description of the
    actual role of the educational system in our society. Situations
    as the one you describe as your own experience (good students in
    good schools), unfortunately, are the exception rather than the

    What would your appreciation of Caplan’s thesis be if he claimed
    to be “describing the disease” instead of (as I gathered)
    “describing the healthy system”.

    To further the metaphor: spending resources to keep the patient
    alive (whether or not applying other measures to cure him) could
    be construed as spending resources to keep the disease
    spreading. The later point of view makes euthanasia sound as a
    rational solution from an economic point of view …

  39. Atreat Says:

    This was so excellent review and rebuttal! Thank you, thank you, thank you!!

  40. Michele Coscia Says:

    A link I found on SSC seems to suggest that Caplan’s theory might be even incorrect at his preferred level: the one of economic returns:

    The authors seem to have found evidence that teacher strikes in primary schools have a link to reduced productivity in the careers of affected children. I don’t know how robust is this study, and no one should make hasty conclusions from a single study, but this is suggestive.

    As you say, Caplan does not have a smoking gun for his theory, not a single country trying his way and increasing in prosperity. While this comes close to be a smoking gun in the totally opposite direction.

  41. The problem with gatekeepers Says:

    Interesting read.

    I am familiar with Caplan’s book and assertions. While I think he takes things a bit too far (for example, many poor kids do definitely benefit from government dollars being spent in public education at all levels), I generally agree -having seen very close both the world of top notch academia Caplan and Scott live in- and the world of “virtue signaling employers” that from an employer point of view, the biggest value of a college degree is “virtue signaling”.

    The extreme example that few people would disagree with is that of the MBA degree at top notch institutions like Harvard. Said degrees serve only one purpose: create a network of people who see themselves as “uber important” and to signal that to outside employers. Data shows very clearly that MBA degrees like Harvard’s do not produce enlightened business executives or amazing entrepreneurs. The average graduate from these MBA programs ends up as a middle manager at a large “virtue signalling” corporation like Google or Goldman Sachs so that these virtue signaling corporations can tell the outside world things like “look at how many graduates from prestigious universities we have”.

    The other thing that I am not sure Scott sees clearly is this: there is a cost to society – not only in terms of actual government dollars but in terms of missed opportunities- to create the world in which both he and Caplan have spent their entire careers. If one takes a look at data like the creation of new businesses, we see that the ascendancy of the “virtue signaling education aristocracy” is coincident with a decrease in new business creation . The very fact that economy is now dominated by companies like Google or Goldman Sachs that are “too big to fail” and that stifle innovation at every turn is another data point supporting this assertion. One of the most enlightening debates I have watched in this regard is this between Peter Thiel and Eric Schmidt circa 2012 . If Peter Thiel was able to put Eric Schmidt on the defensive that Google had no ideas and preferred to invest its cash on getting interest is because it is largely true. At the same time, we don’t know of the technical innovations that did not happen due to Google’s dominant position in all things internet.

    This is not to say that American higher education doesn’t produce valuable products. They do, but what they do it at a cost, both in terms of actual government dollars as well as cost to society at large. The peak of my intellectual career was my time as PhD student at a top notch American institution. This time was largely funded via grant money from both private and public sources. I had a great time, and I have a great job as a result but I think it is fair to ask, what did society get in return? If I am honest with myself, the answer is not much that wouldn’t have obtained by spending less money on my training.

    As far as I can tell, higher education in 2018 America is a poster example of an extractive institution that benefits first and foremost extractive elites of which I am reluctantly a member (more info here ). The way it is headed it seems it is destined to become like France’s in another 50 years . Now, while France still produces some innovations from time to time (particularly in mathematics, just look at the number of Fields Medals its nationals have one), when was the last time France produced a Microsoft, an Apple or a Google? So long ago we don’t even remember those times. At the same time, the graduates of places like Ecole Polytechnique, Ecole Normale Superieure, CentraleSupelec or Ecole Nationale d’Administration -ENA- have never had it better. In fact, if you look at the last French presidents, save for Nicolas Sarkozy, you’d think that being an ENA graduate is a prerequisite to becoming president of France.

  42. Scott Says:

    Neel #37: It’s a good point; I don’t remember how Caplan refutes the hypothesis that schools are teaching (rather than just certifying) conscientiousness and conformity. Rather than me trying again to simulate him, maybe we could get him here to respond…

  43. Scott Says:

    Gatekeepers #41: You might think elite education is about “virtue signalling,” but that isn’t Caplan’s theory at all. Since Caplan is extremely far from a leftist, you might think he’d be sympathetic to the idea, but he explicitly rejects the notion that universities successfully indoctrinate students in left-wing “elite” ideology—he says the data clearly show that the professors might try, but they don’t succeed!—or that left-wing indoctrination is the quality that employers are looking for. In his model, rather, every student and every employer is purely self-interested—there’s scacely a mustache-twirling villain or a self-sacrificing ideologue to be found—but you still end up with huge amounts of wasteful signaling.

  44. Michael Vassar Says:

    The alternative hypothesis to the University explanation for Lasers, Transistors and the Internet is the Military Industrial Complex explanation. A related alternative is the Just Bell Labs and DARPA In Particular explanation.

    I think that Bryan is mistaken about employers lack of altruism however. My strong hypothesis is that most employment could legitimately be considered ‘altruistic’ and that this ‘altruistic’ employment really is the motivation for the educational system. I’m highly convinced by Bryan’s internal reasoning, but it would probably be a bad idea to build policy on a foundation with a factual error as large as that one.

  45. Darf Ferrara Says:

    Scott, I loved your review, even though I probably side more with Caplan. You presented your biases and then fairly summarized the other side. You certainly passed the ideological turing test. I feel hopeful that the proliferation of free courses available on the internet will solve the problem that is the high cost of university, the credentialing just needs to be solved.

    One point, Gram-Schmidt shouldn’t be used, it’s too numerically unstable. Use Given rotations, or Householder, or possibly double Gram-Schmidt.

  46. Scott Says:

    Darf #45: Thanks! I learned Gram-Schmidt from a numerical analysis course taught by Steve Vavasis; the course was indeed all about numerical stability and trying algorithms out in MATLAB, and I’m absolutely certain Vavavis would have made the point you did (though I confess I don’t remember).

    In any case, that ended up being one of the most useful courses I ever took, but not at all because of its ostensible purpose! I simply took everything I’d learned about numerical linear algebra, and applied it whenever—to take one example—I wrote a quantum computing theory paper where I needed to bound the error when “correcting” a matrix to a nearby unitary one. For the theoretical purposes I’ve used it for (see here or here for examples), I’ve found that Gram-Schmidt has been just fine. 🙂

  47. Scott Says:

    jonathan #34:

      Granted, this is an obscene Rube Goldberg device which produces huge wastage of resources … But critically, this process *also* finances most of the basic research that lies at the root of almost everything worthwhile our species has done in the last few centuries. Not to mention giving a true education to the (admittedly small) fraction of kids that can truly benefit from it.

      How confident are we that blowing this thing up is a good idea?

    You and I see 100% eye-to-eye about the right way to formulate the question.

    As I read the comments this morning, I was reminded of Einstein’s famous comment in 1909, when he resigned from the patent office and accepted his first professorship: “now I too am a member of the guild of whores.”

    I think that’s got pretty much everything in one sentence: scathing criticism, yes, but also the tacit acknowledgment that not even he, Einstein, can think of any better place than the whorehouse to give birth to general relativity.

  48. artifex Says:

    This is the only paragraph of your review I did not like:

    “So I have the same skepticism of Caplan’s project that I’d have (ironically) of Bolshevism or any other revolutionary project. I say to him: don’t just persuade me, show me. Show me a case where this has worked. In the social world, unlike the mathematical world, I put little stock in long chains of reasoning unchecked by experience.”

    You are entitled to evidence but not to any specific piece of evidence. If you think Bryan’s evidence is insufficient, you should say that and explain why instead of asking to be shown a case where something similar to Caplan’s project has worked knowing full well that he cannot possibly be expected to have that form of proof even given that his thesis is true.

    Your analogy with Bolshevism falls down when you consider that Bolshevism can be rejected without putting little stock in long chains of reasoning, by explaining where the chains of reasoning go wrong. It is not like nobody has ever found a flaw in a Marxist argument and everyone still wonders why communism didn’t work. If we cannot find flaws in Caplan’s arguments, that is some evidence that his arguments are correct and this evidence may be sufficient. If not, we are still not entitled to be shown a specific piece of evidence.

  49. Daniel Says:

    Very nice, clear review! I started to write a long comment asking whether Caplan had any evidence that schools weren’t teaching conscientiousness and conformity, and then saw that JimV #28 and Neel #37 already asked it. I’ll add that when I trained to be a middle-school teacher, my trainers were completely explicit that teaching conscientiousness and rule-following was the main goal, with actual learning of academic subjects a distant second at best.

    If K12 schools are effectively teaching conscientious and conformity, and people value those, then we might need to think about whether a university-style system would do as good a job.

  50. Koray Says:

    FYI re: IQ tests, top tech companies DO administer them under the cover of “algorithm questions” in interviews. Obviously a software engineer needs a good understanding of algorithms and computational complexity, which gives the companies the excuse to ask unusually hard questions.

