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Review of Bryan Caplan’s “The Case Against Education”

In Academia, Economics, Humanities, Scholarship on July 11, 2018 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here in Cato Journal.

Bryan Caplan is a professor of economics at George Mason University who has spent over 40 years in school. “The system has been good to me,” he confesses. “Very good. I have a dream job for life.”

He’s also a shameless traitor to his profession and guild, a critic of the system that’s afforded him a life of leisure and affluence. That’s a good thing. We need more honest critiques of the higher-education boondoggle from privileged insiders. As an economist, moreover, he argues from data and facts, not feelings or emotions. He’ll undermine his own best interests if statistics lead him inexorably to positions at odds with his personal welfare.

The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money hits bookshelves amid reductions in government spending on universities due to budget shortfalls in the aftermath of the Great Recession. The chorus of complaints runs something like this: “Legislators don’t realize what goes on in the university; they don’t understand what it takes to teach and research; they don’t know what I do to earn my pay; they don’t appreciate how important education is to our state; they can’t competently assess my everyday work.”

But Caplan understands these things, having spent his entire career as a student or a professor at major research institutions. The argument against educational excess is more credible coming from an academic, like him, who’s complicit in its harms.

Caplan’s chosen title (with subtitle) says it all: His target isn’t the acquisition of knowledge (it’s good for people to learn), but the wasteful, exorbitant system that in many cases impedes rather than facilitates the acquisition of knowledge. Five provocative words on the book’s opening page—“there’s way too much education”—are predicated on the proposition that learning and education are distinct, that garnering credentials does not correlate with increased erudition or competence.

It’s no secret that the costs of higher education have been rising steadily for decades. Universities have long been reallocating resources away from basic classroom instruction and towards amenities, administrative payrolls, athletic programs, student services, and construction projects. The ready availability of federal student loan money has enabled colleges to hike tuition and fees, forcing students to shoulder heavy, often unmanageable debt burdens. As a result, the artificially inflated price of a college degree is greater than the actual costs associated with teaching and research.

Caplan believes enough is enough. “The heralded social dividends of education,” he insists, “are largely illusory: rising education’s main fruit is not broad-based prosperity, but credential inflation.” He boldly submits that “the average college student shouldn’t go to college.”

Objections to these strong claims are predictable: don’t college graduates earn more money than those without a college degree? The answer, of course, is yes. But that’s not the full story.

Caplan explains that the primary value of a college degree is in its “signaling” power. That diploma on your wall doesn’t tell employers how much you know or what skills you have attained. Rather, it signals to them your tenacious character and work ethic. Finishing college proves you have the wherewithal and discipline to claw your way to the top. The problem, of course, is that an abundance of earned bachelor’s degrees diminishes their value while graduate degrees become the substitute marker of distinction. If you aren’t learning practical skills as you chase multiple degrees, you and the institutions funding your education (likely the government) are just dumping money to jumpstart or advance your career, in which case all this spending seems, well, inefficient and unnecessary.

Courses in college aren’t intrinsically valuable. You can spend months on YouTube watching recorded faculty instruction at Yale and Stanford, learning vast amounts of information, but no one will hire you for that effort. After all, you’ve gained no credential. On the other hand, you could sit through college classes that don’t interest you, excelling on exams but forgetting the tested material as soon as the class ends. You will be no wiser from this experience. Employers know that and don’t care. They don’t hire students for wisdom or knowledge. They hire students with a record of demonstrated success.

Caplan emphasizes the importance of “conformity” to the signaling model. Employers and teachers share a key preference: they generally favor cooperative and dutiful personalities over lazier and more disagreeable alternatives. The ability to fit in, to adapt to different social settings, tends to impress business leaders. College grades reveal temperaments, dispositions, traits, and priorities—they demonstrate whether a student conforms to expectations. Formal education isn’t the only way to demonstrate conformity, but, in Caplan’s words, it “signals a package of socially desirable strengths.” He adds, “If you want the labor market to recognize your strengths, and most of the people who share your strengths hold a credential, you’d better earn one too.”

Caplan sensibly advocates vocational training as an institutional corrective, but has little workable advice for people pursuing certain vocations. Someone who wants to be a teacher must earn the necessary credential; someone who wants to be a lawyer must attend law school. Whether these credentials are needed at all—that is, whether they are suitable prerequisites that adequately prepare students for the everyday practice of their desired vocation—is a significant question warranting extensive debate, but regrettably it falls outside the scope of Caplan’s project. His substantial case against education might leave you wondering, at any rate, why he thinks universities can effectively provide vocational training at all. If they’re so bad at what they do, why would they shine at this new task?

