The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money

GMU prof Bryan Caplan recoils in horror at the low societal ROI of our trillion-dollar annual investment in education (for comparison, Caplan notes, we spend only $700 billion on the dreaded "military industrial complex" annually)

The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money

There are two theories for why education is beneficial for individuals. The "human capital" model says that you go to school and learn valuable skills. The "signaling" model says that school is just a stamp of approval that certifies you as someone likely to be a good worker. In "The Case Against Education", GMU prof Bryan Caplan makes the case that our education system is ~80% signaling. A contrarian with strong libertarian views (see his previous book, "Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids" for a real journey down the rabbit hole), Caplan argues for slashing government support for our generally ineffective educational system. He brutally confronts the failure of our educational system to accomplish its stated goals of basic literacy and numeracy, to say nothing of historical awareness, foreign language fluency, or critical thinking. Constructing his own careful meta-analysis of an ocean of education studies and filling in the significant gaps with educated guesses, he recoils in horror at the low societal ROI of our trillion-dollar annual investment in education (for comparison, Caplan notes, we spend only $700 billion on the dreaded "military industrial complex" annually). This is a dense book brimming with references, stats, careful argumentation, and devastating zingers. It will challenge many readers who have greatly benefited from the educational system, but who don't have a quantitative response to one of Caplan's key questions:

“At what point would education spending be excessive?” “We’ve done enough for education” is as heretical as “We’ve done enough for paralyzed veterans.”

Caplan convinced me that much of high school and further education is about signaling rather than human capital development. This certainly matched with my experience at Yale (I learned almost nothing in class), and Caplan points out a devastating consequence of the signaling theory: additional investment in a signaling-driven system is pointless because signaling is all about status - and the average status can't rise. So we're just setting money on fire and wasting everyone's time by setting a societal standard that everyone should go to college.

But what really shook me was Caplan's explanation for the failure of Massively Open Online Courses:

Colleges are holding technology at bay because the only thing MOOCs provide is access to world-class professors at an unbeatable price. What they don’t offer are official college degrees, the kind that can get you a job.

I'm generally on board with Caplan's idea that "the Internet proves low consumption of ideas and culture stems from apathy, not poverty or inconvenience" - if people aren't motivated to learn stuff online for free, why are we trying to force-feed the same stuff (at enormous expense of time and money) in schools?

Caplan's suggested policy changes are extreme. He wants to cut all government funding for education. If that's not possible, at least stop subsidizing college (including student loans). This part of the book challenged me because I have been a huge beneficiary of the educational system and have had the unusual good luck of having 8 truly life-changing teachers over the course of my educational career. But it's tough to argue with Caplan's logic and his stats appear to be legit. Maybe, as Caplan says, we should "give heresy a chance."

If you're looking for a bite-sized summary of the book, Julia Galef of the "Rationally Speaking" podcast just interviewed Caplan on her show.

My highlights below.


Think about all the classes you ever took. How many failed to teach you any useful skills?

How could such a lucrative investment be wasteful? The answer is a single word I seek to burn into your mind: signaling.

When this book criticizes human capital stories, it does not reject the view that schools build some human capital. It rejects “human capital purism” — the view that (a) virtually all education teaches useful job skills and (b) these job skills are virtually the sole reason why education pays off in the labor market.

If education is all skill creation, a fall in average education saps our skills, impoverishing the world. If education is all signaling, however, a fall in average education leaves our skills — and the wealth of the world — unchanged. In fact, cutbacks enrich the world by conserving valuable time and resources.

Government heavily subsidizes education. In 2011, U.S. federal, state, and local governments spent almost a trillion dollars on it.

In the signaling model, subsidizing everyone’s schooling to improve our jobs is like urging everyone to stand up at a concert to improve our views. Both are “smart for one, dumb for all.”

Ultimately, I believe the best education policy is no education policy at all: the separation of school and state. However, you can buy the substance of my argument without embracing my crazy extremism.

CHAPTER 1 - The Magic of Education

If schools boost students’ income by teaching useful job skills, why do they entrust students’ education to people so detached from the real world?

We should be equally puzzled by the eminently practical subjects they don’t have to study. Why don’t educators familiarize students with compensation and job satisfaction in common occupations? Strategies for breaking into various industries? Sectors with rapidly changing employment? Why don’t schools make students spend a full year learning how to write a resume or affect a can-do attitude? Dire sins of omission.

