February 16, 2021

21 Top Highlights from “The Case Against Education”

Sam Caucci

Have you ever wondered why decades of growing access to education hasn’t resulted in better jobs for most workers? Or why more people are going to college than ever before in history, yet nearly half of all recent graduates are underemployed and most millennials are worse off than their parents were? In the groundbreaking book The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money, Bryan Caplan, Professor of Economics at George Mason University and New York Times bestselling author, argues that education is grossly overrated. As a professor who’s deeply ingrained in the higher education system, Caplan has seen and studied the failings of the system firsthand. Caplan holds a B.A. in economics from UC, Berkeley and a Ph.D. in economics from Princeton University, and throughout his time in academia, Caplan has found that the primary function of education is not to enhance students’ skills, but rather to signal the qualities of a good employee. In his book, Caplan asks us to seriously evaluate questions like: Did you ever spend all night cramming for an exam, only to forget most of what you learned by the very next day? Did you walk into your first job assuming you were prepared, only to find that you rarely ever used your schooling once you entered the workforce? Ultimately, Caplan argues that most education exists only as a signal — meaning employers reward graduates for having degrees they rarely use or need. So if you want to find out why the education system just might be a waste of your time and money, then check out my top 21 highlights from The Case Against Education:
My top three highlights: 
    1. Most of what schools teach has no value in the labor market. Students fail to learn most of what they are taught, and adults forget most of what they learn.
    2. We should seek out a better balance between school and play, which has plummeted over the last generation: 70% of adults today said they played outside everyday when they were kids, while only 31% of children today do the same. This is detrimental for kids’ learning and development.
    3. The amount of education you need to get a job has risen more than the amount of education you need to do a job. Signaling is the only theory that explains the totality of these otherwise baffling facts. In our society, education is a signal of approval rather than an actual indicator of skill.
All of my highlights:
    • A lifetime of experience plus a quarter century of reading and reflection convinced me that our education system is a big waste of time and money.
    • When this book criticizes human capital stories, it does not reject the view that schools built some human capital. It rejects human capital purism, which is the view that:
        • Virtually all education teaches useful job skills
        • These job skills are the sole reason why education pays off in the labor market
    • If schools really want to teach their students useful job skills, why do they entrust students’ education to people who are detached from the real world and labor market?
    • If schools teach few job skills, then transfer of learning is mostly wishful thinking and the effect of education on intelligence is largely hollow.
    • How do human beings get good at their jobs? Through practice. People learn by doing specific things over and over. To get better at piloting, you fly planes. To get better at obstetrics, you deliver babies. To get better at carpentry, you build houses. You don’t just keep accumulating education that’s detached from the practice itself.
    • Going to school to certify skill can be as lucrative as going to school to enhance skill.
    • In America today, every year of education raises lifetime earnings by 5-10%. When countries get wealthier, they consume more schooling.
    • Labor economists’ root problem is that they fall in love with education years before they have studied the evidence.
    • Today’s internet has the ability to educate people more effectively than traditional schools for a fraction of the cost. Online competition has already crushed traditional record companies, newspapers and retailers, and brick and mortar schools are next in line.
    • Unfortunately, students today aren’t hungry for human capital — they are hungry for signals. Why? Because the labor market mainly pays for credentials required, not skills learned.
    • Vocational education stands out because it prepares students for common jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. has roughly 9,000 carpenters, 700,000 auto mechanics and 400,000 plumbers. Classic college prep classes like literature, foreign language, and history fall short because they prepare students for rare jobs. The U.S. employs only 129,000 writers, 64,000 translators, and 3,800 historians.
    • “The U.S. Department of Labor only allows unpaid internships if the employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern.”
    • Students who dropout of school go to work curb ‘credential inflation’ by opening doors for peers who stay in school because “you can’t get a good job without a diploma”.
    • Ultimately, the debate is between two kinds of vocational education:
        • Traditionalists want to train everyone for long-shot prestigious careers like authors, historians, political scientists, translators, physicists, and mathematicians.
        • Vocationalists want to train students for careers they are likely to enter.
    • As civilizations advance, young people spend more years sequestered from paid employment and more years in education systems.
    • Students should be taught more skills that utilize free play and movement like dancing or gymnastics. Psychologist Peter Gray is a strong proponent of free play who believes that “kids have more fun and learn vital lessons when adults give them their space by saying: The whole point of an informal game is to have fun and stretch your own skills, sometimes in new and creative ways that would be disallowed or jeered at in a formal game.”
    • Students forget most of what they learn after the final exam because they will never need to know it in real life.
    • My 21st highlight is…
If you want to know my 21st highlight from The Case Against Education, you have to earn it. If you can answer this question from our game Becoming, then I’ll reveal my final highlight Correctly fill in this Michelle Obama quote from her book Becoming: “For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The ________ doesn’t end.”
    1. Story
    2. Journey
    3. Learning
    4. Process
Think you know the answer? The first 10 people to email the correct answer to dana@1huddle.co will unlock my 21st highlight and get a special early access code to play the Becoming game, which has just been added to the 1Huddle Game Shop. Email Dana for a chance to win!

Sam Caucci, Founder & CEO at 1Huddle

See Our Policy Plan

Check out our plan that outlines a position that we at 1Huddle fight for everyday; for every worker. 


RAISE Every Worker