Review of Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education

Scott Aaronson:

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.