    Ask any Googler whether they ever had to write something that algorithmically difficult as part of their job like in their interview questions. 99% of them will say no (some obviously do special algorithm work).

    Their interviewers will openly admit to the unnatural structure of their puzzles. If you’ve been employed and writing code actively and professionally for the last 10+ years, you still can’s just walk into an interview. You have to google “google interview questions” and try to solve a few in your free time, open up old CS textbooks to remind yourself what a skip list was (actually used it 4 years ago, but what exactly was it?), etc.

    Almost all CS job openings still require a bachelor’s degree, but I’ve had coworkers without degrees, and the attitude has been changing. There are tons of CS grads who can’t write any code. If you can demonstrate that you can write code (and seemingly have high IQ and a non-toxic personality), you’ll probably get hired somewhere.

  51. Scott Says:

    artifex #48: Hey, I think I’m entitled to ask for any kind of evidence I want! 🙂 (And Caplan is then entitled, if he likes, to explain why he can’t provide that evidence and it’s not needed anyway, readers are entitled to make up their own minds … entitlement all around.)

    I stand by the value of being specific about what it would take to win you fully over to someone else’s way of thinking. For example: “it’s great that you’ve analyzed your algorithm five different ways, but since I’m not sure I buy the assumptions behind any of these analyses, have you also actually implemented the thing and tested it out?” Or conversely: “it’s great that you’re showing me these graphs, but since it’s really hard to extrapolate from data on small instances, do you also have a theoretical asymptotic analysis?”

    Yes, a sufficiently wise person could have foreseen all the failure modes of Bolshevism and fascism and Prohibition and pre-1929 monetary policy and the Vietnam War before any of them were tried—while also recommending to go full speed ahead with representative democracy, the US entry into WWII, and Wikipedia. Such a person could presumably also have deduced natural selection, quantum mechanics, and general relativity without ever leaving their armchair.

    But those of us who are not sufficiently wise can often improve our accuracy by, whenever possible, consulting the real world as an oracle. It’s a great trick that’s been known since antiquity, but really became an art form around the time of Galileo.

  52. Overcoming Bias : Aaronson on Caplan Says:

    […] Aaronson just reviewed Caplan’s Case Against Education. He seems to accept most of Caplan’s specific analysis and […]

  53. Jair Says:

    Excellent essay, Scott. Some scattered thoughts:

    – Is it really true that there is a nonneglible proportion of college graduates in the US who can’t locate the US on a map? I have a hard time believing that. I have such a strong prior against this that if I saw a survey or quiz giving this result I would probably chock it up to the lizard-man effect (, that is, people choosing answers randomly or maliciously or without hearing the question, etc.

    – In education, I am in favor of treating teenagers like adults. I don’t think high school should be mandatory. There should be far more options for practical courses in trades that will lead directly to increased income in the near future. High schools should be more like community colleges – you should have no issues with dropping out for a year to work and then coming back to complete your education. I knew many kids in my high school who would sit in class bored out of their minds, doing 0% of their homework. Why the torture? I’ve seen many who mature later and wish to come back. Letting them take time off and come back is a vastly better use of funding.

    – One of the most irritating things I hear constantly is tenured professors lecturing students on how they should go to college to nourish their own knowledge and wisdom rather than thinking about their grades and future income. Well. Why are they are paying tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to get this wisdom? If they wanted wisdom, they can read books or sit in on classes. The value proposition for this kind of wisdom is nonexistent. They are trying survive, and having a degree is their ticket to food and shelter in the future. It’s only from a very privileged, secure perspective that these basic economic needs appear to be petty. If you’re already on the tippy-top of Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” you shouldn’t try to lecture those below.

    – It’s often said that so-called “useless” mathematics may be useful in the future – usually at a span of a hundred years or so. But I’ve seen this happen in real-life. In undergrad I spent time on my own thinking about things like Bernoulli numbers and the digamma function, just for fun. Now, almost ten years later, I’ve found a very practical use for the digamma function in my current work as a data scientist.

  54. anon Says:

    This must be national “Really Awful Books by Self-absorbed Academics Month” or something. First “Losing the Nobel Prize” and now this gem.
    Anyway, sincere thanks for reading it and engaging its arguments. I don’t think I could have gotten past the title.

  55. Neil Says:

    Very thought provoking. It was said about Soviet Russia that the workers pretended to work and the government pretended to pay them. In my many years in higher education I witnessed professors pretending to teach and students pretending to learn. The crazy wheel keeps turning, until it doesn’t.

  56. Richard Gaylord Says:

    scott comment #20. the merits of caplan’s arguments can be judged without knowing his political (or religious) beliefs and therefore stating where he’s ‘coming from’ is irrelevant. also, while caplan may declare himself to be a libertarian, other libertarians might not accept his self-description. moreover, non-libertarians are not at all likely to know what a libertarian believes (e.g. many non-libertarians consider ayn rand to be a libertarian even though neither rand herself nor other libertarians, identify her as being a libertarian) and finally, it is incorrect to identify caplan as being a member of a libertarian economics department because there is no such thing as libertarian economics and no such thing as a libertarian economics department).

  57. Andrew Krause Says:

    Even if I disagree with small details, your overall post contains a lot of valuable insight. I don’t think anyone can disagree that problems exist, that we could do better, that the system has some fundamental flaws, etc. I think where we all disagree is on how exactly to proceed. I quite like the following quote from SSC that resonates strongly with me.

    “And since then, one of the central principles behind my philosophy has been “Don’t destroy all existing systems and hope a planet-sized ghost makes everything work out”. Systems are hard. Institutions are hard. If your goal is to replace the current systems with better ones, then destroying the current system is 1% of the work, and building the better ones is 99% of it. Throughout history, dozens of movements have doomed entire civilizations by focusing on the “destroying the current system” step and expecting the “build a better one” step to happen on its own. That never works. The best parts of conservativism are the ones that guard this insight and shout it at a world too prone to taking shortcuts.”

  58. thepenforests Says:

    “As I look back, many of my math and CS classes were grueling bootcamps on how to prove theorems, how to design algorithms, how to code. Most of the learning took place not in the classroom but alone, in my dorm, as I struggled with the assignments—having signed up for the most advanced classes that would allow me in, and thereby left myself no escape except to prove to the professor that I belonged there. In principle, perhaps, I could have learned the material on my own, but in reality I wouldn’t have. I don’t still use all of the specific tools I acquired, though I do still use a great many of them, from the Gram-Schmidt procedure to Gaussian integrals to finding my way around a finite group or field. Even if I didn’t use any of the tools, though, this gauntlet is what upgraded me from another math-competition punk to someone who could actually write research papers with long proofs. For better or worse, it made me what I am.”

    You know, I think you’re onto something here. I’ve described my own experience in physics in a very similar way. In fact, although I didn’t think about it in this way at the time, more and more I’ve come to view undergraduate/graduate degrees as primarily acting as precommitment mechanisms.

    Like, sure, if we were all incredibly motivated genius autodidacts, we could just learn all of this math and physics crap on our own. But that’s simply not realistic for most of us. Understanding an abstract, esoteric subject like math requires an *incredible* amount of effort – you pretty much have to be pushed to your utmost limits, and beyond (and then probably beyond that again).

    I think to end up with a good understanding of something like math or physics, you basically have to reshape your brain. And that’s a really hard thing to do on your own, no matter how interested you are in the subject matter. For my part, despite my (at least *somewhat*) deep interest in physics, I know for a fact that I would never have been able to push through and understand the things I did if I didn’t…well, *need* to understand them, in order to complete that assignment that was due the next day. When you’re faced with a deadline like that, there’s no question of “if”. You just *have* to finish it, no matter what. So you reach into wells that you didn’t know you had, and you just *get it done*. I think that’s a really hard psychological state to reach without some kind of external motivator.

    Ultimately, if you restrict the people who end up learning really difficult subjects like math/physics/whatever to those who can do so on their own, I think you’ll cut out all but the absolute most self-motivated, and some of those excluded will be people who were genuinely interested in the subject matter, but who couldn’t get over that (honestly pretty high) activation barrier.

  59. jonas Says:

    Felipe Pait #30 mentions Prussia and Korea as examples where education came before the country becoming more developed. The example that comes to my mind after that is the Foundation, in Asimov’s Foundation novel, when the Galactic Empire descends to a dark age, and the small country at the edge of the Galaxy with a good education system takes over.

  60. nadbor Says:

    1. I think the issues of education and of basic research (and whether we are having too much of either) should be considered separately. IMO the case against the entire population being forced to go through a decades-long ritual of unclear utility is much stronger than the one against the handful of nerds following their scientific passions on taxpayer’s dime. I know you can’t completely abolish education without killing research but surely the correlation can’t be 1. There must be ways to cut person-years of education by 20% without losing 20% of research output.

    Personally, I think there is a lot of useless research around that could also do with some cutting, but it’s such a small problem in comparison that maybe it’s not worth worrying about.