The labor market doesn’t pay you for the useless subjects you master; it pays you for the preexisting traits you reveal by mastering them.

This book’s goal is to emancipate the signaling model from its ghetto — then use the theory to explain the mismatched marriage between school and work.

Employers do have one guilt-free way to reverse a bad hiring decision. Human resources calls it “dehiring.” Instead of firing the unwanted worker, help them jump ship. Privately urge them to find new opportunities. When firms call for a reference, shade the truth—or lie. Labor law punishes firms that reveal negative information about their personnel. Yet the law merely reinforces social psychology. As soon as the unwanted worker leaves for their new job, their coworkers and boss can stop feeling sorry for the departed — and start feeling happy for themselves. Everyone wins — except the next firm.

The best education in the world is already free. All complaints about elite colleges’ impossible admissions and insane tuition are flatly mistaken. Fact: anyone can study at Princeton for free. While tuition is over $45,000 a year, anyone can show up and start attending classes. No one will stop you. No one will challenge you. No one will make you feel unwelcome. Gorge yourself at Princeton’s all-you-can-eat buffet of the mind. Colleges do not card. I have seen this with my own eyes at schools around the country.

The main objection to the “guerilla education” argument, though, is simply, “Almost no one takes advantage of it.” That’s precisely my point: the fact that almost no one grabs a free elite education shows human capital purism is false.

If employers rewarded well-educated workers for skills alone, failing a class and forgetting a class would have identical career consequences. They plainly don’t.

According to human capital purists, the labor market rewards only job skills, not academic credentials. Taken literally, this implies academic cheating is futile.

Why discourage cheating? Because detecting and punishing cheaters preserve the signaling value of your school’s diploma.

CHAPTER 2 - The Puzzle Is Real

By this forgiving standard, “health professions” and agriculture majors end up in the same boat as engineers — and the fraction of graduates who earn highly useful degrees remains under 25%.

In the same year, over 83,000 students earned their bachelor’s degree in communications. Total jobs for reporters, correspondents, and broadcast news analysts number 54,000.11 Historians, unsurprisingly, have the bleakest prospects of all. There were over 34,000 newly minted history graduates—and only 3,500 working historians in the entire country.

Surveys of adults’ knowledge of reading, math, history, civics, science, and foreign languages are already on the shelf. The results are stark: Basic literacy and numeracy are virtually the only book learning most American adults possess.

Thirty-five percent of Americans can’t correctly enter a name and address on a Certified Mail form—with no points off for misspelling! Schools do far less to cure illiteracy and innumeracy than we’d like to think.

Schools make virtually no one fluent in a foreign language

The hard truth: if you didn’t acquire fluency in the home, you almost certainly don’t have it.

The measured effect of education on informal reasoning, though positive, was tiny.

Takeaway: if all goes well, students learn what they study and practice. Psychology and medical students heavily use statistics, so they improve in statistics; law and chemistry students rarely encounter statistics, so they don’t improve in statistics.

In a good class, four exams out of forty demonstrate true economic understanding.

In any case, suppose each year of school permanently made you a whopping 3 IQ points smarter. According to standard estimates, this would raise your earnings by about 3%, leaving a supermajority of the education premium unexplained.

In the words of K. Anders Ericsson, the world’s leading expert on expertise, novices improve as long as they are, “1) given a task with a well-defined goal, 2) motivated to improve, 3) provided with feedback, and 4) provided with ample opportunities for repetition and gradual refinements of their performance.” Before long, though, the benefit of mere practice plateaus. To really get good at their jobs, people must advance to deliberate practice. They must exit their comfort zone—raise the bar, struggle to surmount it, repeat.

Andrew Carnegie caustically captures this tension: Men have sent their sons to colleges to waste their energies upon obtaining a knowledge of such languages as Greek and Latin, which are of no more practical use to them than Choctaw. . . . They have been crammed with the details of petty and insignificant skirmishes between savages, and taught to exalt a band of ruffians into heroes; and we have called them “educated.” They have been “educated” as if they were destined for life upon some other planet than this... What they have obtained has served to imbue them with false ideas and to give them a distaste for practical life... Had they gone into active work during the years spent at college they would have been better educated men in every true sense of that term. The fire and energy have been stamped out of them, and how to so manage as to live a life of idleness and not a life of usefulness has become the chief question with them.