There’s also a “presentist’ element to Caplan’s thesis. Universities weren’t designed to prepare students for vocations outside of medicine, law, or the clergy. Until late in the 20th century, you didn’t need college to compete on the job market. Universities have a complex and chaotic history that makes undue emphasis on workforce training seem shortsighted. The number of students attending college to advance innovative research or otherwise contribute academically to the sum of knowledge remains low. The central purpose of the university isn’t served by the current form of higher education in which a premium is placed on employment outcomes. Caplan isn’t trying to remake higher education or return it to its medieval roots, but by inflaming passions at least he might redirect attention to the central mission of universities: to educate and spread knowledge.

As the holder of a Ph.D. in English, I commend the colorful chapter “Nourishing Mother” to the skeptically inclined humanities professor who stands ready to accuse Caplan of prizing social and economic returns over the immeasurable effects of literary, aesthetic, philosophical, historical, or theological inquiry. The scholar of arts, society, and culture may be surprised to find a useful ally in Caplan, although his discussions of “high culture” and “taste” may irritate English professors, who will quickly recognize how little Caplan understands their discipline.

It’s obvious that higher education in its current manifestation is financially unsustainable. Something has to give. Skeptics should read The Case Against Education with an open mind and an eye toward the future. Caplan is heavy on issue-spotting but short on solutions, but he provokes difficult conversations that are long past due.

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Part Two: Review of Nathaniel Branden Issue of the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Economics, Historicism, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on July 5, 2017 at 6:45 am

This post is the reproduction of portions of a series of pieces originally published at Atlas Society’s website.  The original series of posts is available here, here, here, and here.

The inclusion of Branden’s lecture and question-answer session in this collection gives him a voice in his own commemoration.  Published here for the first time, and transcribed by Roger Bissell, the lecture was given to the California Institute for Applied Objectivism in 1996. Its tenor can be gleaned from the opening paragraph in which Branden compliments his audience for being “dedicated to the broad philosophical ideas of Objectivism, but not in a religiously constricted and independent-thinking-discouraging way.”

Here Branden echoes his implicit criticism of the ARI camp. Debates between the Branden-ARI factions go beyond the personal disagreements between Branden and Rand to a broader philosophical question: is it better, at the outset of an intellectual movement, to insist upon the purity of a set of ideas at the expense of its slower adoption or to engage in an open dialogue that allows for give-and-take?

This is not a subject that can be answered by labeling either side as “religionists” or “compromisers.” It’s a unique problem elevated to historical significance by the profundity and uniqueness of Objectivism. If Objectivism is the most exceptional philosophy to emerge in over two thousand years and one believes, as Objectivists do, that philosophy is the motive force of history, then the answer could reasonably impact the course of civilization itself. The stakes, in other words, are high for those involved.

The question-answer session thus raises an issue of great magnitude in the Rand-Branden divide: How should Objectivists relate to libertarians? The underlying debate is that, on one side, Rand and ARI reject the label “libertarian” or affiliations with libertarian groups (exceptions such as the Foundation for Economic Education and the Cato Institute exist) because they claim that self-identifying libertarians often embrace a sort of “libertarianism by any means,” foregoing philosophical foundations.

Rand and ARI have argued that because philosophy guides human thinking in all areas of life and constitutes a fundamental, salient force, it is unacceptable to categorize their beliefs under a name that permits just any possible philosophical argument for a political conclusion. Objectivism is not primarily an economic or political calculus but a philosophical system whereby the means by which one arrives at conclusions matters. Branden and others critical of Rand have argued that accepting the libertarian label is unobjectionable and better promotes the popularizing and engagement that Branden values. Disciples of Rand disagree to varying degrees.

Branden speaks about himself in the third person (“you had to know Nathaniel Branden or Barbara Branden, and you had to impress them sufficiently to get an introduction to Ayn Rand”) and with superlatives of the sort employed by the sitting President of the United States (“the wonderfully exciting opportunity to read,” “a very special world, which is very close to being incommunicable,” “it was a very intoxicatingly pleasant and enjoyable way to process experience,” “we are somehow participating in this marvelous, exciting and inspiring reality,” etc.).  

His accounts are fascinating; whether they’re entirely true is another matter. His portrayal of a dinner with Rand and O’Connor during which he articulated anxiety about the publication of Atlas Shrugged is telling, as is Leonard Peikoff’s announcement, on a separate occasion, that, as Branden puts it, “in six months of the publication of Atlas Shrugged, we’ll be living in an Objectivist society.” “Now,” says Branden of Peikoff’s comment, “we knew that this was excessive, and this couldn’t be true. . . . But what it also reflects is something of the highly excited, intoxicating mental state of the period.”

Stories like this help those of us who were not alive at the time develop a fuller sense of what these individuals were like. Branden and Rand and their followers set out to form an exclusive community and were often impatient with outsiders who didn’t understand their positions, or so Branden claims. He regrets that their tactic was first to insist on conformity before initiating dialogue with outsiders, rather than initiating dialogue with outsiders to recruit new adherents. “[I]t was very, very tempting to retreat into self-righteousness,” he reflects about his encounters with those who were not yet initiated into his manner of thinking. He also depicts the group—The Collective—as elevating Rand the person over her principles: “In those days, it was made abundantly clear to us that fighting for Objectivism meant fighting for Ayn Rand. Loyalty to Ayn Rand was an issue of the highest possible value in the hierarchy.”

