As a PhD student, I should be a stark defender of higher education, but two recent books have really shaken my confidence. Here, I compare unsettling insights from Michael J. Sandel’s 2020 The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? and Bryan Caplan’s 2018 The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money.
These two authors are not anybody. Even though they criticise education, they are both professors — Sandel a Harvard University political philosopher and Caplan a George Mason University economist. In other words, they are critical of their platform, but you never get the impression that they are holding back. In fact, reading their two recent books on education back to back, you are left with the impression that higher education not only has fundamental problems, but should be exploded to bits! In The Case Against Education, Caplan present an overwhelming amount of evidence that education surprisingly does not lead to more knowledge or skills, or at least that only a minuscule percent of classes does. And in The Tyranny of Merit, Sandel argues that higher education had a firm hand in causing the populist uproar that led to Trump’s presidency and Brexit. Woah! Is higher education really this useless and even a cause of massive right-wing revolt across the world?
Attacking Common Sense
Both books start by attacking the common-sense understanding that education is a common good that can solve most of society’s problems. Because of how entrenched this view is in current society, this sounded like a provocation to me at first. And when you read reviews of the two books, critics cannot take the messages to heart.
In The Case Against Education, Caplan shows that most of what people learn in school are forgotten shortly after. Only reading/writing and math have a lasting impact on students overall. Instead of transferring skills, Caplan shows that education plays the role of signalling device for employees. A degree signals skills, reliability and conformity. It is Caplan’s point that the degree does not provide these traits (except maybe conformity), but rather it just communicates it. In this way, education is what Sandel calls a “sorting machine”, that sorts people up or down in the societal ladder, between those with the degrees (“the professional class”) and those without. As Caplan shows, education therefore pays for the individual student in general (who gets the signaling value), but does not pay for society in general (because it cares about real value and not signals). In a society where education in mostly signalling and almost no real skills value, Caplan makes the interesting point that almost everybody could be just as well off with one less degree, instead of pursuing a constantly growing arms race of degrees. While thought-provoking, it makes sense in my experience as a teacher of scientific philosophy to international communication and business students at university level. As a teacher, you cannot help but wonder if many of the bored students actually want to take the class. I will get back to this self-assessment.
In The Tyranny of Merit, Sandel shows that since World War 2 a meritocracy has slowly replaced the old autocratic elites in the West. He points out that meritocracy has today become the supreme way of organising social structures: everyone should be able to rise via merit, and the colleges are the primary producer of such merit. But, as the philosopher points out, although we might think that meritocracy is the great equaliser, it does not have anything to say about equality. In fact, meritocracy is a good argument for inequality! It says that people are unequal because some people are more talented than others and made it farther. In this way, it is actually worse than autocracies since it produces resentment from the losers (the uneducated) and hybris in the winners. In an autocratic society, kings and nobles knew that, basically, their talents were not significantly different from peasants or workers. It was only due to external factors such as kingdom or maybe God-given rights that they should rule and this would produce doubt in rulers and a satisfaction among peasants that at least they didn’t deserve their fate as peasants. In a meritocracy, however, even though everybody still owes their talents to a society, a family, luck, etc., the elite can let go of the doubt and really claim that they are “better” than everybody else. These are Sandel’s points.
While I do think Caplan takes too extreme a view on education to get his point clearly across, I was left with the understanding that something has to be done to make education more relevant today. On the other hand, reading Sandel was a shocking experience of glimpsing inside societal mechanics and a common sense about education that I have been taking for granted myself. Among other things, Sandel made me understand for the first time, why so many americans view the Obama era withs such distain — these are the people who were targeted by the meritorious hybris communicated so often during the Obama presidency. In a speech to Google, Obama called this group of people “the unprofessionals” — Hillary Clinton later went a step further when she referred to Trump's voter base as “deplorables”. While both books present compelling critiques, however, they lack an equally compelling vision of how education should then be restructured. They reach similar conclusions, focusing on how work and work-related training needs to take priority over education and receive more recognition. Caplan argues that ‘We need lots less education and more vocational education” and Sandel that society needs a restructuring around recognising contribution to the common good through work, rather than the educational signal value. These visions of the future are last-chapter-thoughts though, and deserve their entirely own work.
But… What About “Bildung” or Enlightenment?