    2. I think anyone sane will agree that you can’t just turn an institution so old and so vast as the education system upside down overnight and be sure no calamity will result. (incidentally, the anti-abolitionists were using very similar arguments…). But I don’t see this a strong objection to Caplan’s thesis. Of course he writes about his vision of the perfect setup, because you gotta have a vision. But I think (without having read the book) that he would agree that in practice you should start with very small steps and verify that each step is an improvement before proceeding to the next one. I remember him writing something in similar vein regarding different levels of economic freedom in different countries and how you don’t need an example of a fully 100% socialist or 100% libertarian country to conclude which system is better.

    3. There is a massive status quo bias going on regarding this issue. Coupled with cognitive dissonance.

    ‘I spent a decade in college and grad school. I’m not an academic, and im my job I’m not using almost anything I’ve learned in academia. I don’t even read arxiv anymore. But I don’t regret getting the PhD. If I admitted that it was a mistake that would mean I was stupid. And I’m not stupid. No, it was all worth it. Not in terms of the skills or the money or the friends I made, it wasn’t even very pleasant at the time… But it was worth it, because it made me a wiser person. Yeah, that must be it. Let’s go with that.’

    In this light, we should triple-check if we’re disagreeing with Caplan because he’s wrong or do we just *want* him to be wrong.

    4. Commenters are pointing out countries where improved education (allegedly) led to economic growth. Maybe. Or maybe it was reverse causation. Or maybe it did, but that effect only works up to the level of 3Rs and then plateaus. Or maybe it works because education actually instills in people conscientiousness and conformity. Or creativity and discipline. Or maybe having at one point memorised, and then promptly forgotten the quadratic formula really does make you a better dentist 15 years down the line. Or maybe the benefit comes from some 1% of the population having memorised it but we can’t tell which 1% it is in advance. Who knows. It’s not like anyone bothers to check.

    My point is is that we’re performing this crazy, increasingly elaborate rainmaking dance that is clearly not bringing any rain but we keep insisting that it must be good for something. It’s teaching creativity/discipline/conformity/social skills/… These are such transparent excuses that it’s not even funny.

    Since we care so much about creativity/discipline/conformity/social skills/…, how come we’re not testing students for it? And why haven’t we spent 5 minutes as a society to try to figure out a less painful and convoluted way teach it? How is it possible that in a vain attempt to teach kids trigonometry we stumbled into the perfect method of instilling creativity and discipline? Have we tried *literally anything else*?

    The obvious answer is that we’re not teaching trigonometry for the creativity. We’re teaching trigonometry for the trigonometry. The equally obvious observation is that most students will never learn it and 99% will never need it and they would be better off learning discipline/the value of hard work some other way.

  61. The problem with gatekeepers Says:

    Scott #43

    I think that Caplan is probably right that indoctrination by leftists academics is not as successful as these academics would like. It all has to do with how reality works and how the academic world works. At top notch institutions like the ones you have known as student and as a professor, the revenues come in no matter what. There is always arguments as to cuts here and there (in the case of state institutions like UC Berkeley or UT Austin potential cuts from state funding), but they make up the cuts with increased tuition that those “credential signaling people” will be happy to pay either out of their own pockets or through loans (lesser ranked institutions face a different situation altogether). Thus, when these institutions is your “normal”, you might have come to believe that money grows on trees. As soon as you get to the real world -unless you go to these “too big to fail” companies like Google or Goldman Sachs that are essentially similar- revenues are not an automatic thing. Unless you produce something the market is willing to buy, it doesn’t matter how smart you are, how tall you are, how handsome you are, you will fail and fail in a very brutal way. Since most people -including those graduating from elite higher education institutions- do not work for Google, Goldman Sachs or the like, the real world has a tendency to undo any indoctrination that is built on a different premise.

    But this is different from the other factor, namely, that keeping all this up & running comes at a cost which includes, in addition to what I mentioned above, that in the long run these “credential signaling people” are likely to ruin the system. Take the French system I mentioned above. When it was created -at the time of the French enlightenment- it produced people with the caliber of Siméon Denis Poisson, Augustin Louis Cauchy , Joseph Fourier or Pierre-Simon Laplace (just to name a few of the better known figures from that system). Even as recently as the XX-the century it produced people like Benoît Mandelbrot. Fast forward to today and the same system does not produce these people. I know, I know, there are many factors that made France produce those people 200 years ago, but if you read the New York Times article I mentioned above about how the French populace treats these institutions you’ll see that they have become first and foremost institutions that attract snobs intending on living out of their “grande ecole” degree during the rest of their lives, not necessarily nerds who want to continue the tradition of the aforementioned intellectual giants. Some of this is already happening in the American system. If it hasn’t fully happened yet is because of the genius known as “graduate education”. Most of the American students interested in “credential signaling” tend to be happy with getting an undergraduate degree leaving room for masters and PhD students coming from very diverse backgrounds eager to take on the intellectual challenge. That’s how I got into one of these American schools. This situation is not guaranteed to last forever however and I see a clearly how even graduate education could be spoiled (the attempt to tax graduate tuition should be seen as a warning sign by those in your position). Thus, the conversation Caplan has initiated is worth keep ongoing including by those of you who enjoy the best the American higher education nirvana has to offer.

    nadbor #60

    There is a lot I agree with you there. I particularly liked your point 1. that I agree entirely with and I say this as a nerd who loves to learn new stuff and longs for his happy PhD days when it was all about learning new stuff. In reality, the conundrum you describe there is one that the corporate world had to face a generation ago. It then decided that it couldn’t afford to do PARC, Bell Labs and IBM Research despite the incredible output these institutions produced that benefited society at large (when it comes to PARC for example, we are living in the world their researchers dreamed about and conceived in the 1970s). Will higher education follow a similar destiny? I am skeptical, but I see it becoming like the French or the British systems: both have very fine institutions but they long stopped being world references -except for very few exceptions like Cambridge University.

  62. Douglas Knight Says:

    Jonathan 34

    Right now our society essentially finances basic research by taking huge amounts of money from kids engaged in a massive education signaling game, and using that to pay researchers engaged in an academic publication signaling game.

    But does it? I really cannot determine the sign of the subsidy. Does education subsidize research, or does research subsidize education? Perhaps they both subsidize administrators or endowments. Of course, the answer could be different at Elite Undergrad and BSU, but, actually, I doubt it.
    Maybe your argument doesn’t depend on the answer, though, and you could retreat to Scott’s formulation:

    if this system is how the basic research enterprise perpetuates itself

  63. anon Says:

    Fantastic review, analysis and thread.

    35 years ago I pondered whether to pursue a BS in philosophy or physics and chose the latter. I found that I absolutely loved reading about physics… but absolutely hated “learning” about it. But without the rigor would I have eventually really understood it? Doubtful.

    I augmented my degree with a few CS courses and ended up with a career where I could fortunately prosper without having to actually “do” physics. I absolutely don’t regret getting the Physics degree, but then again my parents paid for all of it.

    I still wonder where I would be if I’d fallen in the Philosophy chute…

  64. Sarth Says:

    As for testing for conscientiousness, Jordan Peterson has stated that years of his own personal research have failed to come up with any reliable test for that specific personality trait.

    Maybe 4 years of college is the best way anyone has figured out so far.

  65. Sid Says:

    Agree or disagree with the folks at GMU Economics, there is no doubt that they’re currently producing some of the most thought-provoking, but rigorously argued for, ideas in the intellectual atmosphere today. (What sane economics department would give Robin Hanson tenure—but by golly, what a fantastic decision that was!) I think both Hanson and Caplan have credited Tyler Cowen for setting them up. I think other department chairs (and not just econ department chairs) should interview Cowen and ask him how he identifies underrated talent: there are some Moneyball-level skills here. Imagine more our Hanson-esque thinkers in our physics, CS, philosophy, math, and other departments. Academia would be whole lot more interesting.

  66. Scott Says:

    Sid #65: I feel privileged to know some ridiculously original thinkers in math, CS, and physics. But it takes less courage, or recklessness, or whatever you want to call it to be one of them than to be a Robin Hanson.

  67. Pascal Says:

    In support of Felipe #30: The USA were the first country in the world to achieve near universal education at the high school level (between 1900 and 1940), thereby paving their way to global dominance in the 20th century.

  68. Felipe Pait Says:

    Pascal #67: I wonder how much of the erosion of the US position in the world – soft power is disappearing 1st, then the rest will follow if the country doesn’t change course – has to do with the war against education & science that the Republican party has been fighting since the 1980s. (I understand that this is a rather political way of putting it, however it is true.) That education is underfunded is clear from the number of strikes in this strike averse country.

  69. Pascal Says:

    To complement my previous message (#67): the USA were also the first country to build after WWII a mass higher education system,
    but in contrast to secondary education it never became universal. This led to a society divided between the haves (those with a college degree) and the haves not, and ultimately to Trump’s victory.

    This thesis is developed in Emmanuel Todd’s latest book: “Où en sommes nous ? une esquisse de l’histoire humaine”. The book also touches on a number of other topics, as you might guess from the rather ambitious title.
    I highly recommend it if you can read French.