The imperfect overlap between the school ethic and the work ethic is especially blatant in modern American colleges. Fifty years ago, college was a full-time job. The typical student spent 40 hours a week in class or studying. Since the early 1960s, effort collapsed across the board. “Full-time” college students average 27 hours of academic work per week — and only 14 hours of studying.

We asked the young people whether they remember having learned something important at school. It seemed to be a difficult question for most. Often the question was followed by long silences and embarrassed laughs. —Elina Lahelma, “School Is for Meeting Friends”

The typical college grad, similarly, was an above-average high school student. B.A.s who wonder what they owe to their college diploma should not compare themselves to average high school graduates. They should compare themselves to above-average high school graduates.

First, IQ pays. Holding education constant, an extra point of IQ raises earnings by about 1%. Second, holding IQ constant, the education premium shrinks but never vanishes.

Correcting for mathematical ability may tilt the scales even more; the most prominent researchers to do so report a 40–50% decline in the education premium for men and a 30–40% decline for women.

The highest serious estimate finds the education premium falls 50% after correcting for students’ twelfth-grade math, reading, and vocabulary scores, self-perception, perceived teacher ranking, family background, and location.

On reflection, though, correcting for family background probably “double-counts.” Both cognitive and noncognitive ability are moderately to highly hereditary, so you should correct for individual ability before you conclude family background overstates school’s payoff. This caveat matters. Rare studies that correct for intelligence and family background find that correcting for intelligence alone suffices. Armed with good measures of cognitive and noncognitive ability, we can probably safely ignore family background.

But over the last quarter century, labor economists have surprisingly moved to the view that there’s not much bias to measure. A famous review of the evidence by eminent economist David Card concludes ability bias is small, nonexistent, or even negative. I call this verdict the Card Consensus.

Schooling is lucrative because official statistics take “real” classes and “real” majors and lump them together with “Mickey Mouse” classes and “Mickey Mouse” majors. The wheat/chaff theory is no ringing endorsement of the status quo.

Looking at the evidence, however, the wheat/chaff story is exaggerated at best. Wheat arguably pays more than chaff, but chaff definitely pays too.

In the United States, 52% of government employees have a bachelor’s degree or more, versus 34% for private employees.

Researchers consistently find that government pay scales are “compressed”: governments overpay the least-educated workers and underpay the most-educated workers.

Almost a quarter of college graduates works for federal, state, or local government.

Human capital purists often protest, “Why on earth do workers signal ability with a four-year degree instead of a three-hour IQ test?” My response: employers reasonably fear high-IQ, low-education applicants’ low conscientiousness and conformity. Other critics of the education industry, however, have a more streamlined response: American employers rely on educational credentials rather than IQ tests because IQ tests are effectively illegal. Thanks to the landmark 1971 Griggs vs. Duke Power case, later codified in the 1991 Civil Rights Act, anyone who hires by IQ risks pricey lawsuits. Why? Because IQ tests have a “disparate impact” on black and Hispanic applicants.

Health insurance, pensions, and other employee benefits are now almost a third of total private sector pay, and over a third of total public sector pay.

Despite its weak effect on skill, education remains the modern economy’s surest stairway to prosperity. If you personally know many wealthy dropouts and indigent college grads, you personally know many atypical people.

CHAPTER 4 - The Signs of Signaling

The Solomonic verdict just divides the nonacademic premium by the combined premium. This works out to nearly 100% signaling for high school, and 80% for college.

Then researchers infer learning: as employers get to know workers, they pay less and less for superficial credentials, and more and more for underlying merits. When payoffs for education and cognitive ability plateau, researchers often conclude employers have reached the truth. What does this approach reveal? For most workers, employer learning takes years or even decades, not months.

First big fact: for a rich country, the U.S. education premium is unusually high, especially in recent decades. The United States has the largest high school premium and close to the highest college premium in the OECD

The average effect of a good teacher is only a few hundred dollars per student per a year. But multiplied by thirty students over their working lives, measured benefits come to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Labor economists’ root problem: They fall in love with education years before they study the evidence.

No wonder a major Gates Foundation study ranked boredom the most important reason why kids drop out of high school.

How much does your alma mater’s rank matter? Research is oddly mixed. The consensus point: where you study is less important than what you study. As some early researchers said, “While sending your child to Harvard appears to be a good investment, sending him to your local state university to major in Engineering, to take lots of math, and preferably to attain a high GPA, is an even better investment.”

Conscious on-campus gold-digging may be rare, but extra schooling still improves your odds of striking gold.

