The Blog I Didn't Want To Write

I’ve struggled to blog at all for a few months now. Why? Because I’ve had a blog that I needed to write, but couldn’t bring myself to do it. So instead I blogged about less controversial, likely less important things. It’s not that I want to blog about it, but I can’t let the topic go. It’s hard, it’s painful, and it’s damning. But it’s also important. In fact, it may be as important as just about any blog I’ve ever written…

I got a “present” from a friend several months ago. Present is likely not appropriate…more like a genuine white elephant gift. A colleague whom I have known and worked with for years sent me a copy of Dr. Bryan Caplan’s book, “The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money (2018).”

I’ve mentioned the book in a few blogs already, but never in more than a cursory fashion. But I need to address it. In fact, I hope a lot of educational leaders and bloggers will follow suit.

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Dr. Caplan, a tenured Economics professor at George Mason University, researcher at the Mercatus Center, and adjunct at the Cato Institute, got his undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley and his PhD from Princeton. He has written a few volatile and controversial books (The Myth of the Rational Voter, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids), which have certainly found criticism in the press. The works often remind readers that GMU is tied closely to Charles Koch or that his Economics department is notoriously Libertarian. You will even find that kind of fodder in his Amazon reviews.

But, as a Communication professor and Debate coach myself, I know the problems with the ad hominem fallacy (against the man). Just as I try to show my students that Hitler speaking out as a vegetarian should have no impact whatsoever on the merits of vegetarianism, Dr. Caplan’s workplace does not inherently discredit his thoughts, and certainly has no influence on the copious amounts of research he shares.

And research is something he shares a lot of. Research that suggests just how ineffective education really is. My summary of the book’s research component regarding education is this: The majority of education does not measurably impact learning, creativity, critical thinking, job skills, nor transference.

It’s ironic how many reviewers concede the setup: learning does not correlate to education. In interview after review after summary, authors will support the claims with statements such as, “In retrospect, I think I wasted hundreds of hours on things like trigonometry, crop rotation and cell biology.” They will agree that after years of schooling, nobody remembers how to speak a foreign language beyond a couple of words, how to diagram a sentence or even why they were expected to diagram a sentence in the first place, a single theorem or postulate from geometry, and much, much more. Caplan reinforces all of this by showing just how little people remember from both high school and college. And those numbers are not pretty.

Students who take a geometry class forget more than half of what they learned within 5 years and almost all of it within 7 years (though he notes that the more math taken, the longer it is retained). He argues that almost every high school graduate has taken at least 2 years (often 4 years) of foreign language, but 99% of those same people report being non-conversant. And despite most high school graduates taking 3-4 years of science, less than one-third know atoms are bigger than electrons.

There is much, much more. Many reviewers speak of the statistics flowing “ad nauseum,” there are so many illustrations used. But he does not end there.

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He goes on to illustrate that it is not solely content, facts, or declarative information that is lost (if ever learned at all). Higher order thinking and transference are also debunked. I have certainly heard (many times) in my lifetime professors state, “I’m not teaching the subject nearly as much as I’m teaching my students how to think.” Yet there seems to be ample evidence that people do not actually see gains in their ability to analyze, evaluate, or question based on schooling. The rates for non-students increases in that capacity vs students is the same. (Both are low.) Beyond use of other controversial studies, like Arum and Roksa’s “Academically Adrift”, Caplan again uses a number of sources. Using the National Assessment of Adult Literacy survey, Caplan reports only half of high school graduates achieve “intermediate” or “proficient” mastery of basic quantitative questions (ex: calculating the total cost of ordering specific office supplies from a catalog). The author clarifies this position as he illustrates over and over again that students do not transfer information between contexts. “They do not learn what we mean to teach them, so how can we say that they learn what we do not purposefully teach?,” he questions.

So how do people graduate and become so successful you may wonder (as I did throughout the opening gambit of the book)? Caplan asserts that we only get better at things we practice regularly. He suggests that we get good at a job because we are hired, taught to do the job by the company we work for, and practice it every day (including practicing things we are not good at), over and over again. All that education does is signal an employer that a person can sit still, follow directions, and have enough tenacity to endure large quantities of boredom for years on end…

Perhaps you can see why I did not want to blog about this book. The meta-analysis used by Dr. Caplan is very difficult to argue with. In fact, I’ve used a number of those studies in my own talks over twenty years. With regard to teaching and learning, I do not think Bryan Caplan is wrong.

But the book does not end there. And when it moves beyond the lack of efficacy in education, my opinion also diverges from his.