  70. New top story on Hacker News: Novel defence of education as a willpower substitute – Tech + Hckr News Says:

    […] Novel defence of education as a willpower substitute 7 by ColinWright | 0 comments on Hacker News. […]

  71. Scott Says:

    thepenforests #58: I confess I’d only skimmed your comment before, but having now circled back and read it carefully … extremely well said! I’ve thought of college courses as “precommitment devices” for a long time—-not entirely different from hiring a personal trainer to coerce your future self into losing weight—-but you expressed the idea better than me.

  72. Frank Wilhoit Says:

    Learning and teaching are distinct. Sometimes teaching leads to learning, but either can occur without the other. Empirical observation, entirely without rigor, suggests that the latter is typical.

    And then there is teaching within an institutional setting, where secondary purposes become, in effect, primary and vice versa.

    Caplan’s propaganda will have little effect, because it is meant to resonate with an audience for whom all propaganda has now become tl;dr .

  73. Felipe Pait Says:

    Pascal # 69: I don’t quite agree with you there. The US led the world in fraction of youth that receive some postsecondary education. Only very recently a few countries have pushed ahead. I haven’t heard anyone seriously argue for universal college – perhaps Caplan’s case against education would apply there. Some people would most certainly not benefit from college as we know it.

    I don’t think the real source of inequality in the US has been college education. The main divisive force is the growth of multimillionaires. They have exploited the politics of resentment against “those people” to get votes among the population in general, but college access is not the main story, in my opinion.

  74. Jr Says:

    Here is an article by Noah Smith making some technical arguments against Caplan’s thesis:

    Aside from raising the points about the sheepskin effect that have been raised here he points to evidence that the wage premium from a college degree is increasing in time, while employers should be able to judge employees directly when they have worked long enough.

  75. Pascal Says:

    Felipe #73: yes, the growth of multimillionaires is also a big part of this story.
    You are probably right that college is not for everyone.
    Perhaps it will be at some point in the future (in the past high school was “obviously” not for everyone, so these things can change).

    In any case, regardless of what the future holds the rise of higher education did result in a more unequal society.
    Also, according to Emmanuel Todd this educational divide had ideological consequences. It made inequality look more natural and therefore made the rise of the multimillionaire class more socially acceptable.

  76. Pascal Says:

    About “the problem with gatekeepers #61”: interestingly, all the French scientists you mention (Poisson, Cauchy, Fourier, Mandelbrot) except Laplace were students or professors at Ecole Polytechnique.
    One peculiarity about the French system is the division between universities (where most of the scientific research takes place)
    and the “grandes écoles” where the “elite students” are educated.
    As a result, the students at Ecole Polytechnique and the like became less interested in technical or scientific innovation, and more interested in becoming managers in large corporations or high-ranking civil servants.
    That is hopefully not the universal fate of higher education systems, but the result of some unfortunate choices in the design of the French system.

    There has been some effort in recent years to bridge the gap between universities and “grandes écoles”, without much concrete results as far as I can see (except create more bureaucracy, of course).
    These attempts reminds me of a de Gaulle quote about Brazil (my apologies to Brazilian readers): “Le Brésil est un pays d’avenir, et le sera toujours”. Approximate English translation: “Brazil is a country for the future, and always will be”.

  77. dhaus Says:

    I think a fundamental difference between a subject like History and Theoretical CS is that the latter has objective standards for what counts as progress (proving a theorem, making conjectures whose resolution would resolve multiple questions, etc.).

    History (or at least the part that tries to make explanatory models of why things happened the way they did), as it’s currently practiced, seems to proceed mainly based on using anecdotes to provide evidence for one hypothesis or the other. There’s no attempt to develop standards that could be used to judge the validity of one hypothesis over the other. Now such developing such standards is much harder in social sciences but until they are developed, I don’t think it’s invalid to view the utility of carrying on studying history the way it’s done skeptically.

  78. The problem with gatekeeprs Says:

    Pascal #76

    I am familiar with the situation you describe in the French system. My contention is twofold: 1- that it has made French intellectual life poorer, not better, 2- that it was not meant to be that way when the system was created in the aftermath of the French Revolution.

    What began as a meritocratic attempt at offering good education to the masses via a standardized “concours” open to everyone, ended up with French snobs gaming the system making sure that their kids get the right education to pass the “concours”, leaving other French students out of the elite system. If this sounds familiar to American readers, is because that’s essentially what happens today in American undergraduate education. In addition to the separation of undergraduate/graduate education that I mentioned above, another thing that makes American society fairer, in general, particularly for people whose parents didn’t spend a fortune in their educations because they didn’t know better or simply because they couldn’t care less is the American value that goes along the lines “it doesn’t matter where you came from, it matters where you are going”. As such, even for those who aspire to be managers as established corporations -as opposed to being entrepreneurs- can still get there without having gone to an elite institution as undergraduates. NY Times columnist Frank Bruni -with whom I am more often in disagreement than in agreement- explains this well in his book “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be” . That is still largely true in the US which explains why it remains a magnet for talented ambitious people from all around the world.

  79. The problem with gatekeepers Says:

    Jr #74

    From the Bloomberg link:

    “First of all, he says that it represents “wasted resources.” In signaling models, the resources that people spend proving themselves aren’t wasted — they’re an economically efficient way of overcoming the natural problem of asymmetric information. Basic economic reasoning suggests that if there were an easier, cheaper way to tell which employees would be good, at least some companies would have discovered it by now. Yet degree requirements remain ubiquitous. So if Caplan is right, the signaling benefit of college is still a positive and necessary economic force.”

    The “technical interview” model that was pioneered by William Shockley is such a way. I think it is an imperfect way because it misses other things one is supposed to learn as a result of a well rounded education but even Google, which is notoriously addicted to degrees from elite schools, now hires people who pass technical interviews but who might not have a degree from an elite institution .

    Having been at both ends of the interview process of high tech companies, my current opinion is that notoriously difficult to find good employees. Neither an elite degree nor passing a technical interview with flying colors is by itself a predictor of good performance. In competitive businesses the key skill that differentiates the stars from the “merely good” is the ability of being comfortable with making sound decisions in the midst of tons of ambiguity. Usually a good track record of having made said decisions in the past is a better predictor of future ability of doing the same than fancy credentials or a perfect score in a test. If you listen to the guys who have made it to the very top of the business ladder, guys like these , that’s what they all say.

  80. Felipe Pait Says:

    Pasca #75 and #76: I don’t know if you intended your comment to me, but we Brazilians are a proud people and are happy to be made fun of. No apologies needed. Otherwise I mostly agree with you. Yes, the 2 tier system of higher education in France is elitist and not something one would devise from scratch – either an egalitarian system of universities (as in Northern Europe, as I understand them) or a continuous system as in the US makes more sense.

    On the other hand France is doing just fine. Of course it has problems like everyone else, but altogether the French live well and have education systems that work, so perhaps we should not be too harsh on either French “elitism” os “socialism”.

  81. Cliff Says:

    It seems like a lot of people are making the terrible error of equating an end of government subsidy of education with the end of education itself. Obviously this is incorrect.

    You also object that the money that was spent on education would instead be spent on war or something but that seems absurd to me. Surely the base case would be tax cuts, with the worst case scenario being the money being consumed in the fire of government waste in some other way.

    I note that there are “schools” (Sudbury schools) where children have no teachers and hence, there is little expense. These children, many of whom were failing at “normal” schools, seem to do just as well as anyone else. Food for thought anyway.

  82. Matty Wacksen Says:

    Hi Scott,

    I like your essay, it disagrees with most of Caplan’s points while still treating him with respect. Good on you, I wish people would do so more!

    But I feel like too often you are not arguing with Caplan, but with an evil outgroup. This distracts from the point a little, as I keep being surprised by arguments like that you think the red-tribe wants a return to the dark ages, or that their goal is “nihilistic quasi-fascism”. In a world where “this programme is trillions of dollars too expensive, but if we do not take the money for our purposes then *they* will get it instead” is an acceptable argument, everybody applies this argument, and everybody loses. But you probably know this already, and it’s just hard for me to understand this issue completely as a non-American who isn’t really invested in any of this.

    As for an actual question: some of your arguments depend on the fact that universities do basic research. Do you think it would be possible (or even desirable) to separate research and teaching to an extent where we could apply some of Caplan’s points on teaching/learning without having to worry about how it affects research?

  83. Cuberdon75 Says:

    In defense of the French system as it is (or was, until recently, since it is currently being destroyed by the forces of global neoliberalism and multiculturalism):

    Let me just focus on the rue d’Ulm, since it is undoubtedly its crown jewel. The notion that is has become an unproductive refuge for “snobs” is absurd. The extraordinarily difficult concours has made it a Fields Medal factory, far above any other educational institution in the world. In the humanities, nobody who doesn’t master the French language at the level of an académicien can expect to make it through the first cut–so any comparison with the American system is completely impossible. Its star in philosophy (its most prestigious subject alongside mathematics) has certainly waned in recent decades, but I’d argue philosophy has waned on the world’s stage in toto, precisely because of the conditions I referred to above. Global, alternative-free capitalism, even in its pseudo-democratic form, is philosophy’s deadly enemy; any change in this world-regime will by definition be a victory for, and by, philosophy.

