In the summer of 2012, I delivered a public lecture at The University of Regina titled "I Didn't Learn a Thing as an Undergraduate." That lecture, inspired by the many blog posts by Bryan Caplan at Econlog, emphasized that even a year or so after graduation from Carleton College [a top-ranked, small liberal arts college in Northfield, Minnesota], I remembered very, very little of what I had learned there. It was not a condemnation of Carleton College; rather, it was a recognition of what happens to most undergraduate students: We studied/study to pass exams, to get grades, to graduate. I.e., we studied to certify that we were diligent, that we had passed certain landmarks, that we had achieved certain milestones. We were certifying ourselves.
Bryan Caplan has now written a soon-to-be published book The Case Against Education making these points in great detail. And, for the benefit of those of us who don't read non-fiction books very often (Be honest! I will: I can't remember the last non-fiction book I read completely), he has just published an excellent summary of his work in this article in The Atlantic.
Some pithy quotes from the article [but please PLEASE read at least the article]:
- The labor market doesn’t pay you for the useless subjects you master; it pays you for the preexisting traits you signal by mastering them. This is not a fringe idea. Michael Spence, Kenneth Arrow, and Joseph Stiglitz—all Nobel laureates in economics—made seminal contributions to the theory of educational signaling.
- As a society, we continue to push ever larger numbers of students into ever higher levels of education. The main effect is not better jobs or greater skill levels, but a credentialist arms race.
- The conventional view—that education pays because students learn—assumes that the typical student acquires, and retains, a lot of knowledge. She doesn’t. ...Human beings have trouble retaining knowledge they rarely use. Of course, some college graduates use what they’ve learned and thus hold on to it—engineers and other quantitative types, for example, retain a lot of math. But when we measure what the average college graduate recalls years later, the results are discouraging, to say the least.
- Those who believe that college is about learning how to learn should expect students who study science to absorb the scientific method, then habitually use it to analyze the world. This scarcely occurs.
- Students who excel on exams frequently fail to apply their knowledge to the real world. [EE: I resemble this, and I see it in so many of my former students. It hurts.]
- I’m cynical about students. The vast majority are philistines. I’m cynical about teachers. The vast majority are uninspiring. [EE: note that he says "vast majority" not all for sure.]
[T]oday’s college students are less willing than those of previous generations to do the bare minimum of showing up for class and temporarily learning whatever’s on the test. Fifty years ago, college was a full-time job. The typical student spent 40 hours a week in class or studying. Effort has since collapsed across the board. “Full time” college students now average 27 hours of academic work a week—including just 14 hours spent studying. [EE: I think this change from the past has galled me more than any other. See this in which I reveal that in my freshman year I probably averaged studying about 30 hours/week, claimed to study 35 hours/week, but was out-studied and/or out-lied by my classmates who reported studying 50 hours/week.]
- Would I advise an academically well-prepared 18-year-old to skip college because she won’t learn much of value? Absolutely not. Studying irrelevancies for the next four years will impress future employers and raise her income potential. If she tried to leap straight into her first white-collar job, insisting, “I have the right stuff to graduate, I just choose not to,” employers wouldn’t believe her. To unilaterally curtail your education is to relegate yourself to a lower-quality pool of workers. For the individual, college pays.
Simply put, the push for broader college education has steered too many students who aren’t cut out for academic success onto the college track.
- Civilized societies revolve around education now, but there is a better—indeed, more civilized—way. If everyone had a college degree, the result would be not great jobs for all, but runaway credential inflation.