A mini-review of Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education

“It was not until years afterward that I came upon Tolstoy’s phrase “the snare of preparation,” which he insists we spread before the feet of young people, hopelessly entangling them in a curious inactivity at the very period of life when they are longing to construct the world anew and to conform it to their own ideals.” -Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull House

Bryan Caplan has long inspired me. We don’t share a political ideology, but his writing on child-rearing has often come at exactly the right moment for me. (His Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids helped me overcome a brief antinatalism phase, for instance.) His work on borders and immigration is less groundbreaking, but no less true, and in his forthcoming fun comic on the topic he and Zach Weinersmith will bring scholarly rigor and friendly advocacy to new heights. He’s obviously right that immigration restrictions are immoral and self-defeating—but no one is listening in this new age of nationalism. His latest book has fewer concrete ethical consequences—but it deploys evidence from educational psychology that has long puzzled me in service of a policy argument that has almost no chance of uptake, and so cements my view of Bryan as a careful and provocative scholar doing his best to tell the truth even when no one will listen.

Mini-Review

The argument in The Case Against Education is simple: most people don’t learn much of value to employers in their college educations. This is possibly also true even for some parts of K-12 schooling. Education instead is largely a mix of experience high-ability people would seek out on their own and an opportunity to distinguish oneself from other applicants in the resume rat race. The bulk of the book is a response to the various objections that are now forming in your mind.

You’d have to be pretty nerdy to be reading this, so the first step for evaluating the argument is to use a bit of empathy: forget your own experience in school, except the bad parts. I hated high school, but I loved college so much I took it as a career. Even then, I don’t remember a good deal of what I studied outside of my chosen field. And many of my fellow students were much less enthusiastic. So ask yourself:

  1. How much high school Spanish do you remember?
  2. Do you remember the titles—let alone the plots—of all the books you read in 11th grade English?
  3. What is ionization energy?
  4. Remember calculus? Can you solve a parametric equation today?

Perhaps you can answer half of these questions today without Google. That’s not a lot of retention. Whenever I get stuck in conversations on planes with people about the one philosophy class they took in college, they tend not remember much of the content. (“The cave, right?! Brains in vats? Veil of ignorance…. I hated that class.”)

Caplan summarizes well-established but little-known work in educational psychology on learning transfer which seems to show that mostly students don’t learn or retain much. Instead, a lot of education seems to combine three things, in some combination: an accumulation of habits, skills, and knowledge that we can call “human capital,” a costly and difficult signal that distinguishes us to employers, and a kind of consumption that is distinctive of high ability and high-income people.

I won’t say much about signaling as such: for Caplan, education provides future workers with an opportunity to create truthful, hard to fake resumes that demonstrate intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity. On his view, the time you spent acing classes you’ll never need proves you’re willing to play the game better than any personal statement could ever do. Of course that’s part of it… but how much?

The human capital model is the one we’re all thinking about when we recommend education. Education, we want to believe, makes you smarter, more capable, more knowledgeable, and more effective. Caplan seems to think that this is a relatively small part of what is going on in education. In the book he sometimes says human capital is 20% of education’s contribution to income, though he’ll also say it is 11% of the effect of education.

That’s because education is also fun, and especially fun for people who tend to earn high incomes because they are intelligent, curious, and conscientious. In that sense, education is like other high-class consumption goods: eating good food or taking fancy vacations, for instance.  In fact, the “fun” part of education rivals the signaling element. (He estimates ‘ability bias’ accounts for 45%, and signaling for 44%.) I’ve known many smart, curious people who retire from a successful career and go back to school. They’re not in school to learn and become more effective workers, but rather because education can be an intrinsic good with no instrumental value.

This is likely the case my progressive friends would make: you don’t study philosophy to be a better nurse or accountant or medical doctors—though there are ways that the critical thinking skills you learn may help you—you study philosophy because you’ve got questions about the nature of the universe, existence, death, justice, beauty, and truth. And the smarter and more successful you’ve been, the more you can enjoy learning about philosophy and literature. It’s an end-in-itself. Caplan seems to think that education as a high-ability consumption like backpacking in Europe or kite-surfing in the Caribbean—for kids wealthy enough to afford it on their own or retired adults looking to reflect on it all, but not for that time in your life when you’re trying to figure out your place in the economy.