  84. Egg Syntax Says:

    I haven’t read the book, but assuming you do a reasonable job presenting his arguments, I see two problems right offhand:

    “why are students so thrilled when class gets cancelled for a snowstorm?” Well, because young people aren’t very good at considering their own long-term interest; they do extremely high temporal discounting. For that matter, *all* of us are sometimes happy about outcomes that are pleasant in the short-term but not good for our long-term interests.

    “how do we explain the fact that students forget almost everything so soon after the final exam?” I’d want to see how exactly the author (and people conducting experiments) define “forget” here. Not being able to produce something on demand doesn’t mean it’s been truly forgotten. For example, in my (computer science) program we learned about B-trees. I couldn’t really describe them if you asked me, but I know that they exist, and I know that they’re a good way to store databases on disk. So if I needed to write low-level code for a database, I’d be well ahead of someone who had never heard of them in the first place. And I think this extends further, to things that I don’t even remember hearing of, but which I could learn more quickly than someone who hadn’t encountered them.

  85. Egg Syntax Says:

    @Koray #50 –

    “Ask any Googler whether they ever had to write something that algorithmically difficult as part of their job like in their interview questions. 99% of them will say no.”

    FWIW, I feel like I write code for fairly workaday purposes, but a good understanding of a wide range of algorithms has served me in really good stead. I keep Skiena’s _Algorithm Design Manual_ by my desk (note: I originally got it on Steve Yegge’s recommendation, specifically so I could study for an interview at Google), and I often turn to it when I’m facing an unusually hard problem.

  86. The problem with gatekeepers Says:

    Cuberdon75 #83

    In my original comment I noted mathematics as the only exception to the situation I described. That doesn’t invalidate my main contention, namely, that the top tier of the French education system is a largely a magnet for snobs. In fact, one of the recent French Fields Medals winners, Laurent Lafforgue, is a well known critic of the French education system: .

    If you compare the American elite system with the French, the US produces just as many Field Medals winners as it produces Nobel Prize winners in all scientific disciplines. It also produces fabulous entrepreneurs (in the case of Harvard and Stanford by way of their famous dropouts like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Elon Musk, etc). This is all good, for now for the reasons I outlined above.

    However, in life, nothing lasts forever. It’s only in retrospect that “turning points” are recognized. I think that the current American education system is in serious danger of becoming like the French and it will be to America’s loss. Bryan Caplan’s work -and the libertarian ideology that it represents- is only one of the many fronts attacking it.

    You’d think that current insiders of the system, who have the most to lose in the immediate from the system becoming first and foremost a magnet for snobs, would be those most interested in ensuring the transformation doesn’t happen. In my experience the opposite is actually true. While on the one hand the elite institutions love to have applicants from underrepresented backgrounds whom are offered full scholarships if the meet basic admission standards, on the other hand, they waste no time in perpetuating the naming of buildings and endowed chairs after donors to feed said donors’ egos. As things currently stand, the American system becoming like the French -or the British- is a matter of “when” not “if”.

  87. Daniel Reeves Says:

    thepenforests #58, Scott #71: Well said indeed! And I’d be remiss not to make my obligatory plug for Beeminder in this context, or, to be slightly less self-promotional, Beeminder and all its competitors.

    Although with MOOCs + Beeminder, we could end up that much closer to killing the golden goose of basic research, as Scott put it. Eek!

  88. Joseph Hertzlinger Says:

    I have two comments.

    In order to understand a given level of mathematics, it’s usually necessary to be taught a more advanced level ( If you need to know arithmetic, it might be helpful to be taught algebra, even if you forget the algebra. If you need to know algebra, it might be helpful to be taught calculus.

    The idea that the most prestigious job for a scholar is that of training more scholars might be needed in order to pass on an intellectual tradition in a small society. Without a surplus of scholars, the chain of tradition might be broken and without the tradition, any books that they have will not be understood. In a large society, it might make more sense for scholars to get other jobs instead.

  89. The problem with gatekeepers Says:

    One more thing. From the above link with the interview with Laurent Lafforgue, the part I find relevant to the discussion is this,

    ” Il existe un très gros contraste entre le gros des étudiants et une toute petite élite qui bénéficie de la recherche mathématique française qui est d’un très bon niveau. Parmi les jeunes mathématiciens d’aujourd’hui, une proportion importante sont des fils ou filles de mathématiciens. Sauf erreur de ma part, lorsque j’étais à l’ENS, il n’y en avait aucun.”

    Translation (speaking of the situation of lack of mathematics proficiency among French college students):

    “There is a great difference between most students and a very small elite that benefits from the French mathematical research which is of very high quality. A significant portion of today’s young mathematicians are the children of mathematicians. Unless I am mistaken, when I was a student at ENS, none of them was.”

    He then goes on to hypothesize that the reason for this disparity is a degradation of the French public K-12 education system which makes high quality mathematics K-12 education unavailable to people of humble backgrounds. I am sure that there is some of that, but I think that most likely it’s about the intellectual elite seeking to perpetuate itself, even in mathematics.

  90. Rand Says:

    Some on the discussion in the post – about freedom to pick and choose what interests you, about “grueling bootcamps” reminds me of a conversation I had on Friday. I mentioned, looking back at six years of a PhD, that I wished I had taken more undergraduate level classes.

    Being a PhD student (at least, after initial quals are done), you really do get to pick and choose what courses you want to sit in on. And you’re encouraged to take advanced seminars, with professors talking about their areas of research. And, looking back, the more advanced a seminar was, the less I took home from it.

    As an undergraduate, I had an Algorithms course and it used CLRS, the “Algorithms Bible”. CLRS is not fun. It is big and it is hard, at least for the vast majority of the population. But if you go through it, and you do the exercises and take the exams – by the end, you know CLRS. (CLRS is an exemplar of what I’m talking about, but I think the same goes in slightly lesser degrees for Kleinberg and Tardos or Sedgwick.) The same is true for Sipser, for Lemmon’s Logic, for Russell and Norvig. You plow through these books and they are hard, but you leave with them under your belt.

    I’ve never come out of an advanced topics course with that kind of knowledge. I gain an inkling of a dozen or more research papers, a few ideas, but little concrete knowledge. And that’s not because I’ve exhausted what the undergraduate-style courses could teach me — I badly need to be dragged though Neilsen and Chaung’s Quantum book, Pierce’s Types and PL (or maybe Bob Harper’s), Awodey’s Category Theory (maybe, I don’t think there’s a CLRS for category theory, though we need one). Frankly, there are a lot of textbooks.

    So I’m not sure that more freedom is better. Freedom to skip CLRS or Sipser seems like a poor kind of freedom to me. I think I’m mostly agreeing with Scott here, except insofar as he identifies the most advanced courses with the most grueling and I’ve very rarely found that to be the case. Universities do a good job at undergraduate and master’s level education – after that, I think there’s work to be done.

  91. Scott Says:

    Matty #82:

      As for an actual question: some of your arguments depend on the fact that universities do basic research. Do you think it would be possible (or even desirable) to separate research and teaching to an extent where we could apply some of Caplan’s points on teaching/learning without having to worry about how it affects research?

    Yes, it’s certainly possible to imagine a world where the government supports hundreds of true ivory towers of pure research—places like the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, Perimeter Institute in Canada, or the old Bell Labs—where the faculty aren’t bothered by any but the most capable and motivated of students, and also unmotivated students aren’t bothered by having to learn from the faculty. Believe me that for any academic on earth, that system has something to be said for it. 🙂

    And yet it’s not obvious to me whether it’s in the range of political and economic possibility. After all, a huge part of the current “business model” of academia is that even students below the top tier can pay to learn from true experts—even if those experts’ expertise is actually overkill in most cases. And under this model, you’d have to imagine taking all the current criticisms of government billions going to fund academic elitists who are out of touch with ordinary people, and multiplying them a hundredfold…

  92. asdf Says:

    Offtopic: what’s this I see?

    John Watrous has written a book on quantum information theory and a complete draft is online! The finished book from CUP is supposedly coming out this month.

  93. Scott Says:

    asdf #92: Looks great!

  94. Rand Says:

    asdf #92:

    This makes me really happy. When I was typing my comment above, I was thinking “what does a graduate course done right look like?” and my first thought was “whatever produced John Watrous’ lecture notes on Quantum Computing and Quantum Information” (both at Though the quantum computing course may have been undergraduate level). (My second thought was Dexter Kozen’s Kleene Algebra here:

    John Watrous is amazing, and I am so delighted that this book exists.

  95. CIP Says:

    As a superannuated student at a state school, I don’t see what Caplan seems to see at GMU. Students are interested and committed. Some are going hungry to pay their tuition.

    Caplan is a tool of the Kochtopus.

