The Case Against Education?

by Steven M. Cahn

Princeton University Press recently published a book by the economist Bryan Caplan titled The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money. The work, packed with figures, tables, notes, and references, argues that schooling is basically irrelevant(2) and that the only subjects worth teaching are literacy, numeracy, and a few vocational electives such as auto shop, computer programming, and engineering. The biggest waste of time is the humanities. After all, aside from a handful of specialists, who needs to know literature, history, or philosophy? No wonder, according to the author, most students are excruciatingly bored,a claim he repeats so often that the reader, too, suffers boredom.

Despite his elaborate scholarly apparatus, the authors argument couldnt be simpler. His premise is that most of what schools teach has no value in the labor market(68). Thus most education is wasteful. For example, nothing the philosopher learned at Stanford applies on the job(3). Hence why should anyone, apart from a few specialists or humanist fans(239), read philosophy? Similarly useless is the rest of the standard liberal arts curriculum, including English, history, the social sciences, art, music, physics, and foreign languages.

The most obvious response to his assertions is that in a democracy liberal education provides the knowledge, skills, and values needed by all of us to make a success of our experiment in self-government. Yet in a book of nearly 400 pages, the author devotes only one paragraph to this consideration. He asks, But doesnt knowledge of history lead us to support wiser policies, both foreign and domestic(250)? He admits that such is true almost by definition,but finds the point not worth attention, because most adults are historically illiterate.In other words, because most people dont know enough history, they neednt know any. This argument confuses necessary and sufficient conditions, a fallacy that would be obvious to every graduate of Stanfords and any other philosophy department.

A self-confessed cynic, the author reports that his teaching is highly rated,yet most students are painfully bored,and loathe class(135). They also disappoint him with their poor performance on exams (58). Meanwhile, as a tenured professor, he announces smugly that he has a dream job for life,in which he is paid to think my thoughts, share my ideas with students, and eat lunch with my best friends(134). Not surprisingly, his favorite students live and breathe economics,although he finds them for that reason weird(153). Perhaps he could engage others more successfully if he deviated from what he believes to be the standard practice in his field, offering watered down versions of topics that fascinate the faculty(84). No wonder his students are bored.

Nevertheless, his challenge to liberal education calls for defending it. Here, given limitations of space, Ill focus on philosophy. (My case for studying the other aspects of a liberal education can be found in my book Inside Academia: Professors, Politics, and Policies, forthcoming later this year from Rutgers University Press.) The justification I would offer for engaging as many as possible in philosophical inquiry is that every member of a democracy should be encouraged to acquire intellectual perspective, the ability to scrutinize the fundamental principles of thought and action, encompassing both what is and what ought to be. The path to such wisdom lies in the study of those subtle analyses and grand visions that comprise philosophy. No other subject affords a stronger defense against intimidation by dogmatism while simultaneously providing a framework for the operation of intelligence.

Those, like the author of this book, who complain that the United States is overeducated(199), providing too much education for too many, thereby reveal their misunderstanding of a democracy. How can the electorate be too educated, know too much, or be too astute? Too little education, however, and democracy may disappear.


Steven M. Cahn is Professor Emeritus at the Graduate Center of The City University of New York. He is the author of Teaching Philosophy: A Guide, to be published in 2018 by Routledge.

6 thoughts on “The Case Against Education?

  1. I agree with Professor Cahn, who was a classmate in graduate school, that the liberal arts are essential for an educated electorate. The fact that they may not be or may be and are bored is the fault of the educators. While I am ABD and departed after I felt that I had learned what I came to learn, I have had three careers, union organizer, lawyer and part time faculty teaching law. In each it was my education in philosophy that enabled me to be successful, because instead of a narrow view of my work, I was able to see with the vision of the wisdom of the past and use my philosophical skills to solve problems my opponents were hardly able to grasp, because they did not have that education. Is that an argument for philosophy as vocational education? No! It is an argument that I hope deepens what my former classmate propounds!

  2. “The most obvious response to his assertions is that in a democracy liberal education provides the knowledge, skills, and values needed by all of us to make a success of our experiment in self-government. Yet in a book of nearly 400 pages, the author devotes only one paragraph to this consideration.”

    Did you even read the book? Chapter 9 is entirely to the issue of the “educated citizenry”. The TL; DR version is that while an educated citizenry sounds nice in theory, in practice the education system has little influence on society’s behavior and political / ideological beliefs, and virtually no influence on their “culture”.

  3. Chapter 9 is explicitly focused on the question, “Is Education Good for the Soul?” The paragraph I discussed is the only one that addresses the matter of my concern.

  4. I must apologize as, upon re-reading, the specific question of whether higher education leads to a more democratic political system is in fact not addressed in the book and maybe Caplan should include it in a future version; it can be addressed with an index like Freedom House or similar, flawed as they may be. Indeed, while writing this comment I found this paper which seems to have a negative answer:

    A similar question, whether higher education leads to a better-functioning democracy, is perhaps unanswerable as it would depend on one of those “how well does your democracy work” indexes – which seem to serve no purpose other than providing ammunition for partisans claiming this or that US state “isn’t a real democracy”.

    That said, Caplan shows:
    -The average American knows very little about the political system he lives in (p 44-46). Even if the education system is responsible for all of that, which is absurd, it’s not responsible for much. (The people in question just happen to be Americans, but the same is probably true all over the world).
    -Education spending levels are similar in democracies and dictatorships.
    -In chapter 9: voter turnout depends on relative education, not absolute education. The average voter was far better educated in 2000 than in 1900, but turnout stagnated or declined throughout the XX century.
    -Also chapter 9: education has little effect on one’s political and religious beliefs. The effect it does have seems to be mostly through peers, not leadership.

    If despite all this education still turned out to be a major factor in the degree of democracy a nation enjoys it would a big surprise.

  5. The indirect arguments listed in the previous post shouldn’t be omitted from a review like this. He shows that teaching doesn’t produce knowledge of politics in the first place. It’s hard to see how something that fails to let people know even the most basic facts of government could produce an informed, competent electorate.

    In addition, his first book, The Myth of the Rational Voter, showed quite convincingly that we don’t have a competent electorate, and that the reasons for this have to do with the epistemic incentive structure of democracy itself. Democracy shifts the cost of error onto others while creating social benefits for endorsing particular opinions irrespective of their truth. Given this, there are clear limits to how much education could significantly alter the effectiveness of the voting public because it is unlikely that it would significantly alter this incentive structure.

    The notion that education makes people better democratic citizens appears to rest on little more than hope in this post. Especially absent some relevant empirical data showing that, contrary to these reasons we have to believe otherwise, education does make citizens more competent members of a democratic society, I don’t see this as a serious challenge to his findings.

  6. We might consider the story of Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz who abandoned his medical career for the ocean, living a nomadic surfing life with his wife and nine children, all of them, in a used camper van.

    It’s a fascinating, if sometimes disturbing, story of a very well educated person who transcended theories about education and fully committed himself and his family to life outside of traditional conventions, including education as we think of it.

    While Bryan Caplan wailed against education from the comfort of the ivory tower, Paskowitz took his critique of education quite a few steps farther.

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