I think we progressives should take Caplan’s argument seriously. But in some ways we already do: we’ve all read and shared articles like these: “Why American Colleges are Becoming a Force of Inequality,” and “Schools that accept ‘no excuses’ from students are not helping them.” Progressives are coming around to the idea that higher education is not a great leveler, and the segregated K-12 schools are increasingly a pipeline to prison rather than jobs for the least advantaged.

Our counterarguments often play up underfunding of state flagship universities, and so progressives often seek to double down on higher education with Bernie Sanders-style free college guarantees and increased spending. But at the same, we are increasingly aware of efforts to make schooling more regimented, disciplinary, and prison-like. We see that African-American and poor students are being shuttled towards “no excuses” schools while white and wealthy students find get play-based curricula, experiential learning, and above all a kind of caring and loving environment. Those experiences should tell us something.

Look forward to some future posts (or maybe someone will ask me for a real review) using my favorite sources: Michel Foucault, Paolo Freire, Pierre Bourdieu, Elizabeth Anderson, and John Dewey. But I put Jane Addams there at the top for a reason: it’s not just libertarians but one of the founders of progressive pragmatism who holds this view.

A review wouldn’t be complete without some criticisms: Caplan quotes Richard Arum and Jospia Roksa only once, and ignores their findings that the right kind of liberal arts education can increase critical thinking, problem solving, and analytic writing skills. He believes that this can only work for eager students, which are in short supply, and that most of the results of the Collegiate Learning Assessment can be confounded with IQ. His emphasis on IQ means that he also hasn’t properly evaluated the Foucaultian argument that schools produce large amounts of social conformity and conscientiousness, rather than merely measuring it. Finally, there is plenty of evidence that education plays an important signaling role for historically oppressed groups (women, African-Americans, and the formerly incarcerated). In fact, Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce just published this study, which is being reported widely with headlines like this: “Women need one more degree than men to earn the same average salary.”

Still, these objections don’t overcome the overall problems with education as it is currently practiced. Very often we see policy justification switches like the following: when the evidence from Quebec and Tennesse on early childhood education began to countermand the Abecedarian Project’s consensus view that universal pre-K could benefit poor children, advocates switched their arguments from the benefits to children to benefits to mothers’ employment. This kind of motte and bailey argument doesn’t have to be a total fallacy, since after all a policy can have many possible promising effects, some of which end up being disproven. But it’s more evidence against schooling as the accumulation of individual human capital.

(previously: What are the ruling ideas today? Is ‘College For All’; among them?Academically Adrift’s Methodological ShipwreckFor Education, Against Credentialism)

Excited to Be Joining Ed Policy at UKY

It is my great pleasure to announce that I’ll be joining the department of Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation at the University of Kentucky as associate professor in August of 2018.

The University of Kentucky.

Photo with students at the University of Mississippi.Over the years, I have had the immense honor to work with countless outstanding students in Public Policy Leadership at the University of Mississippi and in Philosophy at the University of Kentucky. I love to brag about all you’re doing, work in D.C., state government, schools, policy think tanks, and so many more amazing careers. A significant majority of my students appreciated that in places like Mississippi, Kentucky, and really everywhere, some of the deepest challenges we face are in education. To those of you who have not yet gone on to pursue graduate work or would like to study further, I want to strongly encourage you to come join me and my outstanding colleagues in Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation (EPE) at UKY.

The department is updating and redesigning an awesome Master’s program in Educational Policy Studies, for example. We also offer a Master’s in Higher Education with optional concentration in student affairs, a Master’s in Research Methods in Education, an Ed.D. in Ed Policy, Measurement, and Evaluation, a Ph.D. in Higher Education, and a Ph.D. in Education Sciences. More information is available on our Web site here.

