Putting Liberty Back in Liberal Education

One Economist's Case for Separation of School and State

As election season heats up, we will no doubt hear talk about education. We will hear about its importance (it's an investment in the future), and we will hear about its cost (which is skyrocketing but still worth it because—duh!—it's investment in the future), and since it's both important and expensive, we will also hear calls for making more of it free—well, "free" meaning "at no upfront cost to students." But, setting aside the oxymoronic nature of a "free investment," economists tell us that everything of value carries some cost. Sensible people already know these things.

But did you know that anyone can get a tuition-free education from almost any college in the country right now? Yes, says Bryan Caplan, economics professor at George Mason University, "The best education in the world is already free. . . . 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." He calls it, tongue in cheek, "guerilla education."

But wait! you say; just sitting in class won't get me a diploma!

Ahh . . . and you would be correct. Keep that astute observation in mind, as we consider what Caplan has to say in his provocatively titled, The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money. If, on the other hand, you think any "case against education" is nuts, muse on the following thought experiment: You can have either a Princeton education without the diploma or a Princeton diploma without the education. Does this either/or offer strike you as a no-brainer? Or is it more of a head-scratcher? If the latter, then read on. Professor Caplan will help you make sense of why.

Education: Two Economic Models

Caplan begins by contrasting two models by which economists evaluate education. The "human capital model" says that education is valuable because it builds human capital. Expenditures on education are justified because education produces useful job skills that yield economic and social returns. Reduced to the coarse terms of a cost-benefit analysis, education is worth what it costs because educated workers become sufficiently productive to justify the cost.

By contrast, the "signaling model" says that education supplies potential employers with "signals" about job applicants. In other words, whether or not an applicant's education taught him the skills necessary to perform the job, an employer will seriously consider him for the job because mere possession of a diploma signals certain things about its bearer. Even if what a student learned in school was utterly useless, an employer will still happily pay the graduate more because his scholastic achievement "certifies" his productivity—it gives something akin to a "good seal of approval."

These two models sit at either end of a continuum, and no one argues for one extreme or the other. Most people agree that there is an element of signaling involved in education, and perhaps justifiably so. But Caplan breaks drastically with conventional thought and says education today is predominantly signaling. He fills several chapters with graphs, charts, and economist-ese in laying out his "best guess" conclusion, which is that signaling accounts for 80 percent of education's return. In other words, only about 20 percent of education is skill cultivation. The other 80 percent is signaling. "I even anoint this the 'Reasonable' position," he says, presumably also tongue in cheek. An admitted iconoclast, he deems our education system a huge waste of resources and says we need less of it, and we need it to be less affordable.

Taking Signaling Seriously

His entire case rests on the premise that most of education is signaling. Specifically, he contends that education signals three things: intelligence (knowledge, ability to learn), conscientiousness (work ethic, discipline, goal completion), and conformity (complying with expectations, getting along with peers, being a "team player"). One's education, then, signals this package of desirable traits. Busy hiring managers know that the whole package won't necessarily hold true for all applicants, but they filter out the uncredentialed sight-unseen anyway, because, statistically, it makes sense for them to do so. Caplan calls it, straightforwardly enough, "statistical discrimination."

The high-school senior applying to college might think, Who cares if education is mostly signaling? If a degree boosts my earnings potential, then it pays. And given the data, that's a reasonable inclination. Statistically, it does pay—for the individual looking solely at his own return on investment.

But economists ask different questions, and evaluating return for a society in aggregate is a different matter. Do we, as a whole, reap sufficient benefits from our education system to justify our current collective investment in it? The degree to which education imparts valuable skills or merely racks up signaling points does affect the answer to that question. Here's why: to the extent that education is skill cultivation, it increases the size of the economic pie. To the extent that it's signaling, it only redistributes the pie. Skill is accumulative. Status is zero-sum.

Effects of Signaling

One effect of high signaling is "credential inflation." In an everyone-has-a-bachelor's-degree employment market, the way to boost your perceived worth is to get a master's degree. And so, to the extent that signaling drives this quest for degrees, the academic enterprise becomes a perverse kind of sheepskin arms race that wastes time, effort, and money and that benefits no one. Factor in federal grants and loan subsidies, and what do you end up with? A glut of graduates with a high debt/low employability imbalance. Or in street terms, bartenders and baristas with BAs and big outstanding loans. (Sound familiar?) They might get paid more than their non-degreed counterparts, but it's a pretty safe bet they didn't go to college to make drinks for a living.

