The Case Against Education

Previously: Something Was Wrong, Book Review: The Elephant in the Brain

Previously (Compass Rose): The Order of the Soul

Epistemic Status: No, seriously. Also literally.

They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom

for trying to change the system from within

I’m coming now I’m coming to reward them

First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

— Leonard Cohen, First We Take Manhattan

This was originally going to be my review of Bryan Caplan’s excellent new book, The Case Against Education. I was going to go over lots of interesting points where our ways of thinking differ. Instead, the introduction got a little sidetracked, so that worthy post will have to wait a bit.

First, we have the case against education.

As in: I See No Education Here.


What is school?

Eliezer Yudkowsky knows, but is soft peddling (from Inadequate Equilibria):

To paraphrase a commenter on Slate Star Codex: suppose that there’s a magical tower that only people with IQs of at least 100 and some amount of conscientiousness can enter, and this magical tower slices four years off your lifespan. The natural next thing that happens is that employers start to prefer prospective employees who have proved they can enter the tower, and employers offer these employees higher salaries, or even make entering the tower a condition of being employed at all.5

Anyway: the natural next thing that happens is that employers start to demand that prospective employees show a certificate saying that they’ve been inside the tower. This makes everyone want to go to the tower, which enables somebody to set up a fence around the tower and charge hundreds of thousands of dollars to let people in.6

Rick (of Rick and Morty) knows:



Nassim Talib knows (quote is from Skin in the Game):

The curse of modernity is that we are increasingly populated by a class of people who are better at explaining than understanding, or better at explaining than doing. So learning isn’t quite what we teach inmates inside the high-security prisons called schools.

Talib considers this fact – that school is a prison – so obvious he tosses it out as an off-hand remark with no explanation. He’s right. If you’re looking at a classroom, you too know. Something Was Wrong. This isn’t a playground designed to teach useful knowledge and inspire creativity. It is a prison where we learn to guess the teacher’s password and destroy creativity.

Robin Hanson knows: School is to submit. Signal submission. Submit to a life of signaling, obeying, being conscientious and conformist.

This cancer has taken our childhoods entirely. Often the rest of our lives as well. It  replaces our hopes and dreams with hopes of survival via official approval and dreams of showing up naked to algebra class. Enough school so cripples your life, between losing time and being saddled with debt, that it severely damages your ability to have children. To get our children into slightly less dystopian prisons, we bid up adjacent housing and hire coaches and tutors to fill our kids’ every hour with the explicit aim of better test and admission results rather than knowledge. Then college shows up and takes everything we have left and more, with a 100% marginal tax rate.

School takes more than all of our money.

In exchange we learn little that we retain. Little of that is useful. Most of the useful stuff – writing, reading, basic math – we would have learned anyway.

In grade school I would often fake illness to get a day of solitary confinement in my room, where I could read books and listen to public radio. Also known as getting an education. I learned far more on those days.

In high school, I went to the hardest-to-get-into school in New York City. I had a great ‘zero’ period when I would do math competitions because I enjoyed them, and a great after school because I’d run off and play games. In between was torture. Literal clock watching. I spent history class correcting the teachers. I tried to take advanced placement classes, and they wouldn’t let me because my grades at boring classes weren’t high enough. So I learned I could take the AP tests anyway, which I did.

I actually entitled my big English class project “get me out of here” and no one batted an eye. 

For college, I majored in mathematics (STEM!) at a well-respected institution. I work with numbers constantly. I have never, not once, used any of that math  for any purpose.

I was intentionally taught to write badly and read badly. I learned non-awful writing by writing online. “Appreciation” classes turned me off music, art and literature. If you compared what I got out of one statistics course (in which I mostly learned from studying a textbook) to what I learned from the rest of my college classes combinedand asked which has proven more valuable, I’m not sure which side wins.

I took one graduate math class, in analysis. The remember three things. One is that they asked us to note on our final exams if we were undergraduates, so they could pass us. The other is that the class consisted, entirely and literally, of a man with a thick, semi-understandable Russian accent copying his notes onto the board, while saying the thing he was copying onto the board.

The third thing is that it was the most valuable class I ever took, because it saved me from graduate school. Thanks, professor!


Is our children learning?

Bryan has the data. Ignore Bryan’s data for now. Read and actually pay attention to Scott Alexander’s recent two posts on the DC public school system.

Instead of asking Scott’s question – why are DC’s graduation rates so low? – ask the question what the hell are these things called ‘high schools’ and what are we doing to the children we put inside them?

I know what we’re not doing. Teaching them to read, write or do arithmetic. That’s clear.