The three things I’m proudest of in my life are my family, my students, and the work I get to do with you all on how we can make our world better. I hope that many of you will come join me and my colleagues in Kentucky. You know that when I say I’m excited, I am…

Logo of the University of Kentucky.I am excited.

Come get your next degree and wear blue with me. I can’t wait to see you again.

Want to learn more & come study in Kentucky? Email me.

Ideology and Education

Thomas Edsall has a good review of some recent research on polarization in the New York Times today:

The strength of a voter’s identity as a Democrat or Republican drives political engagement more than personal gain. Better educated voters more readily form “identity centric” political commitments to their party of choice, which goes a long way toward explaining the strength of liberal convictions among more affluent Democrats.

This is a striking chart:

 

 

 

Prompting Deliberation about Nanotechnology: Information, Instruction, and Discussion Effects on Individual Engagement and Knowledge

The 33-page article, Prompting Deliberation about Nanotechnology: Information, Instruction, and Discussion Effects on Individual Engagement and Knowledge (2017), was written by Lisa M. PytlikZillig, Myiah J. Hutchens, Peter Muhlberger, and Alan J. Tomkins, and published in the Journal of Public Deliberation: Vol. 13: Iss. 2. From the abstract, “Deliberative (and educational) theories typically predict knowledge gains will be enhanced by information structure and discussion. In two studies, we experimentally manipulated key features of deliberative public engagement (information, instructions, and discussion) and measured impacts on cognitive-affective engagement and knowledge about nanotechnology”. Read an excerpt from the article below and find the PDF available for download on the Journal of Public Deliberation site here.

From the introduction…

There are many desirable potential outcomes of participating in public engagements. Learning outcomes are especially important because knowledge is a prerequisite to offering informed policy input, which may make the input more useful and influential (Guston, 2014; Muhlberger & Weber, 2006). Prior research suggests deliberative public engagements, in particular, may improve public understanding of science and technology by providing participants with opportunities to study relevant information as they form their preferences (e.g., Farrar et al., 2010). However, not all studies find positive effects of deliberation (Delli Carpini, Cook, & Jacobs, 2004; Ryfe, 2005), and even when effects are found, it is difficult for researchers to identify the mechanisms responsible (e.g., Sanders, 2012).

Experiments investigating the effects of specific features of public engagement are especially important for advancing theoretical understanding of what features of public engagements work for what purposes and why, and to guide the design of effective engagements (PytlikZillig & Tomkins, 2011). In addition, because of concerns relating to issues of equality and engagement (Benhabib, 2002), it is important to examine potential moderators. Not all publics have equal information or influence relating to political or policy issues, and little research has examined whether certain deliberative mechanisms favor some groups over others (Fraile, 2014; Hickerson & Gastil, 2008; Karpowitz, Mendelberg, & Shaker, 2012).

Deliberative engagements include features such as provision of balanced information, encouragement of deep cognitive engagement, and group discussion (Fishkin & Luskin, 2005). Theory suggests these features may promote increased knowledge and potentially more well-justified attitudes and policy preferences (Chambers, 2003; Mendelberg, 2002). However, there are numerous empirical gaps in these theorized connections. For example, despite the centrality of deep cognitive engagement to deliberative theory, few studies of deliberative practice explicitly measure cognitive engagement, or the variety of other ways people may engage. Even fewer attempt to causally connect different forms of individual engagement to specific deliberative design features and outcomes, such as increased knowledge or understanding.

To begin to fill this gap, in the present studies, we experimentally varied features of deliberation (information, instructions, and discussion), and measured the individual and combined impacts of these features on individual-level engagement and knowledge. Further, we examined potential moderation by two other variables: gender—which is a longstanding basis of political inequality (Benhabib, 2002)—and individual differences in need for cognition (the tendency to enjoy and use effortful and deep thinking processes (Cacioppo, Petty, Feinstein, & Jarvis, 1996)—a variable especially relevant to deliberation.

