Too much education

At EconLog, Bryan Caplan is previewing his next book on why education is a waste of time and money for people who don’t plan to become professors.

Most people who criticize our education system complain that we aren’t spending our money in the right way, or that ideologues-in-teachers’-clothes are leading our nation’s children down a dark path. While I mildly sympathize with some of these complaints, they often contradict what I see as the real problem with our educational system: There’s simply far too much education going on. The typical student burns up thousands of hours of his time learning about things that neither raise his productivity nor enrich his life. And of course, a student can’t waste thousands of hours of his time without real estate to do it in, or experts to show him how.

He has more here.

Actually, a lot of my education has proven useful or enriching, one way or the other. Not trigonometry perhaps, but quite a bit of the rest. Perhaps schooling is wasted on those who don’t become educated.

About Joanne


  1. He’s confusing education with training. I’d say he was trained, but poorly educated.

  2. I’ve just glanced at his posts, so I may be missing his point.

    However, the idea that college graduates “don’t use” their education is true only in the most superficial sense of the term.

    If you read Dan Willingham & E.D. Hirsch you realize that a liberal arts education gives you a large practical advantage in the world of work. A broad liberal arts education turns you into a faster learner (and reader) than you would have been otherwise.

    Knowledge begets knowledge. That’s a familiar idea.

    What I didn’t realize until I read more cognitive science is that knowledge also begets speed. At a certain point in your learning of any subject you suddenly become able to learn knew facts, skills, procedures, and concepts in that subject much more rapidly than when you were starting out.

    I suspect that this speed-up point occurs when you acquire a basic “schema” of the knowledge domain. And I’m positive that a good college gives you the most sophisticated schema for each knowledge domain possible.

    My own career is an illustration of this.

    As a non-fiction writer I have to tackle fields I know virtually nothing about. I have to be able to get my arms around these fields very quickly.

    I can do it because of my education at Wellesley and Dartmouth. All these years later, I’m still “trading on” those four years.

    I “use” my liberal arts education to earn a living, but I’m not earning a living teaching the subjects I studied. I’m earning a living being able to pick up new knowledge about the subjects I studied rapidly — and being able to make sense of it in terms of what I learned in college.

  3. Half Canadian says:

    I’m going to support his charge. I have yet to find a practical application in my line of work for the things I learned in Ethnic Relations (Soc 300-something). In fact, I’ll posit that this class actually made me less smart.

  4. Catherine,

    Your occupation is an exception to the rule.

    I would guess that your broad liberal arts education, might of provided you a broad background which assists you in your non-fiction writing, but I doubt it made you any more intelligent than you already were.

    I agree with the authors point.

  5. SuperSub says:

    Your job is an exception. Look at the thousands of jobs that do not ever expect a person to learn anything more than basic motor skills or form-filling skills, and you’ll see individuals who spent thousands in college to earn a liberal arts degree that they are in no way using.
    One cannot even make the argument that the eduction makes them better parents, because the brain, like a muscle, weakens with disuse.

    Throw in arguments about the skyrocketing costs of college degrees caused by a combination of high demand and too-accessible student aid, and there’s a good chance that the higher education bubble will burst in the next 20 years.

  6. I think this is what Joanne was saying in the last sentence of her post, but I’d like to expand on it. Whether there is too much education or not depends on what you mean by the term. If you mean that people jump through too many hoops just to get credits toward degrees — without learning anything that changes who they are — I’d agree with this guy completely. I’m a big believer in learning, but I’ve come to have a strong antipathy for most college classes. Most of the people I know who end up with college degrees don’t really learn much in college. They go through the motions of schooling, but their real goal is getting a piece of paper, NOT learning.

    I think we live in a horribly ignorant society, so I’m strongly in favor of more genuine learning. But sticking people into college classes in the way we do it now doesn’t tend to do that. It produces a society full of people who believe themselves to be educated but who actually lack basic information and basic thinking skills. (I agree with the late Neil Postman that television has a lot to do with this. See his book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” for his argument about that.)

    Yes, we need more learning and more understanding, but the levels of schooling we’re giving most people does nothing to achieve that.

    Just as a side point, it seems to me that most jobs that once required a high school education now require a college education, simply because a high school education doesn’t mean anything anymore. Since a college degree has been dumbed down, jobs that used to required undergrad degrees now require grad degrees. How long until you’ll need a master’s to manage a McDonald’s? 🙂

  7. Walter E. Wallis says:

    There is the saying, half of everything you learn is crap – you just don’t kow which half.

  8. Failure to properly teach me trigonometry was one of the worst things high school did to me. I spent an entire class session of an entire year listening to a newly graduated teacher read from a textbook she didn’t understand.

    When the time came that I needed to learn trigonometry, it took me a couple of hours to master the computations which I then performed several times a day for the following two decades.

  9. Rory — I’ll post the link to the “mastery learning” material on ktm-2.

    Education definitely raises IQ; I don’t think there’s much doubt about that.

    But beyond that, a broad liberal arts education makes you faster at picking up new information IN OUR 21ST CENTURY MARKETPLACE!!!!

    That last idea is mine; I don’t know whether others share it.

    It’s consistent with research in mastery learing, however.

    I have another piece of anecdotal information.

    One of my friends, who is super-smart, majored in business in college. Her parents were anti-liberal arts; they wanted her to major in something she could use.

    She did go into business for awhile. Then more recently she wanted to go to law school, but couldn’t score high enough on the test to be admitted.

    She also can’t read very fast.

    We both looked at the test, and we’re pretty sure that her problem is insufficient background knowledge.

    Basically, what you do when you go to college is acquire a very large amount of “background knowledge” that is, or should be, organized into sophisticated, cutting edge schemas. (Not sure that’s the word, but you know what I mean.)

    You’re getting smarter, and you’re getting faster.

  10. Walter E. Wallis wrote:

    There is the saying, half of everything you learn is crap – you just don’t kow which half.

    That’s Sturgeon’s Law and it’s ninety percent not fifty percent. Other then that minor quibble, yes.