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The Case Against Education

Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money

By Bryan Caplan
12-minute read
Audio available
The Case Against Education by Bryan Caplan

The Case Against Education (2018) takes orthodox opinion about education and turns it on its head. It argues that, far from turning students into skillful and productive workers, education serves primarily to verify employable character traits. Using this insight as its central premise, it goes on to argue that education needs to be substantially reformed.

  • Public-policy buffs interested in educational reform
  • Teachers and educators willing to engage with shocking ideas
  • Young people wondering if college is for them

Bryan Caplan is an American author and professor of economics at George Mason University. His previous books include The Myth of the Rational Voter and Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids.

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The Case Against Education

Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money

By Bryan Caplan
  • Read in 12 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 7 key ideas
Upgrade to Premium Read or listen now
The Case Against Education by Bryan Caplan
Synopsis

The Case Against Education (2018) takes orthodox opinion about education and turns it on its head. It argues that, far from turning students into skillful and productive workers, education serves primarily to verify employable character traits. Using this insight as its central premise, it goes on to argue that education needs to be substantially reformed.

Key idea 1 of 7

Lots of what US students learn in school is totally irrelevant to their lives.

If you're like the average American student, you probably spent most of your school days staring out the window, wondering why you were studying yet another irrelevant topic.

Some students enjoy Shakespeare, geometry, and Spanish. But many others wonder about the value of focusing on such subjects. Do they really provide students with the knowledge they’ll need later in life?

The short answer is no. For most people, there's a clear mismatch between the things they study and the skills and knowledge modern life actually requires.

The key message here is: Lots of what US students learn in school is totally irrelevant to their lives.

Take foreign languages. Almost nobody who grew up speaking only English becomes fluent in French, Spanish, or Mandarin at school. In the United States, the vast majority of people who can speak a second language fluently picked it up at home – not sitting in class year after year.

What’s more, all attention devoted to potentially useless subjects is a distraction from subjects that might be more profitable, such as statistics. Statistical reasoning underpins many important, real-world decisions. But less than 8 percent of American high school students ever pass a statistics class.

Many educators object to this line of criticism, however. Studying new things isn’t just about acquiring knowledge, they say; it’s about learning how to think. According to teachers, writing English essays teaches critical thinking, and studying geometry can impart the principles of logic. In short, they believe there’s more to education than meets the eye.

But do these claims hold water? Well, not really. Researchers have investigated our ability to apply what we learn in school to real-world situations – and time after time, they’ve found this so-called transfer of learning to be notoriously unreliable.

For example, although going to college does improve critical thinking, it only does so in a classroom setting. Outside of the exam hall, college students are no less likely to rely on mistaken reasoning than their less-educated peers.

As this research suggests, the problem of irrelevant learning extends well beyond high school. In fact, the vast majority of college majors also do very little to prepare students for the workplace.

So why do college graduates earn more than people who leave education after high school? As we’ll discover in the next blink, there are two competing solutions to that puzzle.

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