Caplan’s ultimate conclusion then, is to remove a lot of education from the US diet. He often speaks of “Mickey Mouse” courses and programs that have no place in education. From Philosophy to Psychology, he even lumps in my home discipline of Communication throughout. I must admit, I have wondered myself from time to time how important a few majors on campus are, but Psychology? English? Communication? I think it is ironic that Caplan’s equation is largely based on what is deemed good for business. He seems to argue that education should produce better workers. Yet if one looks at lists of what employers value, communication (speaking, interpersonal, group, and writing) have topped the lists for decades. I realize Dr. Caplan would likely argue that they are on the lists of things employers want but employees do not exhibit largely because they are not taught how to do those things effectively in school. But does that have to be the case?

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Here is my most fundamental issue with the book. While I agree that teaching and learning has been a struggle, we know better. We know how to do it better. We know how to help people genuinely learn over the long haul. The politics and bureaucracy and institutional control of bad actors may be preventing it - even now, but we do know better.

Similarly, I do not think Caplan is wrong to suggest that bloat is also much of the problem. While he attacks the bloat of middle management / administration over time (and likely rightly so), he also mentions curricular bloat. I know a lot of colleagues at liberal arts institutions or majors are bristling, but again, we know about bloat. From Sweller’s work on cognitive load theory to Make It Stick’s points about desirable difficulties to How People Learn II discussing authentic transference, it is crucial to remember that adding unimportant content to curriculum is not ideal for the human brain. As we do not transfer information nor can we remember anything that is not scaffolded directly (and obviously), simply teaching “a lot” of stuff is not rigorous. It’s stupid. But again, this does not mean education is silly or a waste of time. It just means that people have been doing it wrong.

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I get the mountain that is educational reform. These (and other) reasons are exactly why people have been predicting academic disruption for as long as I can remember. Yet it has never really happened. Higher education is as desired as ever, seeing student loan debt overtake all other debt without seeming to slow any time soon. Even in Brint’s Op Ed in the Chronicle, “Is This Higher Education’s Golden Age?“ it becomes obvious that despite the “fact” that almost nobody learns, everybody wants in. Beyond ironic is the very small, passing comment made in that piece by Brint: “Colleges are not always successful at advancing students’ cognitive development. Yet as degrees — and especially advanced degrees — become more common, colleges are able, little by little, to extend their values and characteristic ways of thinking into the national culture.“ The article goes on to explain that despite the cognitive scores, at least schools are teaching students how to think critically. (Uh oh….)

I know how troubling that statement is. Like I have heard repeatedly throughout my career, it seems that education itself takes a back seat to any number of other things at a lot of institutions. Presidents and Provosts are often not willing to use the political capital required for systemic change and silos or bureaucracy make meaningful transformation (seemingly) impossible. Even in this “golden age” it is apparent that any number of things are valued over learning. From research to enrollment growth to alumni affinity, teaching and learning, at many institutions, are like the Chris Rock joke about a G.E.D. (“Good Enough Diploma.”)

In twenty plus years attempting to put teaching and learning at the front and center of the student experience, I have had (loud) arguments with professors who, “don’t believe the research on lecturing’s ability to hurt students.” Why don’t they believe it? Because they don’t really know what it is - they refuse to look at anything that challenges their paradigms. I’ve also gotten into scuffles with professors who are “academic evolutionists” at heart - they believe it is their job to “weed out” undeserving students and poor teaching methods are an easy way to spot a lack of grit or resiliency. I know the best professors at a handful of universities who are not teaching more than 12 students per term, despite the research showing that they should be teaching the masses. And on and on.

So, for me, this blog is as much an ugly view through an ugly window as it is a pock-marked mirror. This is the world I have worked to transform for two decades and yet the needle has barely budged. I often channel really powerful, intelligent analysts, researchers, and educational leaders like Siemens, Roksa, Dweck, Sweller, Jukes, Robinson, Meyer, Gerstein, Muller, Leigh, Letcher, Davidson, Kapp, Silberman, Bain, and more. Yet despite five decades of rigorous, copious proof that lectures, re-reading / highlighting notes, and summative-only testing are actually damaging, those things continue. And yes, the outcomes also continue to get worse and worse.

But again, does that mean we should scrap it all? What happened to, "An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people?" Creativity and innovation, if we learned anything from Dyer or Christensen, require a lot of learning in addition to associative thinking. CEO’s tell us that trait alone is more important than any other today, if a company wants to succeed. (IBM, 2010) So sending fewer students to college and cutting out learning opportunities does not seem like a wise choice.

So shouldn’t we try to do it better? Shouldn’t we leverage what we know about how the brain works, go in and cut down the vines of academic bloat, and do it right? Can you imagine how the next generation might thrive if we did?

I have an 11 year old. I have blogged for years that it is my goal to find a way to change this, even if only in a way that will impact her, before she gets to college. I have less than 7 years. Who is with me?

Good luck and good learning.