Episode #222: The Case Against Education with Bryan Caplan

Bryan Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University.

He is the author of The Myth of the Rational Voter which was named "the best political book of the year" by the New York Times, he wrote Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, and the newly released, The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money, which forms the basis of today’s conversation.

He is currently collaborating with Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal Zach Weinersmith on All Roads Lead to Open Borders, a nonfiction graphic novel on the philosophy and social science of immigration, and writing a new book, Poverty: Who To Blame.

His work has been featured in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, American Economic Review, Economic Journal, Journal of Law and Economics, and Intelligence, and appeared on ABC, Fox News, MSNBC, and C-SPAN.

We went an inch deep and a mile wide in this conversation. Discover why:

  • Bryan, a celebrated career academic himself, thinks that the education system is a waste of time and money
  • How today’s education system teaches for short-term memory retention, not comprehension
  • Two solutions Bryan has proposed to help solve the problems with today’s education system

I didn’t agree with Bryan on a number of topics, namely, he seems to completely disregard the threat of technology and automation on employment, suggesting that there is a lack of evidence on this and using the fact that we’ve always created more jobs than we’ve destroyed in the past to forecast the future of employment. The thing about the past is that we never had technology like the kind we possess today and the kind we’ll possess in the near future.

He also says that people can’t learn how to learn. On the latter point, I suspect that this had more to do with the way I framed the question so as to not elicit the response I was expecting. A simple example of getting better at learning is teaching someone else what you’ve read in a book, rather than just reading the words on a page. This is more likely to aid comprehension and retention, at least in the short term.

Nonetheless, as you’ll hear Bryan suggest in the lightning round, it’s important to collect evidence and opinions from different fields, from different people, to get all sides of the story and challenge your own belief system and avoid confirmation bias. This is one of the reasons why I enjoy hosting this show so much - because I get to interview and speak with experts in their own fields who contradict experts in other fields - it forces me to expand my own view of the world.

And when it comes to learning, Socrates was right, the more we know, the more we know that we don’t know. And that is why we keep learning. And that is why I keep interviewing thought leaders across a range of disciplines.

With that, enjoy today’s conversation on the case against education with Bryan Caplan.

Topics Discussed:

  • Why the education system is a waste of time and money
  • Why College grads earn more than high school grads, on average, in the US
  • Learning skills versus signalling employability
  • The three traits that education signals
  • Whether education and entrepreneurship go hand in hand
  • Social desirability bias
  • Summer learning loss
  • Comprehension v Memory
  • The threat of AI and automation on employment and how this impacts education
  • Education ecosystem challenges
  • Vocational learning
  • Education spending cuts

Show Notes:

  1. Bryan’s website: Bcaplan.com
  2. Bryan on Twitter: @bryan_caplan
  3. Faculty page: https://economics.gmu.edu/people/bcaplan
  4. Bryan on Econlog: http://econlog.econlib.org/authorbcaplan.html  

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March 3, 2018




Steve Glaveski

Future Squared


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