Instead? Fraud. We pretend to teach, they pretend to learn. Or rather, we tried that, and they couldn’t even pretend to learn, so we resorted to massive fraud and plain old not even testing the kids at all. We pretend to teach, and we pretend they pretended to learn.

We can’t even do massive fraud and really low standards right. Massive quantities of students fail anyway, barred from earning a living. Nice system.

Pretending the kids pretended to learn doesn’t work. Why? School isn’t about learning. It’s a prison. The ‘test’ is to be in your appointed cell at the appointed time, every time. Because it’s a prison. We don’t care if the kids can read, write or add. We care if they get credit for time served.

Bizzolt writes:

DC Public Schools HS teacher here (although I’m not returning next year, as is the case with many of my colleagues). As noted, one of the biggest factors in the graduation rates is the unexcused absences–if you look at the results of our external audit and investigation here, you see that for many schools, a significant number of our seniors “Passed Despite Excessive Absences in Regular Instruction Courses Required for Graduation”–over 40% of 2017 graduates at my high school, for example.

So the attendance policy is being strictly enforced now, and you can see how from that alone, a ~30% drop in expected graduates is possible. Some more details about strictly enforcing the attendance policy though:

1: DCPS has what’s called the ’80 20′ rule: A student that is absent for at least 20% of their classes is considered absent for the whole day.
2: Most schools have 5 periods, so an absence in one class would be considered an absence for the whole day.
3: If you have 10 or more unexcused absences in a class, you automatically get an F for the term.
4: If you are over 15 minutes late for a class, that is considered an unexcused absence.
5: A majority of these absences are in first period.
6: A majority of students in my school and many others live in single parent households.
7: These students are typically responsible for making sure their younger siblings get to school, if they have any.
8: Elementary and middle schools in my neighborhood start at the exact same time as high school.
9: Their doors do not open until 5 to 10 minutes before the starting bell, presumably for safety reasons.
10: Refer to point 4.

There’s many other problems at DCPS to be sure, but this set of circumstances alone is causing the largest increase in failing grades and graduation ineligibility at my high school, and basically every other 90+% black school in the district. You could see how this accounts for quite a bit of the difference between white and black graduation rates as well. There’s a reason why across the board, DCPS schools were not strictly enforcing this policy in previous years.

Fifteen minutes late to unnaturally early class so you could take a sibling to their unnaturally early class? You missed the whole day. Do that ten times in a term? We ruin your life. For want of two and a half hours.

I have no idea how one can see this, and present a human capital model of school with a straight face.

The signaling model is optimistic. It thinks students signal to employers, rather than politicians and administrators signaling to and stealing from voters.


Bryan Caplan’s economist hat is permanently glued to his forehead. So he sees school not as a genocidal dystopian soul-crushing nightmare of universal incarceration, but merely a colossal waste of time and money. He looks at the economic costs and benefits,  compares signaling explanations to human capital ones, and calculates when and for whom school is worthwhile. Worthwhile for which individuals, for their private benefit? Worthwhile to what extent for society, as a public good?

Reading The Case Against Education is to watch Bryan think. Bryan goes argument by argument, consideration by consideration, to consider the true costs and benefits of formal education.

At each step, you see the questions he asks, the way he sets up the problems, examines data, considers hypothesis and reaches conclusions. He acts like someone trying to discover how things work, sorting through what he knows and considering what the world would look like if it worked in different ways. You get a book about education, but you also get an education, where it counts – the question of how to think.

Bryan lives the virtue of local validity. This is super important; when Eliezer Yudkowsky calls it the key to sanity and civilization, he’s not kidding.

Because we get to watch Bryan think, we get tons of places where he and I think very differently. Many of them are worth examining in detail. There’s a lot of data that’s difficult to interpret, and questions without clear answers. Often Bryan is extremely generous to education’s case, and shows even generous assumptions are insufficient. Other times, Bryan’s logic leads him to be overly harsh. I got the distinct sense that Bryan would have been very happy to have been proven wrong. We get a consideration of education, its pros and its cons, as Bryan sees them – an explorer, rather than an advocate.

Overall, what does Bryan find? Time and again, Bryan finds that the signaling model of education fits the facts, and the human capital argument does not fit the facts. His arguments are convincing.

Bryan concludes that if you take what you’ve read and experienced and shut up and multiply, no matter how generous you are to school’s cause, you will find that social returns to schooling are remarkably terrible.

That’s most of the human capital you get from school anyway: Reading, writing, basic math and shutting up. You get selfish returns to school by signaling conformity, conscientiousness and intelligence. To not follow the standard procedure for signaling conformity and conscientiousness is to signal their opposites, so we’re caught in an increasingly expensive signaling trap we can’t escape.

