Identities—What Are They Good For?   /   Summer 2018   /    Book Reviews

School’s Out

Noah J. Toly

An empty classroom in Phillips Hall, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ildar Sagdejev/Wikimedia Commons.

Why do we prize education so highly?

Orwellian is an epithet with many meanings, all of them negative. It can refer to doublespeak, the use of pretentious diction, distortion, evasive speech, intentional ambiguity, and euphemism meant to make an unpleasant truth sound more palatable. It can describe forces that promote or require conformity. And finally, there are those who take Orwellian to refer to generally dystopian social and political conditions.

But when Bryan Caplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University, says that he loves education too much to accept the “Orwellian substitute” that is our education system in the United States, there’s no need to figure out how he means it: He clearly has all three definitions in mind. To Caplan, “education,” and especially “higher education,” has become a euphemism for base credentialism that promotes conformity and results in profligate spending that undermines investments of time and money in worthier goods.

Lest prospective students and their parents head for the doors before finishing this review, it’s not that education doesn’t pay. On an annual basis, the average college graduate earns 73 percent more than the average high school graduate; people with at least a master’s degree earn three times the income of a high school dropout. Unlike the concerns of parents and prospective students, however, Caplan’s question is not whether employers pay handsomely enough to make education adequately rewarding for individuals. Rather, Caplan is interested in the social costs and benefits of education. He wants to know whether our massive public expenditures in favor of education—from state funding of public universities to federal provision of grants and subsidized loans—can be justified.

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