High school graduation makes you almost 30 percentage points more likely to marry a high school grad. College graduation makes you another 25 percentage points more likely to marry a college grad. American marriage is a diploma-based caste system.

Yet on reflection, married couples save a bundle by sharing their consumption. The adage, “Two can live as cheaply as one” exaggerates. Compared to two one-person households, though, one two-person household plainly saves on housing, furnishings, transportation, utilities, chores, and even groceries, thanks to stores like Costco. How much do couples save? Academics analyze this prosaic question with an array of methods. They find savings of 20–40%, with the most credible estimates around 35%. Marriage automatically enriches the lower-earning spouse and potentially enriches the higher-earning spouse.

As expected, marriage pumps up the return to education for both genders and all abilities. Marriage raises returns by roughly one percentage point for men and two percentage points for women.

Incidentally, the marriage market is probably the strongest reason to pay for expensive private schools. Going to Harvard may not get you a better job but almost certainly puts you in an exclusive dating pool for life. Admittedly thin research on this topic confirms the obvious: one research team finds that over half of women’s financial payoff for college quality comes via marriage.

Folk wisdom says, “Don’t marry for money. Go where the rich people are, and marry for love.”

Go to high school unless you’re a terrible student (or don’t want a full-time career).

Whatever you do, don’t bother with a GED. It sounds like an appealing middle way, but its chief function is to tell employers, “I have the brains but not the grit to finish high school.”

Go to college only if you’re a strong student or special case. College is a square deal for Excellent and Good Students who follow three simple rules. First, pick a “real” major. STEM is obviously “real”; so are economics, business, and even political science. Second, go to a respected public school. It probably won’t charge list price, and even if it does, you get your money’s worth. Third, toil full time after graduation. Working irregularly after finishing college is like failing to harvest half the crops you plant.

Don’t get a master’s degree unless the stars align.

Failure in graduate programs is so prevalent only the top 5–10% of the population can confidently expect to cross the finish line.

My counsel rubs many the wrong way. Some dismiss it as “elitist,” “philistine,” or “sexist.” The correct label is candid.

Why should we prefer my numbers to anyone else’s? First, to the best of my knowledge, I am the only researcher to account for ability bias, sheepskin effects, and completion probability at the same time. All three forces are so mighty that ignoring even one discredits the answer. Second, to the best of my knowledge, my numbers are the most comprehensive. I investigate every semiplausible benefit and cost of education, and my calculations incorporate whatever I find in the return. Third, I never retreat to agnosticism. I strive to compile the best available evidence from every relevant field. Yet when the best evidence is mixed or weak, I explicitly state my best guess and run with it.

The professional degree and the Ph.D., in contrast, pay well for most disciplines. Unfortunately, the vast majority of students lack the ability to survive these programs. Most Ph.D. students have spent their entire lives at the top of the class, yet half wander off before they defend their dissertations.

CHAPTER 6 - We Care If It’s Signaling

But socially speaking, the relevant number is not cost to the student, but cost to everyone — especially public education’s Forgotten Man, the taxpayer. Start with the full cost of public K–12. The per-student bill varies massively from state to state. In 2009–10, the latest available year, Utah spent $7,916. Washington, DC, tripled that, for a grand total of $23,816. The U.S. average was $12,136.

In the modern world, moreover, the brightest minds often end up as university professors, applying their creativity to topics of academic interest rather than commercial value. 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.

Ponder this: in 1950, only 33% of adult males had finished high school, but male workforce participation was higher than today.

About 65% of American inmates never earned standard high school diplomas. In 2006–7, 8.7% of male dropouts aged 16–24 were incarcerated. Around 15% of white male dropouts and 70% of black male dropouts spend some time in prison by their mid-30s.

When researchers correct for early antisocial attitudes and behavior, the measured effect of education on crime plummets.

The current budgetary cost of imprisoning a criminal is about $30,000 a year. But crimes committed vastly outnumber sentences served. Murder aside, offenses rarely lead to arrest, much less prison. Only 3–5% of rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults — and less than 1% of property crimes — lead to jail time.

Take Americans adults born after 1950. Only 37% of children of two dropouts finished high school, and a mere 2% earned a B.A. In the same era, 98% of children of two college grads finished high school, and 56% earned a B.A. These academic success gaps eventually translate into financial, career, and marital success gaps. Education conceivably has torrential ripple effects. Unfortunately, no one can tell if the ripples are genuine without facing an ancient debate: nature versus nurture, heredity versus upbringing.

