by Steven M. Cahn
Princeton University Press recently published a book by the economist Bryan Caplan titled The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money. The work, packed with figures, tables, notes, and references, argues that schooling is basically “irrelevant” (2) and that the only subjects worth teaching are literacy, numeracy, and a few vocational electives such as auto shop, computer programming, and engineering. The biggest waste of time is the humanities. After all, aside from a handful of specialists, who needs to know literature, history, or philosophy? No wonder, according to the author, most students are “excruciatingly bored,” a claim he repeats so often that the reader, too, suffers boredom.
Despite his elaborate scholarly apparatus, the author’s argument couldn’t be simpler. His premise is that “most of what schools teach has no value in the labor market” (68). Thus most education is wasteful. For example, “nothing the philosopher learned at Stanford applies on the job”(3). Hence why should anyone, apart from a few specialists or “humanist fans” (239), read philosophy? Similarly useless is the rest of the standard liberal arts curriculum, including English, history, the social sciences, art, music, physics, and foreign languages.
The most obvious response to his assertions is that in a democracy liberal education provides the knowledge, skills, and values needed by all of us to make a success of our experiment in self-government. Yet in a book of nearly 400 pages, the author devotes only one paragraph to this consideration. He asks, “But doesn’t knowledge of history lead us to support wiser policies, both foreign and domestic” (250)? He admits that such is true “almost by definition,” but finds the point not worth attention, because “most adults are historically illiterate.” In other words, because most people don’t know enough history, they needn’t know any. This argument confuses necessary and sufficient conditions, a fallacy that would be obvious to every graduate of Stanford’s and any other philosophy department.
A self-confessed cynic, the author reports that his teaching is “highly rated,” yet most students are “painfully bored,” and “loathe class” (135). They also disappoint him with their poor performance on exams (58). Meanwhile, as a tenured professor, he announces smugly that he has “a dream job for life,” in which he is “paid to think my thoughts, share my ideas with students, and eat lunch with my best friends” (134). Not surprisingly, his favorite students “live and breathe economics,” although he finds them for that reason “weird” (153). Perhaps he could engage others more successfully if he deviated from what he believes to be the standard practice in his field, offering “watered down versions of topics that fascinate the faculty” (84). No wonder his students are bored.
Nevertheless, his challenge to liberal education calls for defending it. Here, given limitations of space, I’ll focus on philosophy. (My case for studying the other aspects of a liberal education can be found in my book Inside Academia: Professors, Politics, and Policies, forthcoming later this year from Rutgers University Press.) The justification I would offer for engaging as many as possible in philosophical inquiry is that every member of a democracy should be encouraged to acquire intellectual perspective, the ability to scrutinize the fundamental principles of thought and action, encompassing both what is and what ought to be. The path to such wisdom lies in the study of those subtle analyses and grand visions that comprise philosophy. No other subject affords a stronger defense against intimidation by dogmatism while simultaneously providing a framework for the operation of intelligence.
Those, like the author of this book, who complain that the United States is “overeducated” (199), providing too much education for too many, thereby reveal their misunderstanding of a democracy. How can the electorate be too educated, know too much, or be too astute? Too little education, however, and democracy may disappear.
Steven M. Cahn is Professor Emeritus at the Graduate Center of The City University of New York. He is the author of Teaching Philosophy: A Guide, to be published in 2018 by Routledge.