Bryan then bites quite the bullet:

Most critics of our education system complain we aren’t spending our money in the right way, or that preachers in teachers’ clothing are leading our nation’s children down dark paths. While I semi-sympathize, these critics miss what I see as our educational system’s supreme defect: there’s way too much education.

He means there’s way too much formal education. I don’t think Bryan thinks people spend too little time learning about the world or acquiring skills! He thinks they do so via other, far superior paths, where they remember what they learn and what they learn is valuable.

People don’t know things. People need skills. It’s a problem. School doesn’t solve the problem, it exacerbates it.

Bryan’s proposed remedy is the separation of school and state. At times he flirts with going farther, and taxing school, but recoils. We don’t really want to discourage school the way we discourage, say, income. Do we?

Follow-ups: The Case Against Education: FoundationsThe Case Against Education: Splitting the Education Premium Pie and Considering IQ

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41 Responses to The Case Against Education

  1. romeostevens says:

    The problem with actually Looking is that you’ll see things you’re not supposed to talk about. Which induces an emotional cost. At least until you Look at your emotional responses deeply enough to improve them.

    • TheZvi says:

      Or you could just, you know, talk about them anyway.

      People instinctively think there’s a conspiracy amongst all the people in power, and also all the others, to suppress such knowledge and that they’ll strike you down if you talk.

      And there is such a conspiracy.

      But it is only looking for very particular things. When you actually just come out and say what’s going on, as long as you avoid the Things That Get You Lynched This Year, you’ll keep waiting for the anvil that never falls.

      Part of the story of this blog is slowly discovering how and where one can just say more and more things outright, and actual nothing bad happens to you.

  2. michealvassar says:

    I endorse everything you just said, even if I enjoyed school more than you did.

    My main responses to this post though are to ask ‘whatvis the nature of the economist hat’ and ‘in what other places has our civilization stopped pretending but only pretending to pretend.

    • TheZvi says:

      The economist hat will become clear in the later posts, but it’s things like revealed preferences and putting prices on everything and seeing how various actions change employment and earnings and so on. Things aren’t sacred, give ’em numbers and see whether they’re worth it. More to it than that, but easier to show via example. I have the hat and you’ve seen me use it, if that helps. It’s a Nice Hat.

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  4. Michael Vassar says:

    It may be worth considering general injustice as part of the fairly explicit curriculum. I just observed that the phrase ‘it takes two to tango’, in the only form I ever encountered it while growing up, is self-evidently nonsense, and in fact, that nobody has ever thought that unilateral aggression was impossible, yet precisely that claim was the dogma and standard refrain of authority figures during grade-school.

  5. James Cropcho says:

    I got bitten in the ass by high school in perhaps very similar ways to Michael Vassar, via the Axiom of Takes Two to Tango (ha).

    For example, Carnegie Mellon was on fence about accepting me for undergrad engineering. So, CMU called my high school to ask about my discipline record, and rejected me because they learned I “got into a fight” once. “Zero-tolerance” policies penalize the bully-able who cannot escape to magnate schools or an all-AP course-load.

    It’s a subtler, signaling-adjacent effect (the inability for one to signal), similar to DC’s attendance criteria. The criteria, according to my interpretation of the cited SSC comment, seem to put a low ceiling on how effectively a student _could_ signal compliance, conforming and all those “good” (i.e. anti-knowledge, soul-crushing) traits, would he choose.

    Great post by the way, Zvi! May you get a lot done during this period of your head being down.

    • TheZvi says:

      Thank you. I hope it works out, too early to tell.

      I didn’t put the “I got expelled from a school for being the victim of bullying” story in the essay, because I was keeping it short and it seemed like piling on.

      But yeah. That happened.

      It is definitely an explicit lesson of the school system that if you become a target of those who by law you are forced to be in proximity with, it is your fault. No number of anti-bullying campaigns or warnings about harassment (of whatever kind) is going to fix that.

  6. Quixote says:

    To be the Voice of Contrary Opinion (even if I do find much of what you are saying to be reasonable), I think you are underrating both the value of the explicit content that was taught, and the implicit content.

    Explicit side: I went to the same high school you did and took pretty much only advanced classes and AP classes (other than requirements like gym or drafting for which there were no advanced classes) and found the instruction to be generally excellent (with some exceptions of course). Material was interesting, teachers were clear for the technical subjects and interesting for the discussion subjects doing a good job at managing to get the smart students to say insightful things.