This approach, called “behavioral genetics,” consistently finds strong, pervasive effects of nature, and weak, sporadic effects of nurture.

The genes your parents give you at conception have a much larger effect on your success than all the advantages your parents give you after conception.

The social return for high school is a so-so 3.4%. The social return for college is poor — less than 2%. The social return for the master’s is a ruinous negative 4%. Low returns are the rule even though education provides an array of benefits for society as a whole. All computations grant that education boosts worker productivity and workforce participation, and cuts unemployment and crime. Why the low social return? Because of the meager value of the combined benefits. The world overflows with better ways to invest.

The one stark exception: sending Poor Students to high school is the best social investment of all, reaping a handsome 6.1%. Since Poor Students incline to crime, crime has massive social costs, and most offenders are young, mildly curbing Poor Students’ criminality more than pays for itself.

Second, women, regardless of education, commit virtually no crime. Male college graduates are more criminally inclined than female high school dropouts

Deep education cuts won’t transform us, but we can work wonders with the billions upon billions of dollars we save.

CHAPTER 7 - The White Elephant in the Room

Laymen’s arguments almost never confront the question, “At what point would education spending be excessive?” “We’ve done enough for education” is as heretical as “We’ve done enough for paralyzed veterans.”

The Onion, the best parody site ever, once ran an article titled, “U.S. Government to Discontinue Long-Term, Low-Yield Investment in Nation’s Youth.”

total education spending far surpasses total military spending. For the 2010–11 school year, education was 7.5% of the American economy, versus 4.7% for defense. Spending came to over $1.1 trillion on education, and a bit over $700 billion on defense. Schools overtook the military back in 1972 and sharply widened their lead after the Cold War.

That’s nearly $3,600 for every person in America — not every student, mind you, but every person.

The Congressional Budget Office finds an average subsidy rate of 12%: every dollar of student “loan” contains a hidden taxpayer gift of 12 cents.

Government provides more than four-fifths of all education spending.

Government spending on education is about 6% of the whole economy.

When once asked at a public lecture in St. Louis how large the state should be, Coase answered: “If you see a man who weighs over 400 pounds, and you ask me how much he should weigh, my answer would be . . . less.”

The cleanest approach, naturally, is to discontinue classes that teach impractical material at taxpayer expense. There really is no need for K–12 to teach history, social studies, art, music, or foreign languages.

These fears highlight a less gameable way to cut education: shift the cost of education from taxpayers to students and their families. Raise tuition for public colleges. Cut subsidies. Turn grants into loans.

But I’d rather be clear than pleasing. Give heresy a chance.

We should call the status quo “profligate.” Rich societies can afford to waste trillions. But why settle for that? Rich societies face countless opportunities. The trillions we spend boring youths might cure cancer, buy driverless cars, or end world hunger. Collective complacency seems harmless, but it kills by omission.

Maybe making students bear the cost of school improves their academic motivation by giving them “skin in the game.”

Even if your quest for social justice stops at the nation’s borders, why not fork over the hundreds of billions saved to America’s underclass? Human capital purists may protest that this squanders our country’s seed grain. But letting the poor eat the seeds is better than burning the seeds signaling to each other.

Philosophically, I am staunchly libertarian. While not absolutely opposed to taxpayer support for education, I have a strong moral presumption against taxpayer support for anything. Why? Because I have a strong moral presumption in favor of leaving others alone — and consider taxation to be a prime example of failing to leave others alone.

I know libertarianism is out of step with modern political thought. If you’re curious why anyone would hold my eccentric view, I outsource the job to philosopher Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority

All things considered, I** favor full separation of school and state. Government should stop using tax dollars to fund education of any kind.**

Private charity apparently did a good job of educating the poor in nineteenth-century Britain and the United States. When Britain first made education compulsory for 5-to-10-year-olds in 1880, over 95% of 15-year-olds were already literate.

I have not changed my view that higher education has some positive externality, but I have become much more aware that it also has negative externalities. I am much more dubious than I was when I wrote Capitalism and Freedom that there is any justification at all for government subsidy of higher education. The spread of PC [political correctness] right now would seem to be a very strong negative externality, and certainly the 1960s student demonstrations were negative externalities from higher education. A full analysis along those lines might lead you to conclude that higher education should be taxed to offset its negative externalities. —Milton Friedman, “Letter to Richard Vedder”

Kevin Carey of the New America Foundation explains the intellectual evolution: “Three years ago, technology was going to transform higher education. What happened?” The failure of MOOCs [Massive Open Online Courses] to disrupt higher education has nothing to do with the quality of the courses themselves, many of which are quite good and getting better. Colleges are holding technology at bay because the only thing MOOCs provide is access to world-class professors at an unbeatable price. What they don’t offer are official college degrees, the kind that can get you a job. And that, it turns out, is mostly what college students are paying for.