My intuitive counterargument to Caplan and Sandel went a little like this: “alright, maybe education does not provide all the knowledge and okay, maybe education might have to a large degree turned into a meritocratic sorting machine that fosters a populist backlash, but what about other aims such as bildung!?” The enlightenment concept of bildung refers to the building of full human beings through education with knowledge of the world, with sensibility and respect towards others, and with the ability to make sense of their surroundings in a fairly rational and productive manner. I must ceed, however, that this argument tends to become impoverished when confronted with Caplan’s data on how many students are bored 100% of the time in universities and with Sandel’s data of the depression and stress-epidemic among the highly educated.
Personally, I loved most of my university education, but I must admit that not many of my class-mates in my communication major felt the same. Enlightenment is surely lost on people who primarily study to get a degree, are too tired, too stressed or just plainly thinking about how to pass the next exam. In this way, enlightenment and bildung might refer more to the service universities should ideally provide and not the reason for their current state. Bildung-critique of education traces closely Caplan and especially Sandel’s analysis. Perhaps the best illustration of how universities does not enlighten students is Sandel’s discussion of prejudice. See, our assumption is (at least mine was) that education leads to fewer prejudices, right? And this is correct to some degree. Prejudices about immigrants, other cultures, other sexes, etc. gradually retreat with more education. However, studies show that it is replaced with a much more sinister prejudice. Educated people have much more prejudice against uneducated people. And this new prejudice might be even worse than racism, Sandel points out because it is baked into meritocratic power-structures and therefore appear natural to us, similarly to how white superiority appeared natural in times of slavery. Today, it is merit that signals superiority. This not only produces a blind hybris among the educated, a distain for the uneducated and their “archaic” nationalism and racism, that leads to a political backlash (Trump, Brexit, etc.) from the uneducated class — the losing side.
Students that are sleeping or constantly on Facebook during class does not live up to the enlightenment ideal of universities — we can agree on that perhaps. And how can university enlightenment even be taken seriously, if it produces prejudice against the unenlightened, that are not part of the academic club? Is this logic of exclusivity not the same as any racist or nationalist logics? It really is bad when the bulwark against stupidity, universities, just repackages the same stupidity, and then even slaps a badge of merit on the package!
A Crack in The Danish Soul
I am not against education. I am a Ph.D. fellow in Denmark and I love education. But perhaps my experience is not representative. As Caplan points out, most researchers teach their narrow research interests. So for me as a PhD-student, of course most courses are interesting as they related directly to what my field of research. This is not the case for other branches of work. I have taught Communication & Scientific Theory for a long time, but Sandel and Caplan really started to make me wonder if all students really need to know about scientific paradigm shifts and inductive reasoning… I have not settled on this question yet.
What I do know is that hybris of merit is not only an american phenomenon. In Denmark, the 2020 Disney film Soul recently sparked public debate when popular white actor Nicolaj Lie Kaas voiced the leading black character (in the american version, it’s the voice of Jamie Foxx). Lie Kaas defended himself on Facebook with the words: “My view on any job is quite simple. Let the woman, man, etc., who can best perform the job, get the job. This usually gets the best results.” While this common sensible answer appears, well, very sensible, it is actually illuminating of the problems of signalling and hybris embodied in educated elites and meritocracy, as Sandel discusses. Lie Kaas does not state it outright, but underlying his defence is the assumption that because he got the voice job, he was the most qualified for the job. It could not have been due to other factors than his skills, apparently. And even further, he DESERVES it and this is even for the BEST, he thinks. This hubristic rhetoric of deserving and rising — that you have made it entirely based on your skills and therefore do not need humility — is not only an american phenomenon, but has reached far into the Danish psyche too apparently.
After-Thoughts: Organisations are Multiple
In the end, I think the two professors reduce education organizations slightly in order to communicate their points clearly. Esspecially their ideas about potential change to the institution reflect a reduced consensus view of the organization, according to which organizations move in a common direction. An alternative view of organizations would be the open view, where organizations are understood as open ecosystems with multiple aims and practice that point in many directions (see Scott perspectives on the organization here). In the open view, universities are not just functions of society, they are compilations of historical structures, museums of thought and thoroughly divided in multiple (conflicting) practices. What I can deeply sympathise with from Sandel and Caplan are the idea that education for merit, merit, merit, has become way too influential in higher education today. There are serious reasons to be critical of education’s role in society and Caplan and Sandel provide two important perspectives, that of the economist and of the political philosopher.