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Lawrence S. Bacow began work as Harvard’s 29th president on Monday, and to mark the occasion, the Boston Globe ran an article titled “Lawrence Bacow promises a more outward-looking Harvard.” The article discusses his recent focus on higher education as one national institution: After leaving Tufts, he toured the country speaking about higher education, met with college presidents, and wrote about college teaching. As president, he has already met with other Boston-area universities to discuss collaboration. The article paraphrases a former George Washington University president: “Higher education needs a champion right now.” And who better than Bacow, president of America’s wealthiest and most famous university, who has spent his life in university leadership?
If Bacow is now higher education’s champion, his nemesis—excluding the increasingly hostile Republican Party—might be Bryan Caplan. An economics professor at George Mason, Caplan recently published a book—“The Case Against Education”—that raises strong empirical challenges to the conventional wisdom that appears in the refrains of Bacow, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, and university administrators everywhere.
Caplan’s core argument is that education, after imparting essential and productive skills like reading and algebra, proceeds to waste enormous resources, including students’ time and public budgets, teaching skills students will never use and facts they will never remember. What, then, accounts for graduates’ higher earnings? The “sheepskin effect,” named for the original material of diplomas. That is, rather than raising your actual human capital, a bachelor’s degree serves as a signal to employers of your pre-existing intelligence, work ethic, and conformity.
Caplan details the methodology and public policy implications in interviews with liberal-technocratic Vox and 80,000 Hours, but I’d like to consider his research more narrowly: If very little of what we learn at Harvard turns out to be useful or productive, how disturbed should students and administrators be, and what should we do differently?
Our alarm should depend on a couple things. First, our major: Engineers learn more productive things in college than, say, English concentrators, with my economics-infused Social Studies degree falling somewhere in between. Before you call me or Caplan a philistine for ignoring the beauty and life-enhancing power of literature, note that Caplan’s view of “useful and productive” extends beyond the economic sense. In his last chapter, he convincingly argues that insofar as schools are supposed to “elevate the human personality[,] refine our tastes, and make us into intrinsically better human beings,” there’s little evidence that they do, and we should avoid giving schools “credit for good intentions.”
“There’s two things that make sense to do,” Caplan said in an interview with The Crimson, after I quoted the Harvard College mission (“to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society … through our commitment to the transformative power of a liberal arts and sciences education”).
“One is teach people stuff that’s useful, something they would use for a job or other practical task," he said. "Or, teach them something that’s actually interesting or inspiring to them.”
The policy most directly informed by the College’s mission might be the torturously still-evolving General Education program. Despite its continued simplification, it still reaches beyond Caplan’s reasonable criteria. The new policy, essentially a distribution requirement, still requires people to take courses they have no interest in taking. The College still demands a faint familiarity with a foreign language, which Caplan called “especially ridiculous,” since very few adults even claim to speak fluently the language they took in college.
The “ethical reasoning” requirement persists, and Caplan is especially skeptical of the idea that classrooms can instill ethics. “Here’s one good test: Take a look at professional philosophers, people who study ethics for many years, generally. Or you narrow it down to professional ethicists,” he said. “There has been a bit of work on whether they actually behave more ethically by any measure, and there’s not much sign of it.” Even if Harvard graduates in high-powered positions remember their ethical reasoning material five or twenty years into their careers (a doubtful prospect), will that intellectualized training actually change their behavior, if it can’t even do the same for ethicists?
Our alarm should also depend on how selfish we are. In some ways, Caplan describes his findings as “actually pretty comforting” for Harvard students. “Basically, it suggests that even if you don’t think that you’re learning very much, you should still expect a bright future.” But if you take seriously the Dexter Gate inscription, “Enter to grow in wisdom; Depart to better serve thy country and thy kind,” Caplan’s work should disturb you deeply. “You’ve put an enormous amount of energy into getting where you are, when … what you’re doing is really basically just redistributive,” Caplan said.
Rather than elevating our tastes and abilities, Harvard has merely reshuffled the deck of future employees—with its graduates closer to the top simply by virtue of the displacement of those at non-elite schools. If you’re a “socially conscious” student, Caplan added, “it’s disturbing to think that you’re really part of the problem here, and by trying to do really well in this educational rat race, you’re not doing anything to advance the interests of mankind or anything like it.”
In that sense, then, “The Case Against Education” should not only serve as a humbling reminder, as Bacow takes leadership of American higher education, to keep empirically testing our beliefs. It should also re-remind us, as our former president begins her job at Goldman Sachs, of our commitments to the rest of the world. Caplan’s argument, that universities teach us little in ethics or skills, bolsters that of Jin Park ’18 in his elegant Harvard Oration, that we do not morally deserve the great rewards that our sheepskin offers us. We can enjoy our status as beneficiaries of this zero-sum and somewhat arbitrary reshuffling, or we can dedicate at least some of our ensuing returns to elevating the whole deck. (To Caplan’s point, I’m four English classes in and still mixing metaphors.)
Trevor J. Levin ’19, a former Crimson Arts Comp Director, is a Social Studies concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.
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