I received two compelling emails from Northwestern University student Davis Parks, who recently read my Case Against Education. Reprinted with his bold permission.
Dear Professor Caplan,
I hope this email finds you well in the new year! I may not have a PhD—or even a BA as of now—which makes my opinion irrelevant to academics, but I found your book to be a soberingly accurate depiction of my experience with the education system. I was devastated by the “Afterward” to see that critics had dismissed all the research in favor of optimism that defies all common sense.
As a student at Northwestern University who’s finished a triple major in econ, stats and math but can’t graduate, I’ve found myself disenchanted with (and frankly insulted by) the education system. I’ve finished all the relevant coursework in 7 quarters (2 1/3 years), but they have an arbitrary 9 quarter requirement that “is an important component of that undergraduate experience” according to the Provost (that sounds like an admission that signaling is more important than academic credentials!). When my labor economics professor mentioned your work in class, I joked that I should get your book after I saw its title. My dad took that seriously and put it under the Christmas tree.
I wanted to personally thank you for writing “The Case Against Education.” I’ve found it comforting to know that I’m not alone in this belief. Your position is so similar to the one I’ve developed that, while reading your book, I felt like someone had transcribed and compiled all my futile Facebook comments from the past 6 months. It’s relieving to know that I’m not (that) crazy and to know that there’s at least one academic out there willing to admit what seems obvious to those who aren’t blinded by the glow of the ivory tower.
I initially wrote out a super long email detailing my experience growing up in the first generation to have technology embedded in their education. I thought my own experience would vindicate your personal stance on the wonders of instant-access education for the “eager student” who wants to learn. But I’ll save that because I’m sure you’re busy in preparation for the next semester.
Thank you again for your work! You’ve given me great inspiration in the past week.
P.S. If I have one criticism, it’s that you never took the opportunity to invoke one of my favorite Simpsons quotes:
Thank you for replying! I’ll have to stop by George Mason if I’m ever out visiting my uncle in Manassas!
Feel free to use anything I said. There’s no need to anonymize—I’ve gotten to the point where it’s not worth hiding my beliefs to fit in.
For a little context, I loved class in high school, but I skipped several grades of math by watching lectures on YouTube. As you said, we’re at a point where anyone who wants to learn can learn. After years of being told by teachers to go into engineering, I thankfully realized I’m interested in statistics far more than hard science. That led to me taking the first actuary exam in high school, getting the top score. But of course, I was unable to get an internship because employers love college credentials.
Fast forward to 2020 and NU suspended in-person classes for four consecutive quarters. I took the time to take extra classes thinking they’d let me graduate early given that the school offered an inferior product for over a year. But as I said, they deem the “college experience” to be an important part of the diploma. It’s all absurd because I only need two classes per quarter and I can even take one pass/fail (ahem, I mean “pass/not pass”) and fail it without impacting my GPA. Pragmatically, I have no reason to not find full-time employment. The “college experience” does have a $10k+ opportunity cost per quarter after all.
It prompts the question: what do supporters of higher education think I’m getting out of this? It’s clearly not capital gains, since I already took the classes necessary to get a triple major. It’s clearly not the college experience, since the cost/benefit analysis makes employment more beneficial for me than being on campus. It’s clearly not nourishment of the soul, since I’m dedicated enough to learn things that interest me from the internet or even a book like yours.
Ironically, college only ever made me “hate” math because it mutated math from fun problem solving to 20 hours of tedious proofs per week. Even my labor econ professor decided to give us exams worth 84% of the grade with multiple choice questions like, “Was the ratio of earnings of latina women to white women higher or lower in 1980 than in 2010?” I was a bit jealous of your class when you mentioned that your labor econ exams are open notes. I’m not sure what I accomplished by memorizing those random facts only to have forgotten them in the past two weeks. Instead of rehashing random stats I learned in class, I spent my time watching lawyers on YouTube and listening to oral arguments from SCOTUS because law is one of my few remaining interests that hasn’t been polluted by academia. It’s becoming a running joke that I should try to pass the bar exam without going to law school. What can you possibly get from a classroom in today’s world that you can’t get online for cheaper and better quality?
Thank you again for replying! No professor at my school will admit how ridiculous it is that I have to pay for classes I have no incentive to attend. I’m desperately hoping that my generation is the one that finally says enough is enough.