I have a problem in thinking about education, since my preferences and personal educational experience are atypical, so I can’t just gut it out. On the other hand, knowing that puts me ahead of a lot of people that seem convinced that all real people, including all Arab cabdrivers, think and feel just as they do.
One important fact, relevant to this review. I don’t like Caplan. I think he doesn’t understand – can’t understand – human nature, and although that sometimes confers a different and interesting perspective, it’s not a royal road to truth. Nor would I want to share a foxhole with him: I don’t trust him. So if I say that I agree with some parts of this book, you should believe me.
Bryan Caplan’s view is that most people don’t like school – find it boring and rapidly forget most of what they do learn. Largely true, I think. I don’t much care about how boring school is – if lots of useful information were retained, it would be well worth it. But that doesn’t appear to be the case: surveys generally indicate that adults don’t remember much of what they studied in school, and in general don’t know much. Caplan says ” Basic literacy and numeracy are virtually the only book learning most American adults possess. While the average American spends years and years studying other subjects, they recall next to nothing about them.” Only about half of the general public knows that the Earth orbits the Sun, while few Harvard graduates know the cause of winter and summer. Probably this is true of Caplan as well: I see no reason to believe that he understands how to extract the cube root of eighty-seven, or why Van Buren failed of re-election. He says that he doesn’t remember anything from his Spanish classes, and I believe him.
Caplan doesn’t talk about possible ways of improving knowledge acquisition and retention. Maybe he thinks that’s impossible, and he may be right, at least within a conventional universe of possibilities. That’s a bit outside of his thesis, anyhow. Me it interests.
He dismisses objections from educational psychologists who claim that studying a subject improves you in subtle ways even after you forget all of it. I too find that hard to believe. On the other hand, it looks to me as if poorly-digested fragments of information picked up in college have some effect on public policy later in life: it is no coincidence that most prominent people in public life (at a given moment) share a lot of the same ideas. People are vaguely remembering the same crap from the same sources, or related sources. It’s correlated crap, which has a much stronger effect than random crap.
These widespread new ideas are usually wrong. They come from somewhere – in part, from higher education. Along this line, Caplan thinks that college has only a weak ideological effect on students. I don’t believe he is correct. In part, this is because most people use a shifting standard: what’s liberal or conservative gets redefined over time. At any given time a population is roughly half left and half right – but the content of those labels changes a lot. There’s a shift.
Today, maybe a quarter of the population would deny that men, on average, have much greater upper body strength than women. That fraction is almost certainly higher in people with a college education. In reality, the difference is very large ( ~90% greater in men, about 3 standard deviations). We’re talking belief in something that flies in the face of reality, a notion obviously falsified every day of the week. Without some sort of powerful inculcation, no-one would believe this.
I think the fraction of the population that believed in butt-kicking babes was lower in 1920: probably less than 1%, with most of those believers suffering from tertiary syphilis. What changed? At the root, most of the change must stem from professor-types. There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them. Many of those absurd ideas now have wide currency.
This is a significant cost of education, one that Bryan Caplan does not discuss. It’s not just what you don’t know, it’s what you know that ain’t so.
More generally, the lasting scraps of education have political effects. They make for better or worse citizens. Not that higher education is the only factor influencing basic political tendencies ( thank God! ) but I think it matters.