Without a conventional diploma, “I took a bunch of online classes” is almost as worthless in the labor market as “I read lots of blogs.”

CHAPTER 8 - 1 > 0

Rather than ride the basic skills bandwagon, this chapter highlights a neglected yet promising alternative: vocational education.

The most successful forms of vocational education — especially Germany’s marvelous apprentice system — are the envy of almost everyone who scrutinizes them.

Education that builds job skills is more socially valuable than education that merely impresses employers — even if both forms of education are equally profitable for the students themselves.

Core insight: vocational students are typically “academic underachievers” before entering the vocational track. The right metric isn’t, “How do vocational students compare to average students?” but rather, “How do vocational students compare to comparable students who didn’t study a trade?”

What makes vocational ed’s social return so ample? Status is zero-sum; skill is not. Conventional education mostly helps students by raising their status, but average status cannot rise. Vocational education mostly helps students by building their skills — and average skill can rise.

School is not vocational education’s only venue. If learning job skills in the school is good, wouldn’t learning job skills on the job be better? Unfortunately, we have an innocuous yet infamous label for kids learning job skills on the job: “child labor.”

If this seems a low bar, recall that almost half of dropouts and a third of high school graduates these days aren’t even looking for work. Acclimating them to any form of employment would be a step up.

Historically, teachers trained students for three specific professions: the clergy, law, and medicine. The modern curriculum is more versatile but has changed far less than educators like to think. Today’s schools prepare students for careers as authors, poets, mathematicians, scientists, artists, musicians, historians, translators, and professional athletes. Yet the fraction of students who enter these occupations is trivial.

Instead of fearing a dystopian future, we should gawk at our dystopian present.

CHAPTER 9 - Nourishing Mother

The Master said, “In ancient times, men learned with a view to their own improvement. Now-a-days, men learn with a view to the approbation of others.” —Confucius, The Analects

To object, “But most people don’t use the Internet for spiritual enrichment” is actually a damaging admission that eager students are few and far between. Subsidized education’s real aim isn’t to make ideas and culture accessible to anyone who’s interested, but to make them mandatory for everyone who isn’t interested.

First: the humanist case for education subsidies is flimsy today because the Internet makes enlightenment practically free. Second: the humanist case for education subsidies was flimsy all along because the Internet proves low consumption of ideas and culture stems from apathy, not poverty or inconvenience.

Let’s start with books. Consumer demand is shockingly low overall: Americans spend 0.2% of their income on all reading materials, barely more than $100 per family per year.

Today’s Americans spend about four times as much on tobacco and five times as much on alcohol as they do on reading.

American educators lean left. There’s no denying it. The party breakdown for K–12 public school teachers is lopsided: roughly 45% Democrat, 25% independent, and 30% Republican. The breakdown for college faculty is starkly lopsided: a nationally representative study of all professors—including professors in two-year colleges—finds 51% Democrats, 35% independents, and 14% Republicans. A similar study of four-year college faculty reports 50% Democrats, 39% independents/other, and 11% Republicans. Left-wing dominance seems even stronger at elite schools. Colleges are least balanced in the most politically charged subjects, with about five Democrats per Republican in the humanities, and eight Democrats per Republican in the social sciences. As recently as 2006, 5% of humanities professors and 18% of social scientists were self-described “Marxists.”

Won’t the subtlest slant, maintained year after year, win students’ hearts and minds in the end? Apparently not. In the data, the well-educated are only microscopically more liberal.

If the effect on ideology is slight, the effect on partisanship is perverse: as education rises, people grow slightly less Democratic. The General Social Survey’s respondents place themselves on a seven-step scale, where 0 is “strong Democrat,” 3 is “independent,” and 6 is “strong Republican.” An extra year of education seems to make people .071 steps more Republican.

At the same time, abundant research also confirms education raises support for capitalism, free markets, and globalization.

Even extreme left-wing dominance leaves little lasting impression. Contrary to the indoctrination story, education doesn’t progressively dye students ever brighter shades of red.