Therein lies much of the controversy surrounding Branden and his legacy. These “fighting words” give the strong sense that battling for Objectivism meant battling for Rand. Those of us who were not present for the conversations, meetings, debates, and interactions of that time cannot speak to the extent to which this is true. However, the accusation seems at odds with Rand’s explicit statements enjoining those who studied her philosophy that thinking for themselves and making their own evaluations of every idea were the only rational means of ascertaining truth. She rejected arguments from authority, even or especially when she was the authority in question. Whether that was conveyed in her personal relationships, though, we cannot know. It is imaginable that someone with such a forceful personality, so certain in her beliefs and ideas, would be difficult to oppose and that the environment of The Collective may have made any but the most resilient participant demure in her presence.

Branden’s stories about Rand are almost invariably unflattering, which is understandable in the context of their personal conflict, but perhaps unproductive in maintaining his broader position of extolling her philosophy and even, in large part, her character. He argues for understanding her as “conflicted” and complex rather than saintly, but he hardly counterbalances his negative portrayals with anything positive. She is, in his renderings, almost universally cranky, rude, aggressive, and bitter—a figure who seems to have gained a following for her ideas despite her horrid persona.  

Moreover, he sometimes assumes a condescending tone towards those associated with her. He represents Peikoff and George Reisman, for instance, as being inextricably caught up in her world, coloring Peikoff as an emotional dependent and Reisman as a social hostage. In all cases, however, Branden remains the sound-minded individual who, if a bit naïve in his youth, learned the error of the Randian ways and parted with her. This attitude dismisses some independent and analytical minds as fragile or conformist. One could argue that Branden’s characterizations of events weren’t wrong—again, we weren’t there and so don’t know for sure—but they also gloss over the fact that now, as older men of prominence, Peikoff and Reisman stand by her legacy and take her side in the split.

It’s clear that Branden detested what he portrays as a culture of loyalty that did not admit of dissent or disagreement and that, in his depiction at least, was unwilling to improve upon or revise Rand’s ideas, which some of her associates, again in his view, assumed to be without flaws. Branden locates the origin of this allegedly rigid groupthink in Rand’s early years. Defenders of Rand will disapprove of Branden’s characterization of this period as “the very dark side of the early years,” just as they may wince to hear Branden describe how her closest associates refused or hesitated to acknowledge their errors or ignorance about certain matters, as though they needed always to pretend to possess perfect knowledge. Although Branden criticized what he dubbed “Orthodox Objectivism,” of which he remained critical until the end, he was equally clear that he wished Objectivism to continue spreading, and he offered pointed suggestions about how to accomplish that, namely by gaining credibility and acceptance within the academy and finding publishers within mainstream peer-reviewed journals.

As much as I have hoped to avoid engaging the Rand-Branden split, it is a major part of Branden’s speech and the question-answer session deals with it. Given that Branden delivered the talk in 1996 and that, as he notes, he rarely spoke on Objectivism by then, one could take his comments as at least somewhat representative of his hierarchy of concerns on the subject. The talk and question-answer session reveal that his fallout with Rand remained a considerable part of his legacy and that he felt the need to defend himself by attacking Rand. That would explain why his answers can, at times, seem unfair to Rand. For example, asked why Rand supported Richard Nixon over George McGovern—rather than the Libertarian Party candidate John Hospers—Branden stated that she should’ve supported Hospers, that she was “uninformed” about libertarianism and political issues, and that she associated libertarianism with anarchism, which she despised. In truth, Rand had contempt for Nixon and a well-reasoned argument against Hospers, even citing his campaign views and the Libertarian Party’s platform. If I know this, then Branden certainly should, so his comment reads as if he’s giving her as little credit as possible and characterizing her as an angry zealot.

Whatever one thinks of Branden, there’s merit and perhaps a degree of honor in his hope that “there is a tremendous area of work that needs to be done, that will be done, … that is nowhere to be found in the Objectivist literature.” His disagreements with other Objectivists did not lead him to give up on Objectivism or abandon its central tenets. He remained ever devoted to this philosophy even if his commitments to knowledge and learning lost him friendships and widened the gulf between his ideas and those of other followers of Rand. It is worth asking whether Branden, despite his implicit discounting of the early years as too preoccupied with “fighting for Ayn Rand,” did not spend much of his remaining years fighting against Rand. Did his autobiographical writings and the writings of Barbara Branden on their relationships with Rand take up too much of his post-Rand career as a psychologist and philosophical thinker?

 

 

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