Education seems to pay. Human capital purism advances a single explanation: education pays because education teaches lots of useful job skills. A tempting story…until you stare at what schools teach, what students learn, and what adults know. Then human capital purism looks not just overstated, but Orwellian. Most of what schools teach has no value in the labor market. Students fail to learn most of what they’re taught. Adults forget most of what they learn. When you mention these awkward facts, educators speak to you of miracles: studying anything makes you better at everything. Never mind educational psychologists’ century of research exposing these so-called miracles as soothing myths.

Bryan Caplan, The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money (Princeton 2018:68)
For the first day of my ancient leadership class I created a “syllabus on a stick”, which I used to introduce the process of translating leadership study into leadership practice.

In this post I want to acknowledge that the recent book by George Mason economics professor Bryan Caplan makes valuable observations about the mythologizing that characterizes how many people think about higher education, at least in terms of its professional utility. But I want to offer a hypothetical alternative to what Caplan calls “human capital purism” with what I will call “habituating the transfer of leadership study into leadership practice.” I stress that this is alternative is hypothetical because I’m going to use only one example from my spring course on “Becoming a Leader: From Telemachus to T’Challa” at Howard University. I hope to test this hypothesis throughout this course and in future courses. I ask those with similar opportunities to share their results with me.

George Mason economics professor Bryan Caplan talks with ReasonTV about The Case Against Education (2018)

“Human Capital Purism”

I am not well-versed in the terminology of or research on higher education pedagogy (or economics for that matter). I have honed my craft over the years largely in conversation with other teachers, with my students, and with myself. A lot of what I do in education is an attempt to recreate the mostly wonderful experience I have had at all levels, including eight years in graduate school. A lot of my own teaching is just an emulation of the great teachers I’ve had. I realize that this is something of a subjective experience.

Accordingly, I’m going to rely on Caplan’s arguments and terminology in order to explicate my own ideas here. I begin with a key idea about higher education that Caplan critiques in Chapter Two of his recent book, The Case Against Higher Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money (Princeton 2018; this book has been reviewed by the London School of Economics Review of BooksQuillette, the Washington Post, and EducationNext; these latter two reviews are the most critical of Caplan’s approach and especially his policy suggestions). According to Caplan “Human Capital Purism” is the (flawed) idea that those with college degrees tend to earn more money than those without because these degrees confer knowledge and skills that are desirable in the marketplace (note: this EducationNext review argues that the “human capital purist” is a strawman). A common argument for human capital that a Latin professor might make, for example, is that Latin prepares you to be a lawyer because both lawyers and Latinists have to pay close attention to the meaning of words. A Latin professor might make the broader argument that Latin teaches critical thinking and everyone needs critical thinking at least for the most interesting and lucrative jobs. Caplan would dispute these claims on the grounds that there is no evidence for these claims other than the anecdotal. Yes, some CEO’s studied Latin, but can we prove that studying Latin was the difference in them becoming CEO over someone else?

More generally, Caplan disputes three facets of Human Capital Purism that will be familiar to almost anyone in higher education, especially to humanities professors, namely, (1) that students retain much of the knowledge they acquire well into adulthood; (2) that they are vigilant to transfer or apply this knowledge to workplace situations where it would be relevant; (3) that even if they don’t retain their knowledge, they at least retain and transfer their habits of thought (i.e., their “critical thinking”), just like a physical muscle retains its memory of how to perform in various situations. Caplan cites countless studies that contradict these ideas, and I have no good reason to doubt him. Even if these studies may be questioned in some ways, we should take them seriously. There are plenty of ways to show that college students don’t remember the facts of history, biology, or mathematics on into adulthood, unless they have occasion to employ them on a regular basis. Caplan’s point is that most jobs don’t require this kind of knowledge anyway and so it is not regularly applied. And even if critical thinking is necessary for a job, there is not much data to support the conclusion that students actually improve their reasoning ability from the beginning to the end of college or through graduate school–or to conclude that any improvements are the result of courses that claim to teach critical thinking (see especially Caplan 2018: 53-54). There is also little evidence that students actually figure out the right time to apply, say, their knowledge of Vergil’s Aeneid later in life. Those of us who teach the Aeneid would like to imagine that students who read it will think more carefully about the meanings of words and will apply its “lessons of leadership” (whatever those are) throughout their lives. We can all probably think of anecdotes to corroborate our belief, but Caplan offers numerous studies to the contrary.