We conducted our studies in the context of engaging college science students in deliberations about potential ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI) associated with nanotechnology. While the college classroom context is not representative of the majority of public engagement contexts, it is one such context, and one that facilitates controlled experimentation. In addition, findings from studies of the design of deliberative discussions in this context can specifically improve the use of deliberative practices when helping students consider ELSI implications of new science and technology developments—a practice which is increasingly encouraged (Barsoum, Sellers, Campbell, Heyer, & Paradise, 2013). Finally, findings in this context may suggest possibilities that should be investigated in other public engagement contexts.

Download the full article from the Journal of Public Deliberation here.

About the Journal of Public DeliberationJournal of Public Deliberation
Spearheaded by the Deliberative Democracy Consortium in collaboration with the International Association of Public Participation, the principal objective of Journal of Public Deliberation (JPD) is to synthesize the research, opinion, projects, experiments and experiences of academics and practitioners in the emerging multi-disciplinary field and political movement called by some “deliberative democracy.” By doing this, we hope to help improve future research endeavors in this field and aid in the transformation of modern representative democracy into a more citizen-friendly form.

Follow the Deliberative Democracy Consortium on Twitter: @delibdem

Follow the International Association of Public Participation [US] on Twitter: @IAP2USA

Resource Link: www.publicdeliberation.net/jpd/vol13/iss2/art2/

‘Ethics & Public Policy’ course in Fall ’18

For the Fall semester of 2018, I’m planning an upper level course here at the University of Kentucky in ‘Ethics and Public Policy,’ PHI 531, Section 1, which will run on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3:30 – 4:45 pm. The course will begin with an examination of major moral traditions as well as ethical problems that are special challenges for leadership in the policy sphere. We will then survey a variety of policy areas and documents in which moral consideration is deeply important and needed.

The Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

A stack of newspapers.Areas of interest and application for the course will include:

  • Educational Aims & Policies
  • Mass lncarceration
  • Healthcare Ethics
  • Economic Development Policies
  • Climate Change
  • Human Rights
  • Research Ethics
  • Animal Rights
Image of a flyer for the course, featuring the information described on the present page.

Flyer for the course.

My former students who have studied ethics and public policy with me have gone on to work in the White House, under both the present and previous administrations, the House of Representatives and the Senate, the State Department, the F.B.I., the Heritage Foundation, the Center for American Progress, and numerous think-tanks, as well as a variety of offices in state government. There is need for study of the kind addressed in this course also for countless advocacy groups and organizations, as well as in current events journalism.

For those interested, here is the University of Kentucky’s page with information about how to register for courses for the Fall of 2018.

For those interested in more information now, you can check out my books on ethics and public policy, including:

Cover for 'Morality, Leadership, and Public Policy.'

 

Morality, Leadership, & Public Policy (London: Bloomsbury, 2010)

 

Photo of the paperback and hardback editions of 'Democracy and Leadership.'Democracy and Leadership: On Pragmatism and Virtue (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013)

and

Paperback editions featuring the cover of 'Uniting Mississippi.'Uniting Mississippi: Democracy and Leadership in the South (Jackson, MS: The University Press of Mississippi, 2015)

 

The logo for Philosophy Bakes Bread, which involves to slices of bread with tails, making them look like dialogue bubbles.In addition, for those who are unfamiliar, I co-host the Philosophy Bakes Bread radio show & podcast that airs on WRFL Lexington, 88.1 FM and in the show we cover a number of public policy topics. Give it a listen!

From Skepticism to Engagement: Building Deliberative Faith among Israeli College Students (Connections 2016)

The seven-page article, “From Skepticism to Engagement: Building Deliberative Faith among Israeli College Students” by Idit Manosevitch was published in Kettering Foundation‘s 2016 edition of their annual newsletter, Connections – Kettering’s Multinational Research. In the third article of the newsletter, Manosevitch shares the story of when he initiated the first student-led deliberation conference in Israel and the profound effect it had on the students, staff, and school community. Below is an excerpt from the article and Connections 2016 is available for free PDF download on Kettering’s site here.