  96. Gabor Says:

    Actually, this experiment of axing the educational system along Caplan’s suggestions has already started — in Hungary! Here the age limit of compulsory education was lowered from 18 to 16 years of age. Also, the President of the Chamber of Commerce argues that vocational trainig is much important and more valuable than having a lot of students with high school degrees or having PhDs with useless university degrees. He is by chance one of the advisors of the Hungarian Prime Minister… Massive amounts of resources has been taken away from the Hungarian educational system through centralisation. And you probably heard about the CEU (Central European University) — founded by George Soros, which is driven away from Budapest…

  97. jk20 Says:

    Caplan is yet another representative of Dismal Science obsessed with destruction of perks of modern society and prevention of any growth.
    The idea of society of him and his fellow economists is that of a large workcamp whose inhabitants have no awareness of anything beyond skills for some limited, repetitive work.
    Higher education should prepare for mental work, which involves absorbing new data and relating it to what you already know – so it’s impossible to say up-front what’s unnecessary.
    Modern society, in which only a handful of people are required to produce life necessities, should be able to comfortably support any number of ivory tower establishments, but economists will always find some excuse why this cannot be so.

  98. Will Says:

    Scott, can you elaborate on this a bit, maybe with an example?

    > ah, so that’s why Mumford or Connes or Witten cared so much about this. It seems … almost like an ordinary applied engineering question, albeit one from the year 2130 or something, being impatiently studied by people a few moves ahead of everyone else in humanity’s chess game against reality.

    It leads me to imagine the glorious future where humanity has constructed a dynamical system whose partition function is the Riemann zeta function on the Moon, a topological quantum field theory for Riemannian 4-manifolds on Mars, and a moduli space of algebraic curves of genus 22 on Pluto.

    I imagine you mean something a little more down-to-earth by this but I haven’t been able to figure out exactly what.

  99. Scott Says:

    Will #98: Maybe “applied engineering question” was an overstatement. 🙂 But it was more-or-less successfully explained to me how Mumford’s work on geometric invariant theory is potentially relevant to algebraic circuit lower bounds and ultimately P vs NP (via the Mulmuley-Sohoni program); how Connes’ very abstract-looking embedding conjecture for C* algebras is actually equivalent to the natural statement that any correlations allowed by quantum mechanics can be arbitrarily well approximated using a finite number of entangled qubits; and how Witten’s work connecting the Jones polynomial to topological quantum field theory supplies part of the foundation for topological quantum computing, what Freedman’s group has been pursuing at Microsoft. And, while a “real” mathematician would surely not have needed these crutches, I personally found that learning about these connections gave me an entry point into important developments in math that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

  100. gentzen Says:

    I think Caplan makes a mistake if he doesn’t differentiate between the goals and issues of the education systems of different countries. Maybe he has some good things to say about vocational training in Germany, which is good indeed. But it is not good for some abstract reasons, but because it is used to compensate a major issue of the German education system: The separation into Hauptschule, Realschule, and Gymnasium at a very early age. There are reasons why it is sometimes easier to fix issues of an existing system by an independent secondary system, instead of trying to reform the primary system itself.

    If the US system has such major issues which needs fixing, then by all means think about how to fix them. And maybe take a hint from Germany that an independent secondary system might be the easier route for fixing it.

    With regards to canceling expensive projects like the Superconducting Supercollider, this is not necessarily a bad thing from my point of view. Especially if you don’t know whether it will cost $10 or $20 billion, or even significantly more. In 2008, the Munich Transrapid was canceled, after the estimated costs increased to 3.4 billion, from initial estimations below 1.9 billion. But there was also another reason, from my point of view: Building big cathedrals or landing on the moon makes sense, because the public derives proud and identity from such challenging projects. If the times have changed such that this public support is no longer existent, then doing the project nevertheless is dangerous. (Both the French Concorde and the German Transrapid had major accidents, after they were no longer relevant to the public but continued operation anyway.)

    I think it is a good thing that the US scientists were able to decide that they no longer wanted to have the Superconducting Supercollider, at least not with a huge uncertain price tag. Even Freeman Dyson doubted that project in 1992, and you probably wouldn’t call him a solid state physicists. Jakob Schwichtenberg in The Value of Decentralization in Science quotes extensively from Dyson’s “Six Cautionary Tales for Scientists” were his reasoning is explained.

  101. asdf Says:

    Gentzen #100, I think Scott’s point about the silly scientists opposing the SSC was that their hope was to reallocate the SSC money to other science projects that they thought were more worthy. Instead the money got reallocated to some pure boondoggle like starting a war someplace. They would have been better off with the SSC than with what they got.

    Scott (and Caplain, if he is consistent) might like this:

  102. Raoul Ohio Says:

    A review of a forthcoming book by physicist Sabine Hossenfelder will be of interest to many participants:

    A case is constructed that agrees with my intuition that something is very wrong in the direction of modern physics.

  103. Matty Wacksen Says:

    @asdf #101:

    > I think Scott’s point about the silly scientists opposing the SSC was that their hope was to reallocate the SSC money to other science projects that they thought were more worthy. Instead the money got reallocated to some pure boondoggle like starting a war someplace.

    This is also how I understood Scott, but I think one has to be very careful with this kind of argument:

    If spending the money on the SSC results in a net negative utility for the public, then the money should not the spent on the SSC, and scientists should clearly say that the SSC is negative net utility even if they disagree with how the money might otherwise be spent. It is the job of politicians to decide where public money should be spent, scientists have (in my opinion) no right to this money and therefore are in a sense cheating the public if they start to publicly support projects they disagree with (because they would disagree with possible other uses of the money more).

    A more charitable interpretation of the argument would be that the SSC is net utility \epsilon, and some other project would have positive net utility 2\epsilon, which led to people oppositing the SSC.

    I do think that the distinction whether net utility is positive or negative is important though, as in one case on is wasting public (i.e. other people’s) money and in one case one is not.

  104. Zur Luria Says:

    I’m surprised that no one has mentioned this: Caplan’s distopian future already exists. It’s called Switzerland. In the Swiss system, after grade 8 or so, students are divided into two groups. About 25% go on to what we would call a normal high school that prepares them for the University. The rest go into vocational training and apprenticeships.

    The results are not spectacular, but seem to support the system: the average number of years spent in the school system is about 10, vs 12 in the US. Literacy and general metrics of education are similar to the US. The extra time is spent attaining proficiency in a chosen profession.

    Predictably, the student satisfaction with the school system is much higher, because only those with the ability and desire to pursue an academic career go to high school. Most Swiss people have never read a Shakespeare play, cannot derive simple functions and don’t know what DNA stands for. This doesn’t seem to bother them, however. You can decide if this is horrifying or not.

    So when you try to imagine Caplan’s future, don’t make it out to be some terrifying nightmare place. Picture Switzerland.

  105. asdf Says:

    Matty Wacksen #103, I think the idea was that the SSC would produce good science and have positive utility, but even higher utility could be found in other projects. The manned vs unmanned space program had a similar tension.

  106. Scott Says:

    I was careful not to take a position about the wisdom of building vs. not building the SSC; I just tried to explain what happened. It’s a difficult question just how much civilization should spend to get to the energy frontier of fundamental physics: $11 billion (what the LHC cost)? $20 billion? $100 billion? And it’s difficult partly because no one really knows how much is there to be discovered. If we knew that the SSC would’ve discovered dark matter, or superpartners, or something totally unexpected that would’ve revolutionized physics, then I’m really bummed that it wasn’t built (and might never be?). But if it just would’ve found the Higgs that the LHC would later find and then a giant desert beyond it? Less clear.

    On the other hand, one can argue that what the US actually did—namely, go full speed ahead with the SSC, spend more than $2 billion on it, dig up miles of tunnel, and get much of the American physics community to orient their lives and careers around the project, so that its cancellation would set American high-energy physics back by decades, and only then pull the plug … well, like much else that we do in our great country, we managed to achieve the worst of all worlds.

  107. Bram Cohen Says:

    There’s a very tentative first step which I for one don’t find objectionable which is to stop talking about ‘the value of a college education’ as if all majors are the same. STEM majors are clear positive investments for your lifetime earnings. Liberal arts majors are net losses, even if you assume up front you have a 100% chance of finishing. Whether or not there are benefits to college degrees beyond earnings, when they are sold based on their earnings benefits it shouldn’t be based on fraud.

  108. suomynona Says:

    Zur Luria #104:

    Part of Caplan’s argument is that government funding of education should be abolished. However, according to a United Nations report, Switzerland spends about as much of its GDP on education as the United States. Also, Swiss students who do not pursue the academic secondary school track still attend government funded public schools as part of their vocational training. Caplan is pretty explicit in stating that he does not believe that we should reform the US education system a la Switzerland, he thinks the US system is so dysfunctional that it cannot be saved and should be eliminated altogether.

    Of general interest to readers of this thread, there is this interview Caplan did with Vox in which he responds to some criticisms similar to Scott’s.

  109. Felipe Pait Says:

    Bram Cohen #107: The statement about liberal arts majors may conform to prejudices and ideologies but it is false. Take for example high-paying legal and business careers. The path to them is often through a liberals arts education followed by a law or MBA degree.

    (I’m not making the argument that earnings is all that count. Only that the path to high earnings does not necessarily go through STEM majors, even less so through practical training already in college.)

  110. MattF Says:

    1) I had a conversation with a high-level Congressional staffer about the SSC, pointing out that a major motivation was to draw in bright people and train them in analysis of various sorts. She said that no one ever made that argument. Le sigh.