While Caplan argues that higher education truly does translate into a higher salary, he believes that it is the result not of human capital but of what a degree in higher education signals to potential employers (on which see Chapter One of The Case Against Higher Education). Though his proofs are lengthy, they may be summarized thusly. Employers hire people with college degrees because a college degree efficiently signals three things about the holder of that degree:

  • The degree-holder has above-average intelligence because not everyone gets into (a good) college.
  • The degree-holder is conscientious because he/she had dedicated years to complete a long-term goal, often in the face of adversity and financial hardship.
  • And (what is perhaps most troubling for those who teach the humanities) the degree-holder is conformist because he/she is willing to take courses in subjects like Vergil’s Aeneid precisely because such subjects are useless but necessary for landing the high-paying job they crave. Rather than reward the student’s capacity to “think different”–something most of us would hope the Aeneid teaches people to do–employers are rewarding the student’s willingness to go along with whatever challenging but irrelevant material an authority figure serves up. Such a conformist will be a very good team player and follow the rules set by the organization he/she works for.

Intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity: these for Caplan are the three “signals” that a degree sends to the marketplace and they account for almost the entire market value of higher education.

While Caplan argues that these signals provide a rational account of why higher education translates into higher salary, he nevertheless believes that there are more efficient and inexpensive ways to find out whether someone is intelligent, conscientious, and conformist. This, then, is his case against education.

A Hypothetical Alternative

I think a lot of Caplan’s arguments against human capital purism and for signaling are compelling, but I do not agree with his conclusion that we should do away with higher education. Much of my disagreement has to do with what I believe is the function of higher education, that it is about more than preparing students for the job(s) they will eventually have. But even if someone believes, as I do, that higher education is about becoming better at all of the roles in life that students will play as adults–citizen, friend, parent, partner, leader, society-member, lifelong learner, someone who knows himself/herself–we must think a lot more about how education actually achieves this preparation, given that apparently none of us are very good at retaining information, retaining our skills, or knowing exactly when and how to apply them (it is here that I should probably concede that higher education is seldom conceived of or taught as preparation for all these roles I just enumerated; I am very much projecting the kind of education I received and would like others to have the opportunity to receive).

The alternative that I would like to propose is a that of a more radical and immediate application of the student’s learning about leadership, e.g., to the practice of how to be a better leader. Actually, it is not all that radical or even original but has unfortunately been beaten out of students by conditioning them to try to anticipate the very market forces that Caplan would have us become more subservient to.

I begin with an anecdote. On the first day of my ancient leadership course last week, after I explained that the main arc of the course would be to study the process of becoming a leader in ancient narratives like Telemachus in the Odyssey, Neoptolemus in Sophocles’ Philoctetes, Lysistrata in Aristophanes’ eponymous play, the women in Plutarch’s Virtues of Women as well as more modern narratives like the life of Ida B. Wells, Benjamín Otálora in Borges’ “El Muerto”, Ned Weeks in Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, Hannah Gadsby in “Nanette”, Moana in the eponymous Disney movie, and T’Challa in The Black Panther, I brought out a staff, which I called my “syllabus on a stick”, and proceeded to tell the students about the origin of the ancient Greek word, skē̂ptron, which later of course gave us the English word scepter. As the great 20th century Indo-European linguist Émile Benveniste explains, the skē̂ptron is not a stylized club or wand that gives the speaker legitimacy through force or magic, respectively; rather it is something you put all of your weight on, i.e., a walking stick (see Book Four, Chapter Three: Hellenic Kingship, of Indo-European Language and Culture). The power of the skē̂ptron comes from the fact that its holder was originally a messenger capable of delivering the message–often a sacred one from the gods–that the community needed to hear. 

The class and I then talked about the many attributes that a leader might hold in his or her hand to signal their worthiness to be taken seriously by their audience. There is the walking stick that Solly Two Kings carries in August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, marked by sixty-two notches to represent the sixty-two people he carried to freedom. There is the pen that Senator Bob Dole used to position in his withered hand. There is the talking stick of the Tlingit Indians. There is conch shell in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which gives the story’s protagonist an ineffable authority:

[T]here was a stillness about Ralph as he sat that marked him out: there was his size, and attractive appearance; and most obscurely, yet most powerfully, there was the conch. The being that had blown that, had sat waiting for them on the platform with the delicate thing balanced on his knees, was set apart (p. 16).

Having pointed out the various attributes a speaker might hold, I asked the students to call to mind what they ever did to signify to others that they had a message to deliver, whether it was in the way they dressed or the way they carried themselves. 

I then asked them to think more about the skē̂ptron and to think specifically about what journeys they had been on that gave them messages we all needed to hear. I invited them to come to the front of the class, hold the staff I had fashioned, and deliver their message. To my delight about four or five of them did. Their messages were unpolished in their spontaneity, but nevertheless compelling, personal, confident, and proud. I explained that I would expect them each to deliver two messages some time during the semester, whether it was a message about our class, our Howard campus, or the wider world community. To those who did not speak I said, “What kind of journey would you like to take that would give you a message that your community needed to hear?” My hope was that this would activate them to envision the kind of life they wanted to live.

What does this process mean for later in life?