If a world of historical ignorance is scary, you should be scared already, because that’s where we live.

Stereotypes say the well-educated are less religious, but this is a half-truth. The well-educated are less religious theologically. As education goes up, faith in God and the literal truth of the Bible recedes. Yet the well-educated are more religious sociologically. As education goes up, so do church membership and church attendance. These are well-established patterns, at least in the United States.

While education cools fertility for both sexes, it cools women’s more: wives’ education matters three or four times as much as husbands.’

When schools decry “narrow-mindedness,” their real goal is to replace students’ narrowness with their own.

If you want to help kids discover what emotionally “clicks” for them, trial and error beats academic tradition cold.

For college kids, you may recall, playtime is now longer than ever. The college workload slimmed down as K–12’s bulked up.

Plenty of undergrads fritter away their opportunity in a drunken stupor. Yet others sample a medley of fascinating options, acquiring passions that last a lifetime. My undergraduate years were my favorites precisely because classes were so undemanding. Every day was packed with hours for play, and play I did. I read philosophy, listened to opera, wargamed with my friends, and argued politics with strangers past midnight. I owe my soul to lax academic standards.

I believe wholeheartedly in the life of the mind. What I’m cynical about is people. I’m cynical about students. The vast majority are philistines.

What’s Orwellian about the status quo? Most fundamentally, the idea of compulsory enlightenment.

As Stanford education professor David Labaree remarks, “Motivating volunteers to engage in human improvement is very difficult, as any psychotherapist can confirm, but motivating conscripts is quite another thing altogether. And it is conscripts that teachers face every day in the classroom.”

Still, humanists should not despair. The savior of transformative education has arrived: the Internet, the Merit Machine.

Many idealists object that the Internet provides enlightenment only for those who seek it. They’re right, but petulant to ask for more.

CHAPTER 10 - Five Chats on Education and Enlightenment

ALAN: Fine. Then why don’t elite firms like Goldman Sachs poach high school seniors as soon as they’re admitted to Harvard, instead of waiting four years for them to graduate? Harvard’s completion rate is near 100%, so admission and graduation are virtually equivalent.
BRYAN: Not so fast. If Goldman Sachs tried poaching, they’d get the dregs of the Harvard barrel. Harvard admittees struggle their whole lives to get into top colleges. In their social circles, the Ivy League is the One True Way. What kind of a rising Harvard freshman would even consider skipping college altogether? A misfit. A weirdo. Goldman Sachs doesn’t want misfits and weirdos. It wants outstanding conformists.

FREDERICK: When I read other researchers, they rarely share their “guesses.”
BRYAN: That’s because most academics proverbially “look for their keys under the streetlight because it’s brighter there.” They target questions they can definitively answer instead of questions that really matter.

Here’s the real crisis: every year, over a million students who won’t graduate start college. Their failure is foreseeable; high school students with poor grades and low test scores rarely earn B.A.s. Instead of tempting marginal students with cheap credit, we should bluntly warn them that college is stacked against them.

DARIA: Seems like a recipe for a class society.
BRYAN: [quizzical] Unlike the classless society we inhabit today?

DARIA: You’re cynical about more than education.
BRYAN: I prefer “realistic,” but have it your way.

BRYAN: Me too. But outliers like us are a poor reason to push poetry on everyone.
CYNTHIA: If schools don’t teach it, we outliers will go extinct.
BRYAN: No we won’t. Remember: plenty of ideas and culture receive no taxpayer support. Public schools don’t teach religion, yet religion endures. Few schools public or private push rock-and-roll, but rock-and-roll thrives. When I was growing up, I explored my many interests at the library. Today’s kids enjoy the divine bounty of the Internet.


Is there some way to redeem education, to make it live up to the propaganda we’ve borne since childhood? Conceivably, but to quote Eomer from The Lord of the Rings, “Do not trust to hope. It has forsaken these lands.”

If the party line is so false, why is dissent so scarce? Social Desirability Bias. Calling school a rat race verges on nihilism. When students challenge the party line, teachers and parents get upset. When graduates challenge it, they seem immature. Even those who don’t care to preen don’t want to get stomped. Education’s like John Gotti, the legendary “Teflon Don”: guilty as sin, but everyone’s petrified to testify against it.

There is a way to sever this Gordian knot: slash government subsidies. This won’t make classes relevant but will lead students to spend fewer years sitting in classrooms.