But while bartenders with BAs may well work their way into satisfying careers, there's another segment of the population on whom the current system exacts a heavier toll. Economists also look at opportunity costs—what has been lost because another alternative wasn't chosen? Originally, higher education prepared select students for vocations in medicine, law, and religious ministry. The modern curriculum is more versatile but still requires years of study in languages, history, arts, sciences, and more, and while the idea of training everyone for long-shot, prestigious careers is a noble aspiration, it can disproportionately harm those students who, for whatever reason, just don't do school well.

Despite his book's title, Caplan does recommend that students finish high school (though he'd like to see it require tuition), but if a fourteen-year-old is already bored and loathes school, might he be better served with an option to take a job and learn a skill? Shoehorning everyone into a one-size-fits-all regimen is a terrible way to foster thoughtful minds or inspire hearts. Working will at least teach an at-risk youth how to do one job, likely yielding higher individual and social returns than confining him, disgruntled, to a curriculum that trains him for no job. Caplan devotes a whole chapter to arguing for expanded vocational training and apprenticeship options, both in schools and in the labor market. "Visualize a world," he writes,

where 16-year-olds have real job skills and earn enough to provide for themselves . . . where academically uninclined preteens look up to apprentices instead of delinquents . . . where students find their lessons either practical or interesting. If we could raise a new productive, independent, engaged generation, wouldn't that be a great improvement over the bored, infantilized youth of today?

Indeed. These options should be put forth as equally commendable career paths—both as a matter of respect for those students and as a social curb against dropout delinquency.

It seems reasonable that education would indicate a certain level of intelligence and conscientiousness, but what about conformity? Caplan defends its inclusion in the signaling trifecta on the grounds that employers prefer "submissive worker bee[s]." It's conceivable that this might be the case, but the historically informed citizen might discern here a big red flag. Do we really want massive government investment in a system geared for social conformity? Caplan cites data on the appalling dearth of critical thinking in educated America, and specifically calls out college science for teaching what to think about topics on the syllabus rather than how to think about the world. Mass conformity of thought combined with poor reasoning has never augured well for anyone. If signaling plays a big part in education, and social conformity plays a part in signaling, then paring the system back is very much a "Reasonable" position.

Given a fair hearing, the signaling model explains many of the pervasive idiosyncrasies of student life: time burned cramming for tests on minutiae they don't care about and forget the day after, skipping classes or assignments because "I already have an A," and reducing academics to the least-common-denominator calculus of "What do I have to do to graduate?" rather than "How can I maximize my learning?" It also explains why the choice of a Princeton education or a Princeton diploma is an actual dilemma, rather than a no-brainer.

"All things considered," Caplan writes, "I favor full separation of school and state." He estimates that government outlays for K–college education amounts to around a trillion dollars every year, but arbitrarily calling it "investment" doesn't make it so. "Who could oppose ample funding for education?" he asks, and then answers, "Anyone who takes signaling seriously."


Toward Freedom in Education

Despite the iconoclastic tone of all this, Caplan writes like a perennial optimist. The Case Against Education is not at all a screed against education per se. It's a pragmatic case for being more efficient and compassionate about how we do education.

Historically, a liberal education was called "liberal" because it aspired to be a means by which enlightened people freely sought truth, unconstrained by provincialism or mind-shackling groupthink. Caplan mostly reduces the purpose of education to workforce preparation, but he does leave room for this kind of valuing of ideas. Although he specifically rejects Christianity, those of us who think in Judeo-Christian categories can get on board with what he's saying and build from there. He lists three ingredients for a good education: worthy content, skillful teaching, and eager students. We should recognize in that prescription the elements of a truly liberating education—truth and people who love it.

There's no such thing as a "free education," but there is such a thing as an education that can make you free. Recall that the greatest liberator of all time connected knowledge, truth, and liberty with himself when he said, "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." A move toward separation of school and state would be an exceedingly "Reasonable" step toward making and keeping Americans free.

 is Deputy Editor of Salvo and writes on apologetics and matters of faith.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #51, Winter 2019 Copyright © 2024 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo51/putting-liberty-back-in-liberal-education


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