    Implicit side: you mention not being able to take AP classes because your grades were too low. Getting good grades, or at least ‘good enough’ grades, was not hard. For someone of your intelligence, trying at all would have been sufficient. The lesson, “you need to actually try”, is perhaps one of the most important life lessons out there. School also teaches people how to “read an audience”. In each class, you effectively have one client, and your job is to figure out what the client actually wants and then deliver a high quality product that meets the clients needs in a timely fashion. Again, this is a highly important and generally applicable lesson.

    And, at the risk of being “too soon,” if you had been paying attention to the lesson there were trying to teach you in school, you could have learned it there instead of here: and the lesson would be been in time to do things differently and to spare a large number of people a great deal of costs both personal and financial.

    • TheZvi says:

      (I realize this came out harsh, so I want to be clear I’m grateful for the opposite perspective and not at all upset with you for bringing it.)

      What of the explicit content of high school did I use later, other than as content of other classes? Let’s see. Calculus has its uses in perspective but I had that coming in, the stuff after that never got used except for more schooling. History I learned nothing. English I learned nothing. Science I learned nothing practically useful. Gym, drafting, shop and so on were useless. Honestly, yeah, the explicit content was useless. I’ll give you computer science given you were allowed to learn it (how lucky) but what else? Come at me.

      I also disagree about the implicit side. Most places you’d be right, but at Stuyvesant, getting a high enough average to break into whatever you want (e.g. 95+) was actually hard. It meant actively trying to grub for grades and spend lots of time on otherwise useless things, not merely don’t be a jerk and study once in a while, and basically NEVER screw up a class. Intelligence isn’t what they’re testing, shall we say. Maybe once you get the ball rolling and only have good stuff, and avoid whammies, it builds on itself. I don’t know. Would it have been worth it? My guess is still no, although if you’d actually get Geller-quality everything that way, presumably. Also, screw those guys.

      Also, the implicit side is not saying ‘actually try’ and ‘know the audience’. It’s saying ‘actually learning or doing productive things, or being accurate, is not important. What is important is submitting to every detail requested by an arbitrary authority figure, who is doing this merely to test your submission.’ Or something like that. “Deliver to the client?” The idea that whoever is holding the leash, or the paycheck, should just get you to do whatever they want regardless of what’s actually good, true or right is not a lesson I want people to learn. Quite the opposite.

      I mean, you *seem* to be chewing me out for not spending four years of my life guessing passwords. To which I basically say this:

      And also, I had a legit learning disorder in foreign language that nuked my average permanently if I was aiming that high, and there’s really nothing (or at least noting non-heroic) I could have done about it. Get one pair of 75s and you are DONE.

      Yes, the person who learned those lessons wouldn’t have made many of MetaMed’s mistakes. But they also wouldn’t have founded MetaMed. It wouldn’t have occurred to them that being able to think and do better by thinking was a thing, and possible, that real things were a worthy goal. Had they tried, they certainly wouldn’t have been able to recruit and motivate the necessary talent, or would have in fact created a fake fraud of a company. That person doesn’t write the blog post – they’re living the lesson, perhaps, but they don’t actually know it.

      I mean, I get that it was a 99th percentile high school if you maintained a good GPA, and you could have a relatively good experience. The idea is not that it was really bad, rather that *even the best* is still pretty terrible.

      I’d much rather learn such lessons by going out to the world and doing thing, even if thing fails – it’s no worse to strive and fail at something worthwhile than to strive and succeed at something useless, and it’s a much better teacher. I learned WAY, WAY more per hour trying to do MetaMed than anyone has ever learned in high school. And given what we pay to run schools, it wasn’t even that expensive. The world in which people go to school instead of being entrepreneurs, and learn that way to conform and please arbitrary customers? That seems pretty damn dystopian to me.

      • Quixote says:

        Rereading my comments the next day, they come across pointed than I really intended them to be. The medium of comments encourages getting to the point in the most “punchy” way possible, but that’s not always the best way to communicate. In person, I would have been kinder in my phrasing, so I apologize for not managing to maintain that in an online medium. // note this was written after rereading my own post, I haven’t yet read the reply.

