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Today’s college education is ‘a toenail-fungus cream that doesn’t work’

George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan has a new book called The Case Against Education, which he previewed in a magazine essay last fall that argued a college education “is a big waste of time and money.”

He’s going to talk about the book at the Cato Institute tomorrow (watch it here), but first he’s spitballing some amusing metaphors so that his argument – unlike most of what you hear in a classroom – sticks in your mind.

In a mildly combative interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, Caplan answers those who think higher education as it exists in 2018 can be “reform[ed]”:

You have a friend who is using a toenail-fungus cream that doesn’t work, and you tell him to stop using it. He says, “I’m going to keep doing this until you find a cure that works.” Well, it’s really hard to find that cure. So why don’t we look around for something that works, and maybe we’ll find it and maybe we won’t, but at least we won’t be wasting all this money in the meantime? That’s really the way I see education reform.

Even “gold standard” research on which pedagogical techniques work best is ignored in favor of popular but inefficient techniques, such as “highlighting,” Caplan says: “It’s a dysfunctional system where people don’t seem to be interested in improving it.”

Americans are stuck in a mindset that it’s worth slogging through subjects you hate because you might find out you love them, largely because of selection bias, the economist argues:

Most kids are philistines — they are that way deep in their souls. In the book, I quote Steven Pinker, the psychologist at Harvard, who regularly wins awards for his teaching. Yet he looks at his classroom a couple of weeks into the semester and sees that half the students aren’t there. … The only thing you can say is that even the best teacher in the world is boring to these kids …

People who don’t like school rarely write essays about how terrible it was. Instead they just suffer in silence or complain to their friends, and then they go and get a practical job and we never hear their voices again. The whole conversation about education is really driven by people who did enjoy school and who work with students.

Caplan’s answer, like that of many other serious education thinkers across the ideological spectrum, is exposing children even before high school to “a large number of occupations and see what actually interests them and what they have a talent for,” while still teaching them basics like reading, writing and math.

The government should not be subsidizing “majors that are primarily for personal enrichment or hobbies,” he said, pointing out how arbitrary some distinctions are:

Why is it that comic books don’t get government support but poetry does? In terms of artistic merits, I think there’s a lot more going on today in comics than in poetry. But poetry is high status.

Read the interview.

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