    2) I was one of the lucky ones who went to a specialized high school in NYC. I learned one big thing– that there were people who are smarter than I am. It’s a big deal. One can generalize this and note that public education is a huge socialization process. Can we really do just fine without that?

  111. fred Says:

    The real endgame of the US education system is really about luring the brightest young brains to be squeezed like lemons in graduate programs which are facades for academics to become millionaires in spin-off private tech ventures.

    And that’s how the USA is ahead, economically.

  112. Michael P. Says:

    “I simply want the Democrats to vanquish the Republicans, in every office from president down to dogcatcher, in order to prevent further spiraling into nihilistic quasi-fascism”

    This is where I disagree with you, Scott. IMO these days the words “nihilistic quasi-fascism” apply to Democrats than Republicans. Democrats consistently assault Free Speech, not Republicans. Democrats judge people by the color of their skin and by their gender, Democrats insist on oppressing opinions not their own, Democrats espouse antisemitism, etc. And you know or should know that, because those quasi-fascist tendencies are most apparent on college campuses. Here are some references; I believe you could draw many more if you wanted to.

  113. The problem with gatekeeprs Says:

    Here is Caplan defending his thesis against questions by :

    Worth watching for having an idea of how Caplan sounds like as an individual when he argues his points. He admits towards the end of the interview that he is a contrarian in the sense that he likes to defend unpopular ideas because popular ideas do not need defending. I like that!

  114. DWAnderson Says:

    This is one of the best reviews of Caplan’s book I have read.

    I am generally sympathetic to Caplan’s argument to the extent that I think it shows that we at least ought not to pour additional public resources into education (thinking we will see a return) and could probably cut funding at the margin without harming people’s ability to flourish.

    Good point about what else those resources might be used for, but I think the most likely use is ameliorating the consequences of the next fiscal crisis: when the US government ceases to be able to borrow at affordable rates.

  115. Koray Says:

    @Egg Syntax #85

    Note that you didn’t actually disagree with me. You only admitted that “you” (not the 99% ?) turn to an algorithm book often.

    Unless you’re in an infrastructure/cloud team (or unfortunate enough to be in a team whose needs are not met by the infrastructure teams), you have no reason to consult any books. As an example, let’s say you have some identifiers to sort:

    a) there are less than 10k of them, e.g. in a web request: use sort() library method for whatever language you’re working in because there’s no difference. (Chances are 9 months from now the identifiers no longer need to be sorted anyway.)

    b) More than 10k: Ask yourself why _you_ need to sort them. Is this a system design issue? Do you need to run a postgres instance/BigTable/MapReduce/whatever cloud tech to store these identifiers instead?

    c) More than 10k and no I can’t use or depend on something else: congratulations, you’re working on an infrastructure problem. You’ll surely crack open some (old) books, and on top of that you’re going to read a lot of academic papers, write prototypes, generate a lot of performance metrics, etc. This is going to take _months_. (This is the 1% of the people.)

    In none of those cases you’re going to spend just an hour thinking about the right “algorithm”. That scenario is simply fictional.

  116. Barak A. Pearlmutter Says:

    This book and its thesis can be interestingly compared to

    an essay written about fifty years ago, which has a similar view of the educational system and the way it grinds most students to dust in service of a capitalist agenda which assigns a value of zero to the students’ time and wellbeing. It is framed in a different theoretical model, so the convergent evolution, to me, lends a bit more weight to the basic conclusion.

  117. Doug Says:

    Ah, George Mason. Now it’s come out that the Koch folks had a direct hand in hiring decisions.


  118. Felipe Pait Says:

    Doug #117: Thanks for spotting this. Indeed, any GMU professor who doesn’t complain loud enough loses academic credibility.

  119. James Cross Says:

    Surprised no mention of Deschooling Society.

    Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be no more feasible if it were attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools. Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue’s responsibility until it engulfs his pupils’ lifetimes will deliver universal education. The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring. We hope to contribute concepts needed by those who conduct such counterfoil research on education – and also to those who seek alternatives to other established service industries.

    Ivan Illich

  120. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Ars Technica is usually an exceptionally good semipopular source on tech issues. Anyone care to rate and/or critique today’s article on Quantum Supremacy?

  121. Raoul Ohio Says:


    I read that at the time as a young hippie. My only recollection is that it helped clarify the realization that left wingers are as crazy as right wingers.

  122. kme Says:

    What you suggest for middle and high school sounds a lot like the model used in the ACT (basically the Australian equivalent of the District of Columbia) for the post-compulsory schooling years 11 and 12 (~16-18 year olds).

    Complete student choice of classes not restricted by year level, attendance not enforced, no uniforms, teachers addressed on a first name basis.

  123. Short bits | A rusted piton Says:

    […] Aaronson reviews Brian Caplan’s book against education. Interesting throughout. I am not a fan of […]

  124. Giulio Says:

    pretty much like bitcoin mining, isn’t it?

  125. Job Says:

    There should be a book, “Failed attempts at quantum algorithms”.

    It would apply basic quantum techniques to well-known problems, even when they don’t provide any advantage.

    Like my O(n!) quantum solver for Graph Isomorphism. Bet you want to know more about it.

    It’s impractical, useless. But… it’s a direct application of quantum interference to a familiar problem.

  126. Scott Says:

    Job #125:

      Like my O(n!) quantum solver for Graph Isomorphism. Bet you want to know more about it.

    Just in case this is useful data for you: I don’t. 😀

  127. Prussian Says:

    I disagree with Caplan for rather the opposite reason as you, Scott. My vision of ‘educational reform’ consists more of rolling tumbrels and nice shiny guillotines being erected…

    Okay, hyperbole aside, there are two things about the current system that bring out my inner Saint Just. The first is how it shores up the class system, the second is the abomination called the “PhD”.

    Just to take the easy one first, the number of people I know who have done PhDs and have just been chewed up by the system – and, yes, these are STEM PhDs – and produced little or nothing is ludicrous. When you take the smartest and most driven people on the planet and work them like dogs, and still get so little out – something has gone wrong. What that something is, is the disconnect between the number of tenured positions and the number of postgrads. Less than 1% of postgrads ever make prof. So what happens is too many young minds get mauled by psycho careerists. Here, read this and see how many people agree with it:

    There’s a really good reason that all, repeat, all the people I know in my field (biology) doing good, innovative work decided to drop out and start up.

    The even worse case is how the University as an institution shores up the class system. A good working definition of a class system is that it’s more important who you know than what you can do (I’m drawing on Isabell Patterson’s distinction between the Society of Status vs the Society of Contract). I’m a beneficiary of some pretty elite universities and I studied STEM. What I got to see, over and over, was people who didn’t study this or didn’t study at those universities assured that “a career” was waiting for them just by virtue of “having a degree”. And then come graduation it was “thanks for the cash, here’s your worthless paper, enjoy working at Starbucks”.

    This isn’t those poor students fault. They’d been systematically given false information their entire lives. If any other industry pulled a stunt on this scale, we’d have the greatest lawsuit in history. Yet because it is “education”…

    Anyway, I look at Germany where I know many people who went straight into apprenticeships after school, are now running their own offices and owning their own homes. Please tell me that’s not better than the fate of the 20-something sociology student in the US. The scandal isn’t the waste of money but the far worse waste of people.

    Since you’re teaching Computer Science let me say that CS is the exception that proves the rule… but the rule survives the proving with ease. See, your field is way closer to the way formal, theoretical education got started in the Renaissance (c.f. Jacques Barzun, From Dawn To Decadence). What happened was that different guilds got together to compare notes, and started working out larger theoretical systems that let them do better and better. The point is they were teaching theoretical knowledge to people who already had vast amounts of practical experience – and so could actually make good use of the theoretical knowledge, could embody it in their work. That seems similar to what you’re doing – many of your students will surely have prior coding experience, and all will be constantly gaining it. So don’t worry: come the revolution, the howling mob will be sparing your department.

    My tuppence. I’ll have to take a look at Caplan’s book.

  128. Prussian Says:

    So I have the same skepticism of Caplan’s project that I’d have (ironically) of Bolshevism or any other revolutionary project. I say to him: don’t just persuade me, show me

    As regards apprenticeships, I would strongly suggest Germany as a good model.

    Just on this though:

    In the first tier, I simply want the Democrats to vanquish the Republicans, in every office from president down to dogcatcher,

    You do realize, you’re talking about a One Party State, right?

    …n order to prevent further spiraling into nihilistic quasi-fascism…

    I don’t think those words mean what you think they mean.

  129. Scott Says:

    Prussian #127:

      Less than 1% of postgrads ever make prof.

    Uh, source??? Where did you get that stat? We actually track these things, and at least in strong CS grad programs, I believe the figure is somewhere around 40-50%. And of the remaider, not all even wanted academic positions. It would be wonderful if we had more tenure-track positions to be offered, but the situation (at least in CS) isn’t nearly as dire as you say.

  130. Prussian Says:


    The Royal Society

    I’ve done some reading around and seen that in the US, it’s better – but then, professor means something different over there.

