Are we wasting time on schooling that won't prepare us for jobs?

Wan Lixin
The labor market doesn't pay you for the useless subjects you master; it pays you for the preexisting traits you reveal by mastering them.
Wan Lixin

WHEN I took up Bryan Caplan’s “The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money,” I thought about the usual case we made for education.

It can allegedly broaden your horizons, enrich your lives, imparting to you valuable knowledge that helps you make a livelihood. We Chinese used to place such a premium on education that success in national examination was once compared to the joys of consummation of marriage on the wedding night.

There was a time when education is about inculcation of values, as set out at the beginning of the first of Confucian canon, “The Great Learning”: “What the Great Learning teaches is to illustrate illustrious virtue, to renovate the people, and to rest in the highest excellence.”

Or is it simply about investing in a good education that leads to a good job?

According to Caplan, the financial case for education is plausible: High school graduates earn more than dropouts, college grads earn more than high school grads, and holders of advanced degrees do better still. “Students with straight As from top schools write their own tickets. A single F in a required course prevents graduation — closing the door to most well-paid jobs,” Caplan observes.

Better educated workers also enjoy higher noncash benefits, better quality of life, and lower unemployment. All signs suggest schooling pays in the labor market. But Caplan debunks the myth about the education-as-skills story — better known to social scientists as “human capital theory.”

Many wonder “What do trigonometry, physical science, or chemistry have to do with real life?” The more persuasive answer is: “Without proper credentials, you would never have gotten off the ground in the first place.” Literacy and numeracy are crucial in modern life, but we have good reasons to be skeptical about many other subjects. The practical function of schooling have been markedly overstated.

“Permanent residents of the Ivory Tower often congratulate themselves for broadening students’ horizons. For the most part, however, ‘broaden’ means ‘expose students to yet another subject they’ll never use in real life’,” the author observes cynically.

As Lester Thurow observes in his “Education and Economic Equality,” “Most actual job skills are acquired informally through on-the-job training after a worker finds an entry job and a position on the associated promotional ladder.”

The way our education system transforms students into paid workers seems like magic, and there is an explanation: Despite the chasm between school curriculum and job requirements, academic success is a strong signal of worker productivity. “The labor market doesn’t pay you for the useless subjects you master; it pays you for the preexisting traits you reveal by mastering them.” In other words, “You won’t use Shakespeare on the job, but without the right credentials, the job you crave will forever elude you,” Caplan points out in the book.


Thus although most of the school knowledge is not used in the workplace, this “signaling” predicts qualities of a good employer by certifying their intelligence, work ethic, and social conformity.

This signaling is so important that “many employers won’t deign to read your application unless you possess the right educational credentials — even when it’s common knowledge your book learning won’t come up on the job,” the book claims. Then why include so many subjects that do not seem to be useful? The ability as signaled by education depends on “socialization” as well as on intelligence. Or maybe as Peter Wiles observed, “What employers need is intelligent conformism, or great independence and originality within a narrow range.” Education can take so many years because traits like conscientiousness and conformity are easy to fake. Signaling is a war of attrition, and giving up early is surrender, Caplan observes.

Credentials will help secure your first good job, and once you are in the door, as long as your employer’s business is not in jeopardy, he/she will likely retain moderately subpar employees indefinitely.

This fact has important ramifications. Now schooling boils down to choosing the best schools that would admit you so you get a good job after graduation, and choose the easiest professors on campus so you have a good time before graduation. On this regard there is virtually little difference between elite schools and professional training establishments.

Caplan find phenomenon unique. “In construction, contractors don’t jump for joy if their roofers skip shingling to go gambling. In school, however, students jump for joy if their teachers cancel class to attend a conference in Vegas.”

According to Arnold Kling in his “College Customers vs Suppliers”, “Higher education is the only product where the consumer tries to get as little out of it as possible.”

But if you single-mindedly focus on graduates’ paychecks, education pays.


Caplan’s father, a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, once denied that “soft” majors pay, saying that there were only two education/career tracks: “Some students study engineering to become engineers; the rest study liberal arts to become taxi drivers.” The author explains that “Many workers have more education than they actually use. Laymen call them ‘overqualified’ — their education is too good for their jobs. Researchers often call them ‘malemployed’ — their jobs aren’t good enough for their education. Yet the two ideas are the same: If your waiter has a Ph.D. in astronomy, something somewhere has gone terribly awry.”

Every government supports education. The ideal of “free and compulsory eduction” is widespread. There is no government on earth which clamors for educational austerity. But according to the author, austerity is probably one solution. Caplan proposes two remedies. One is educational austerity: cutting fat from the curriculum, and cutting subsidies for tuition. The other is more vocational education, because practical skills are more socially valuable than teaching students how to outshine their peers. This will lead to credential deflation on this logic: the less education applicants have, the less applicants need to convince employers they’re worth hiring.

We do not know if such solutions would be embraced, but I think it good to revisit the origins of schools. College graduates often proudly name-drop their alma mater, but in Latin “alma mater” means “nourishing mother.” A nourishing mother doesn’t merely teach you practical skills, but nurtures your whole person, teaches you right from wrong, and shows you the magic of life.

Here Caplan significantly cites from Confucius in suggesting the degradation of education: “In ancient times, men learned with a view to their own improvement. Now-a-days men learn with a view to the approbation of others.”

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