From the article…

One of the spaces that seems appropriate for educating people for citizenship is academia. As an educational arena with a public mission and young citizens as key players, it may—and some would argue ought—to be a hub of civic education for deliberative public skills and values. This captures the essence of deliberative pedagogy, an area of ongoing research at the Kettering Foundation.

In what follows, I tell the story of what inspired me to get involved in deliberative pedagogy and share some insights from experimentation with Israeli students in recent years.

On January 16, 2013, six days prior to the Israeli general elections, I initiated the first student-led deliberative issue conference at the School of Communication in Netanya Academic College in Israel. The event was tagged “Students say NO to the horse race: Elections Conference 2013.”

The conference was a peak event in an intensive three-month process with my undergraduate seminar students, which combined theory and practice. Theoretical readings and discussions served as a baseline for understanding the essence of deliberative theory and the role of public deliberation in democratic societies. The hands-on process of preparing for and facilitating a deliberative, student-led issue conference complemented the theory and helped students internalize the idea of public deliberation, the norms and values associated with it, and the challenges of pursuing such ideals in practice.

Faculty had cautioned me not to expect more than 50 participants because students—as I should well know—are uninterested, unengaged, and unwilling to make extra efforts beyond the mandatory degree requirements. My students were also wary, and rightly so. A week prior to our deliberative election conference, a political panel took place in the same conference hall, with representatives from 12 different parties running for office. The event was stopped in the middle due to a political dispute, in which the audience began shouting and booing one of the representatives. It was a very disappointing and embarrassing experience for the college community. My students were concerned about moderating group discussions—What if participants don’t talk? What if they get violent and we cannot control them? Some suggested we hire security guards.

But the concerns turned out to be unwarranted. The conference outcomes exceeded everyone’s expectations—students and faculty alike. We had an unexpected turnout of 127 student participants, which surpassed my goal of 100 students. After the opening plenary, students broke up into 10 groups that engaged in lively discussions of the selected election issues. Faculty members were startled to see students actively participating in civilized discussions led by their fellow classmates. So were the student-moderators. I cannot help smiling when I recall that beautiful moment when I stood humbled in the middle of the conference hall immediately after the end of the discussions, and numerous students approached me, excited to share their reflections. Group moderators were thrilled about their experience, and first-year students were anxious to find out how they could sign up to serve as moderators next year. Before I knew it, a new tradition was born.

This is just an excerpt, you can read the rest of the article by clicking here.

About Kettering Foundation and Connections
KF_LogoThe Kettering Foundation is a nonprofit operating foundation rooted in the American tradition of cooperative research. Kettering’s primary research question is, what does it take to make democracy work as it should? Kettering’s research is distinctive because it is conducted from the perspective of citizens and focuses on what people can do collectively to address problems affecting their lives, their communities, and their nation.

Each issue of this annual newsletter focuses on a particular area of Kettering’s research. The 2016 issue of Connections, edited by KF program officer and senior writer/editor Melinda Gilmore; KF senior associate Philip Stewart; and KF vice president, secretary, and general counsel Maxine Thomas, focuses on our year-long review of our multinational research.

Follow on Twitter: @KetteringFdn

Resource Link: www.kettering.org/sites/default/files/periodical-article/Manosevitch-Connections-2016.pdf

Canadian School of Peacebuilding

The Canadian School of Peacebuilding (CSOP), an institute of Canadian Mennonite University, offers a selection of five-day courses each June. Courses can be taken for professional or personal development or for academic credit.

The CSOP is designed for anyone between the ages of 20 and 90 who is interested in peace work, including not-for-profit staff and interns, activists and peace educators, community leaders, religious leaders, teachers and professors, students (undergraduate or graduate), and government officials. All participants need to be fluent in English. The school is designed to be an environment characterized by educating for peace and justice, learning through thinking and doing, generous hospitality and radical dialogue, and the modeling of invitational community. The CSOP is for peacebuilders from all faiths, countries and identity groups.