  131. gentzen Says:

    Prussian #128: I have the impression that the European education systems are very different compared to the US system. You don’t have debt, but your time gets wasted. You don’t have to be a genious, but your later career after university will probably be in the private sector, or at least not publicly founded. They have good and bad aspects, get changed from time to time with various (political) goals and various success, and are an integral part of the political agenda of the respective countries.

    You probably disagree with my summary of the European systems, but my point is that the US system is probably very different from them, independent of how you would characterize them. And the current moment is probably not a good one for reforming the US system, given the goals of the current US gouvernment.

  132. Michael Murden Says:

    It would be interesting to know if a DD214 is valued as much by employers as a college degree. Successful completion of four years of active duty military service demonstrates “conscientiousness and conformity.” at least as well as four years of college. Whether it demonstrates intelligence as well is another issue. The willingness of my employer to hire veterans without college degrees for the same positions as non-veterans with degrees suggests it does, but perhaps my employer is not typical.

  133. Noah Says:

    I didn’t read the whole post, but am really curious what some of these results of Mumford, Connes, and the like that you had an aha moment about are! I, for one, would like to plan for 2130 🙂

  134. Scott Says:

    Noah #133: See comment #99 above.

  135. PJE Says:

    I agree with a lot of what you wrote but think you’ve made a mistake in going after the wrong target. Libertarians like Caplan are 100 times scarier than Bannonists and Breitbartists.

    I don’t want my kids pulled out of school to work in a Koch brothers factory, exercising their “freedom” of contract to sign non-compete agreements so they can’t negotiate for better wages or working conditions, and peeing in trash cans like Amazon warehouse employees with restricted bathroom breaks.

    Unlike libertarians, Steve Bannon could at least make a self consistent case that his vision upholds enlightenment values. He would say that you can’t live in an enlightened society while importing barbarian jihadists who want to destroy it, and that it is meaningless to even begin discussing the rule of law without being apoplectic about illegal immigration. Plenty of Breitbart readers would probably also agree that education and healthcare should be on an expanded list of rights we guarantee our fellow citizens, no different from how an an honest man would provide these life necessities for his family, and that this should be the backdrop to any discussion about how to improve the educational system.

    National conservatives like Steve Sailer are also much more open to debate and admitting mistakes than libertarians, who for the most part won’t even correct themselves on mundane issues like incorrectly predicting that quantitative easing would lead to hyperinflation.

    Like someone who continuously produces incorrect disproofs of Bell’s theorem or proofs of P=NP, at some point it’s deleterious to keep pretending libertarians are serious thinkers worthy of of being discredited in a respectful manner. It’s plainly obvious that the only consistent philosophy they have is that more money and power should go to rich people. If it’s not obvious, I recommend Dean Baker’s free new book “Rigged” about all the ways the rich use government to structure markets and facilitate rent seeking, which libertarians always choose to ignore.

  136. gentzen Says:

    Scott #106: Even so it is true that Freeman Dyson wrote bis critique of SSC in 1988, he (re)published it in 1992, which effectively meant advocating canceling. From what I read about the SSC now, it “faced the elephant” already in 1989, when too many political strings got attached. A project whose initial estimate was $3 billion, which got approved as a $4.5 billion project, got stopped when its cost estimate crossed $12 billion. Spending $2 billion took 3-5 years, so spending additional $10 billion would take 15-25 additional years. SSC would have been finished between 2008 and 2018, or at least the first scientifically important results would have occured only in that time frame. And such a long time also means that your budget must be defended more than once against different gouvernments. Even LHC had to face this, but at least CERN had its own yearly $1 billion budget, and was allowed to take in non-European collaborators.

    LHC had bad accidents (of the type expected when you operate superconducting magnets at temperatures below 2 K), but apparently such accidents are only hold against you, if public support is already missing before. But complaining about canceling also ignores that challenging projects can fail, and that successes like the moon landing (or LHC) are not guaranteed even if you invest the money.

    The initial plans for the LHC assumed that SSC would be built, but argued that its much higher luminosity would compensate for the lower energy. Proton-proton collisions are apparently hard to interpret, since only some of the constituent quarks collide. This is bad for accuracy, but a high luminosity can turn this disadvantage at least partially into an advantage, by effectively sampling collisions events in a wide energy range.

    I am personally not a big fan of the science fiction type projects started during the Reagan era. Whoever would later really succeed could be told that that stuff was already invented back then. But so many details were wrong that it is unclear whether those inventions helped or not. I guess they helped, but the old 80-20 rule applies: 80% of the results are reached by 20% of the effort.

    With respect to particle physics experiments, I am undecided. LHC is good,

  137. The problem with gatekeepers Says:

    PJE #135

    “Plenty of Breitbart readers would probably also agree that education and healthcare should be on an expanded list of rights we guarantee our fellow citizens, no different from how an an honest man would provide these life necessities for his family, and that this should be the backdrop to any discussion about how to improve the educational system.”

    As an avid Breitbart reader, I definitely agree that plenty of us want our fellow citizens to achieve their full potential -on the education front- and have affordable access to healthcare when they need it. I would slightly disagree with whether many of us would make them “rights” in the sense of rights like those listed in the Bill of Rights like “freedom of speech” that requires government actively defending them in court.

    Each “belief system” has its own set of “core beliefs”, “dogmas”, “myths”, call them whatever you want to call them. As much as “government is good and should be called to fix all of society’s problems” is a “core belief” of the left, the vision of “government intervention as the ultimate Faustian bargain that not only fails to deliver but that makes problems worse” is a core belief among those of my political persuasion. The notion of taxing people to have government bureaucrats decide where to spend said money to improve education and healthcare is a left wing dream and it is also a right wing nightmare. What you are likely to hear from conservatives are things like increase parental choice and competition in education. A provision that was finally dropped from last year’s tax reform called for allowing money on 529 Plans to be used for homeschooling purposes for example. School vouchers and the availability of alternatives to public schools -particularly in poor neighborhoods- via charter schools or similar is also a common demand. Even Steve Jobs was for school vouchers despite being a man with mostly liberal ideas . Instead of Obamacare that is a step towards socialized medicine like what exists in most Western European countries, most conservatives would like to “tax exempt” payments in organizations like that provide alternative ways of getting one’s healthcare needs met and refuse to fund national plants or mandates that are socialized medicine plans in every aspect except for name.

    I think that the politics of demonization are always bad. And the conservative side is just as guilty of falling for it as the left is these days with Trump.

  138. gentzen Says:

    With respect to particle physics experiments, I am undecided. LHC is good, Super Kamiokande is good, some experiment with concrete goals (like better determining various parameters of the Higgs-Boson) could be good, but just scanning higher energy in the hope to find dark matter or physics beyond the standard model is not good.

  139. William Says:

    Hiring with a ‘bias,’ if that’s the word, toward advanced education is done more with an eye toward an applicant’s probability of exhibiting greater discernment and imagination. The owner of discernment is equipped with the confidence of experience in consideration and information, from spending time in the momentarily ‘protected’ environment of the incubator – school – the “conservatory of knowledge,” as they say. The thorough student knows to dig deep for an idea nestled among many more others previously studied in the calm of one driving force -Curiosity – producing a free question asked for Curiosity’s own honorable sake. It’s a meaningful separation of mental powers. Imagine if more people currently running the government had been accorded a greater education process.
    Acquisition of information, then maturing contemplation of it. Thence, to proffer it responsibly in society. Make a far greater contribution. Those are the attributes, on top of all the others – application, rigor, timeliness, teamwork etc., that count. An education will be an exposure to a wider, deeper range of facts and ideas and becomes a facility to apply a studied and already considered awareness about the mental processes of historically sociable and innovative contributors to all human growth.
    The ones to especially look for in the talent pool are especially the ones who come from outside what may be the parochial insulation of the hiring administrator’s assumptions and markets.
    It doesn’t make any difference if the ‘indulgence’ of further higher education is accorded a steamfitter or a Computer Science Professor studying for her Ph.D. in AI with dreams toward creating software in Ethics for a safer human future. All benefit.
    Discernment is the greatest light. Without knowledge, for contrast and inspiration, how does it gestate? Discernment challenges the qualities of ideas in the non-threatening, best sense. It’s generous. Those who are delighted with growth for its own joyful sake are best for those around them. With time to study, to carefully take on board and consider a broad range of topics and discernment not mechanically pre-fit to a given vocational topic, the worker’s greater self is the greater gift in many unobvious to define ways.
    Shakespeare was pretty specific (and efficient) about it: “Ignorance is the curse of God; knowledge is the wing wherewith we fly to heaven.”

  140. Vt Says:

    Fascinating discussion. Disappointed that there seems to be no room for saving the “liberal arts.” My ideal would be to “open up” education from high school on–and no diplomas. People go in and out of formal education/tech ed. throughout their adulthood, as they need/want it. If employers want proof of mastery, then they can figure out the testing of future employees. Also, the business world needs to step up—there is no way public education can keep up with their constantly changing needs. They are the experts of what they need, so they should be doing a lot more educ/training of their employees, rather than burdening the taxpayer.

    All this is fine for the practicalities of the job market. But what will happen to the liberal arts? Just because you can’t slap a number on them to measure, doesn’t mean they don’t have value to society. Will studying the liberal arts revert back to being a luxury only the wealthy can afford?

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