When Are We Ever Going to Use This?

The Gist: Conventional school teaches disturbingly little worthwhile.

A review of Bryan Caplan’s the Case Against Education.

When was the last time you used geometry? 

Was it important for you to have spent a year studying the subject? Was it vital that the rest of us were forced to study it for a year?

Most likely the first time people use geometry after leaving school is incompetently helping with their kids’ homework, perpetuating the cycle of uselessness.


Figure 1. Solve for x. Was that worth a year of your life?


Economist Bryan Caplan makes the Case Against Education in a provocative book that takes on the question of the class clown: What does any of this have to do with life? And why are we making everyone spend 12+ years studying it?

I hope my obituary includes the following sentence: “He helped end the teaching of French in Tennessee public schools.” French is a language spoken by less than 2% of Earth’s population, a large portion of whom also speak English, and practically none of whom the average American student is likely to encounter. If he does, his high school education is unlikely to be as useful as Google Translate. It’s not difficult to guess that just about the only job in America that requires learning French is teaching French, again perpetuating the cycle of uselessness.


Figure 2. While the class did turn him onto berets, Claude was shocked that learning French did not help him in his career as a mime artist.

People are welcome to spend their own time and resources learning whatever they desire — but why do we spend a single tax dollar teaching French? More importantly, why do we waste an average of two years of classroom time teaching French when our kids can barely write in English, much less master math?

But hey, French is easy to denigrate. What about Spanish? Set aside for a moment whether the usefulness of Spanish represents American failure to integrate immigrants. If we assume its utility, we still have to reckon with the statistics of success: less than 3% of students report learning a foreign language “well.” You might as well go to the Five Minute University: “in five minutes you learn what the average college graduate remembers five years after he or she is out of school.”

Taco Bell

Figure 3. Frequent customers of Taco Bell know as much Spanish as the average person taught for years.


Disturbingly, even the “useful” subjects are often useless. All those mandatory hours on science? Less than 5% of Americans will use them in their career. There are certainly advantages to math, but we toil through calculus without learning to balance a checkbook. We study great works of literature (when they’re not eliminated by the PC police) without learning how to write a business report.


Figure 4. Dr. Frankenstein credited his success to misunderstanding high school biology.


But isn’t education about the soul? About becoming a good citizen? If true, no one cares: two thirds of high school students report being bored in class EVERY DAY. There is scant evidence that Shakespeare systematically makes better humans – but even if he did, he’s bound to soon be excluded from the curriculum as representing the cisheteropatriarchy. Whatever your values, can you trust the state to teach them?

Yet it does not stop in high school. College is a vacation from responsibility. No parents, no boss. Caplan reports: “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.” College is a product that people pay a huge amount only to consume as little as possible. Instead of the quality of education, the biggest draw for a particular college is the quality of its amenities: how nice are the dorms?

Gym Membership

Figure 5. College is like a really expensive gym where you still don’t actually work out but you get all the benefits because you can brag about your membership.


Even the classes that kids do attend are often in useless subjects — and not just absurdities like puppetry. Psychology is the most popular major in Tennessee colleges. Across the country, 94,000 students graduate with that major – but there are only 174,000 psychologists in the entire United States. History has 34,000 graduates a year – but there are only 3,500 historians. STEM majors are hard and can involve a practical education yet three quarters of STEM majors wind up in jobs that don’t use their specialized training.


Figure 6. “Tell us first about your childhood” “No, no, tell us about your dreams” “Forget that bunk, tell us about your sexual inadequacies.”


College is a game where students ask “Who is the easiest teacher?” not “Who is the best teacher?”; “What do I need to graduate?” not “What can I learn?”; “Will this be on the test?” not “Will this help me on the job?” And they’ve been rewarded over time with grade inflation, where B is now average (A- at Harvard). Despite that, most fail to finish: “About 25% of high school students fail to finish in four years. About 60% of full-time college students fail to finish in four years.” Publicly available debt finances the whole questionable enterprise, all the more a burden for those who don’t finish.