      • Quixote says:

        “I’ll give you computer science given you were allowed to learn it (how lucky) but what else? Come at me.”
        On the explicit side, I think calculus really is extremely valuable; so valuable that it kind of vanishes from your awareness as a thing you think you know and turns into one of those background cognitive tools. It greatly clarifies thinking about changes, about marginal effects, about growth, about relationships among phenomena, etc. If you have the experience of interacting with people with high native intelligence but who through life circumstances never learned calculus, their thinking about certain areas and certain kinds of problems will be consistently confused or fuzzy.
        From the same vein as calculus, economics both micro and macro give a strong toolset for thinking about a wide scope of problems in a systematic way. Despite its immense power, thinking about most issues by asking explicitly, “what are the incentives here and how will people respond to them” doesn’t actually come naturally to people.
        This next one is a bit more of a stretch, but having a decent science background makes the whole world more intelligible.
        For history, I can’t make a real claim that you personally benefit from studying history (beyond curiosity), but I would not be surprised if you benefit form living in a world where everyone else studies history. The case for history, if it holds together, would run something like this:
        -People with more knowledge about history are less likely to vote for / do stupid things
        -When less people vote for stupid things, better outcomes happen
        -Everyone Profits
        In which case, Sociopath Bob wants to spend history class studying additional comp sci while everyone else studies history, but if everyone acts that way then people start World War III and we all die including Bob. So studying history is your contribution to making sure everyone else studies history. I give this case last because it’s a speculative case while I actually feel confident about the above few.

        “Yes, the person who learned those lessons wouldn’t have made many of MetaMed’s mistakes. But they also wouldn’t have founded MetaMed. It wouldn’t have occurred to them that being able to think and do better by thinking was a thing, and possible, that real things were a worthy goal.”
        You say that, but do you really know it? I’m a Stuy grad and I know a bunch of Stuy grads, and while most of the folks I know who made an effort to get good grades went on to become doctors, lawyers, bankers, and the like, a decent number founded startups. Is the startup founder percentage meaningfully different than those who didn’t take that path? If its different, is it higher or lower? I don’t know. I don’t have the data to know. But I suspect you don’t have the data either. You seem to be speaking with a deep sense of knowledge and confidence, but I don’t know if you can actually “know” the things you think you know.
        I had a third bit thought out that was mostly Stuy inside baseball, and decided it was not actually broadly relevant enough to write it and take up space.
        Broadly, I think a lot of the commenters in rational sphere seem to be converging on this anti school consensus without, what seems to me, adequate justification beyond personal feeling. This post intrigues me into digging in on the issue a bit more, and if I can find the book in the library I’ll give it a skim. But, and this relates to the point I made above, I think a lot of people seem to be making statements with more confidence than we can actually have here.
        Are there many wealthy developed nations without school? Can we compare among them? I wouldn’t be surprised if some have a year or two more or less and that probably conveys some information, but we can’t actually extrapolate from data showing that going from 14 years to 12 years doesn’t cost productivity to show that going from 12 to 0 doesn’t cost productivity because we don’t know the shape of the function or how marginal effects change at different points or if there are any threshold effects in there anywhere.

    • michealvassar says:

      I don’t think that kindness will help here. The question is really one of whether you are in favor of generalized oppression, deception and war. If you are, because that seems easier to you, but you’re also kind, that probably counts for something but it definitely doesn’t make you not an enemy combatant.

    • TheZvi says:

      So on point one, Bryan would argue against you strongly and does. I sympathize on much of it, if I had learned any of that. But I didn’t learn any history. I already had calculus. The economics elective I took was… pathetic and thin. At Columbia I took real econ which was one cheat sheet of value across four courses, but a solid sheet. Number two in value behind that stat course? Likely. Bryan argues both against the value of those things, and (more convincingly) that no one learns them anyway.

      On 4, I echo Bryan in saying, we spent a decade plus on school. This isn’t just vague intuition. We have lots of direct experience. I believe in that. And I think it’s fine to worry about doing nothing and what would happen. I agree that might be quite bad for the common man.

      On 2, we are talking about very smart cohort, who work hard and play by the rules and submit. They did well in life. Doctors, lawyers, oh my, what a senseless waste of human life. And yes, some managed to learn ‘this here I have to be slave’ and then realized later they were free. I get that. But if your response to my saying their souls suffered for it is to say prove it, happy to admit I don’t have an RCT for that.

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  8. waltonmath says:

    I think you want “soft-pedaling”. The soft-pedal is the leftmost pedal on the piano. Holding it down gives the sound a muted quality. Also Taleb.

    Thanks for writing these posts. Looking forward to more.

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  12. Could you write succinctly, please?

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  18. TM says:

    I really liked this post of yours.
    This is one you might like to read as well:
    It’s kind of a different perpective, it has more comparisions to prision, and focus more on High School experience.

    • TheZvi says:

      Yep. A classic. Always weird to see him have such strong insights and then not follow through when it counts. Insights still appreciated, though!

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  21. Lev Myshkin says:

    Apply the Pareto Principle. 80% of educational outputs derive from 20% of the inputs. Identify those. The rest is expensive child care. This will cut time wasted and useless personnel.

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