As I said above, my alternative to “human capital purism” is “habituating the transfer of leadership study into leadership practice.” After talking to the students about the skē̂ptron, I worked with them to conceptualize the process we had just engaged in: (1) we had noticed or identified some aspect of leadership, namely, how a speaker commands the attention of their audience (I pointed out that calling a meeting and speaking up are some of the most basic leadership activities that anyone ever engages in for all time and across all cultures); (2) we had analyzed that aspect of leadership by comparing it to different species of the same genus; (3) we had translated that aspect of leadership into contemporary practice by thinking about what is our version of the skē̂ptron today and what it might be; (4) we had evaluated these versions, explicitly or implicitly, to see if they would be a good fit for us; and (5) we had invited ourselves to begin practicing these (now approved) new modes of leadership. 

Is this approach going to translate into more and better leadership behavior later in life? It is too early to tell, but I suspect it will be more effective than simply lecturing students about different aspects of leadership or even discussing these aspects with them. I think it’s important to develop habits even prospectively, i.e., to invite students to think about what kind of leader they might want to be down the road. It may be objected that if the goal was just to get students to speak up more and deliver “messages people needed to hear,” then I didn’t need to contextualize my lesson with an ancient reference to the skē̂ptronIndeed, there are countless approaches to leadership study that pay almost no attention to the culturally-specific details that the fields of the humanities care so much about: language, character, narrative, symbol, historical context, philosophical nuance. Yet, I think these details are central to the habituation I’m describing. Their very specificity, their strangeness, their nuance activate not only the habit of speaking up but of creatively translating a leadership experience from a faraway time and place to the present. Leadership–good leadership, anyway–is almost always a creative endeavor. It is an art for which there are no set forms or algorithms. 

Will students remember the etymology of the word skē̂ptron? Maybe not, though etymology has a way of sticking in the brain like most information does not. I defy you to ever forget that the word vanilla comes from the word vagina. But even if students don’t remember this word, or its etymology, my hope is that they will, with practice, become accustomed to using their cultural information to think more carefully about how to lead better. It all begins with noticing or identifying aspects of leadership. 

Now at this point you might accuse me of Human Capital Purism because I’m just assuming that this habit of noticing aspects of leadership will continue on its own. This is akin to a college professor saying that her course has ensured that students will just engage in lots of critical thinking down the road, even though the psychological evidence says otherwise. Caplan is very right to emphasize the many ways that the workplace prepares people do to specific tasks very well (see pp. 63-64). If you know at age eighteen that you want to be an engineer or a lawyer, your path, however arduous and challenging, is pretty straightforward. All of your decisions of life–right down to whom to marry, when to marry, and where to live–may be organized around this goal. Could we, then, use this understanding of human motivation and identity to ensure that students will habitually identify the aspects of leadership all around them and thus begin the process of deeper analysis, translation, and so on? Well, it seems that we must begin by telling students that, rather than trying to spend all of their time trying to identify what levels of intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity they need to apply for what jobs, we expect them to become leaders, leaders of their families, their communities, and leaders of the world. Part of this leadership may be facilitated by a certain job, but a job is only a piece in a much larger puzzle that the experience of higher education is designed to help them begin to sort out: man or woman, to paraphrase Aristotle, is more than a job-having animal.

Not That Radical 

I said above that this approach of translating leadership study to practice was apparently radical and yet actually not. It can feel radical to claim that higher education serves any purpose other than landing a job, either the first job or the last job. (By the way, higher education should help students land jobs, but it should also do a lot more.) Many university mission statements speak of training students to be leaders, yet universities don’t devote that much time to thinking about what that would mean (see one example of how this might go here). As well as I can tell, students themselves are not very often encouraged to think about what this mission might mean. They aren’t very often asked to “translate” the aspects of leadership they notice in their coursework into leadership practice. But this was something I regularly did in college, and I don’t feel like I was alone. I thought it was expected of me to make meaning of the things I was learning in my courses, all of them, really. That is, I didn’t expect I would ever be graded on “what the analysis of the skē̂ptron might mean for my own leadership or the leadership of those around me”; I just did this on my own with the understanding that all of my peers might be doing a similar thing but on their own (subjective) terms. It’s what I thought was the purpose of my education.

And yet, if Caplan is right that education signals nothing so much as intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity and, more importantly, if students have internalized the idea that that’s how the game is played, then they have no reason to look for lifelong “relevance” in a course on Vergil’s Aeneid, e.g., because a priori this is a meaningless act insofar as it has nothing to do with landing a job. It seems that if we are to reclaim the idea that education is about more than landing a job, then we will need to move the “translation” portion of habituation into the classroom, or at least into the coursework. For someone trained in helping students comprehend discipline-specific material in as much detail and theory as possible, helping students find the (subjective) relevance to their own lives can feel like a bad use of time, like something even someone without a Ph.D. could be good at. But if true leadership is about “helping others have what they need and become what they need to be” (to paraphrase Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus 1.6.7), teachers, too, must adapt and become better leaders than we already are. In this sense, testing my hypothesis about transforming leadership study into practice will also become a test of my own versatility.


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