And what do college graduates do? They’re more likely to be cashiers or waiters than mechanical engineers. More likely to work as security guards or janitors than computer systems administrators. More likely to be cooks or bartenders than librarians.


Figure 7. “Yes, madame, here at Pierre’s we pride ourselves on hiring only the college-educated. Where else would we learn to pronounce ‘quinoa’?”


So why do people go? Social expectation… that leads to individual payoff. Because going to college does pay off for lots of graduates. Interestingly, Caplan reveals that one of the biggest payoffs to going to college is finding a high-earning spouse. But even the college-educated waiter commands a bigger salary than the waiter without. This can be taken too far, of course: Bill Gates would not likely have earned 73% more if he had not dropped out of Harvard – and because the most ambitious do go to college, you don’t know if it’s the person or the college that is producing the result. 

Caplan explains by compellingly arguing that our formal education system doesn’t actually teach all that much – but it signals to employers three key qualities: intelligence, conscientiousness (i.e. the ability to complete tasks), and conformity. Importantly, education does not TEACH those qualities, it reveals them. By completing college, you show an employer you can handle and complete tasks that society expects of you, even if they’re irrelevant to your specific job. Seems like the Army would be just as good a signal – and much cheaper – if society would get aboard. Strikingly Caplan asks: “Does education have any effect on genuine intelligence? Despite decades of research, we really don’t know.” 

One of the most compelling statistics Caplan offers for signaling over actual teaching is the earning power of dropouts. If actual teaching was the key reason college graduates earned more, then we’d expect that someone who completed 99% of college but failed to earn a degree would earn practically the same. Instead, the differences are stark. Get a diploma and you will earn more than the expected bump in income from completing freshman, sophomore, and junior years combined. And, if you recall senioritis, that is not because senior year involves some massive education gain. If you had to choose between receiving a diploma without having attended a minute of class or attending four years of class while missing a diploma, the choice is obvious. And many of us came much closer to the first in real life.

So what’s the implication? Caplan suggests that “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.’” His controversial preference is for a separation of school and state – for markets to effectively decide the proper role for education. Though it takes some math you might have forgotten from school, Caplan argues that more and more people going to college actually impoverishes society at large (do we really need to subsidize college-educated waiters?). 

More modestly, Caplan suggests that the curricula at state schools from kindergarten through graduate school needs to be reorganized to get an actual return and government loans should not be available for a host of majors. In high schools, Caplan says we need a lot more vocational training: “Most education experts remain leery of vocational ed. Chief objection: it’s shortsighted. The vocational track teaches students specific skills they need for their first job. The academic track teaches students general skills they need for every job. The wise approach is to set everyone on the academic track. Let kids max out their general skills before targeting any particular vocation. This objection is confused. While literacy and numeracy are genuinely general skills, most academic classes amount to vocational training for ultrarare vocations. Think about classic college prep in literature, history, social science, and foreign language.” The vast majority of students will not wind up authors, historians, academics, linguists — or even mathematicians or scientists.

But what about that which is actually within your control: the education of yourself or your kids? Caplan actually has an extensive section about what your expected payoff might be as an individual based on your early school performance – if you are a good student, college is going to be a very good financial bet, especially if you study STEM, even if you don’t use any of it. But if you are a struggling student, college is far more questionable. 

Caplan himself went to Berkeley and got a PhD at Princeton. I took five years of Latin, studied history at Stanford, and went onto Vanderbilt law school — all to develop real estate and write book reviews. I think his self-label is correct: he reports as a whistleblower — someone who has thrived in the education system but is prepared to tell all its flaws. He does not succumb to the bias to just say nice things like “all education is good all the time.” But even if you do go through the faulty American way, don’t forget the immortal words of Mark Twain: never let schooling get in the way of your education.

Case Against Education

Figure 8. Click here to buy the Case against Education. 8/10. Very provocative arguments but gets bogged down by math in the middle. Feel free to skip ahead. 

Thanks for reading!  If you enjoyed this review, please sign up for my email in the box below and forward it to a friend: Know anyone with kids in school? How about anyone who cares about education?

I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you on board!

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