Information about registration, costs, meals, and lodging is available on their website, as well as course descriptions, instructor bios, videos, pictures and stories from past years of CSOP, and peace resources. You can follow them on Twitter, and find them on Facebook and Instagram. Inquiries about the school, especially regarding registration can be sent to their main email address: csop@cmu.ca.

Resource Link: http://csop.cmu.ca/

This resource was submitted by Megan Klassen-Wiebe, Partnership and Public Engagement Coordinator of Canadian School of Peacebuilding via the Add-a-Resource form.

Loyalty, Research, and Prison Education

I’m in Dallas, Texas for the the National Conference for Higher Education in Prison. Today I’ll be presenting a paper from a larger project on loyalty and social science research methods which draws on an argument I first encountered in Peter Levine’s work. Here’s a link to the PowerPoint of my talk.

It is fairly typical for those who work in college prison education to have arrived at this work through exposure to extraordinary classes of incarcerated students. That’s certainly the case for me: the students in my first class six years ago were so inspiring that I’ve kept doing it ever since. In that sense, we are motivated by loyalty. This may make us good teachers, organizers, and activists. But there’s some question whether it makes us good researchers.

When we publish we are sometimes asked to fill out a conflict of interest form. A typical conflict of interest disclosure for social science journals will ask for potentially biasing obligations we may have incurred through financial incentives, but also about potential bias from non-financial relationship, including personal relationships with students and programs we have helped to build:

The authors whose names are listed immediately below certify that they have NO affiliations with or involvement in any organization or entity with any financial interest (such as honoraria; educational grants; participation in speakers’ bureaus; membership, employment, consultancies, stock ownership, or other equity interest; and expert testimony or patent-licensing arrangements), or non-financial interest (such as personal or professional relationships, affiliations, knowledge or beliefs) in the subject matter or materials discussed in this manuscript.

This Elsevier form is a typical one. It’s quite short compared to similar disclosure forms that people in​ government are asked to fill out. In addition to the obvious sorts of things–such as climate change skepticism funded by a coal mining company–the form asks us to share our “personal or professional relationships, affiliations, knowledge, or beliefs.” There are, I think, two kinds of implications for such disclosures:

  1. Mere knowledge of my “conflicts” is sufficient to warn the reader that my research may be biased.
  2. The sources of conflict go well beyond my paycheck, to encompass my friendships, my preexisting beliefs, and ultimately my loyalties.

The evidence seems to clearly suggest that (1) is false: we are not very good at discounting the assertions of experts even when we know they may be biased. (For instance, we do not sufficiently doubt a mechanic when we know that he may prefer an expensive fix partly because he stands to profit from it.)

But we think the implications of (2) are important for social scientists to consider.  Our affiliations, friendships, and loyalties ultimately dictate the choices we make as researchers, our commitments and priors as we approach evidence, and provide something like a “stopping rule,” whereby we keep researching until we find evidence to fit these preferences. (See literature on motivated reasoning & skepticism, and perhaps also cultural cognition.) Thus we are potentially “conflicted” or “biased” by the very relationships that motivate our scholarship

Consider what this can mean:

  • Education researchers usually enter the field with various preferred policy outcomes (perhaps related to race, gender, poverty, and unionization, but sometimes also preferred teaching environment). They know their work will be used by activists on both sides of various policy questions, and insofar as they continue to work in these areas they tend to want that to happen, whether it’s to promote universal pre-K programs, charter schools and vouchers, or protect collective bargaining and teacher tenure.
  • Medical researchers typically have culturally-specific loyalties to fitness and health–which can cause them to overstate the risks of overweight and obese bodies, as well as overstating the prospects for weight-loss.
  • Political scientists are usually well aware of the prospects for partisan bias–while ignoring their deeper affiliations to their own nation-state’s constitutional norms, such as judicial independence or bicameral legislature. Meanwhile political theorists often have a fundamental political orientation that guides them, like liberalism, conservatism, or even participatory–rather than merely representative–democracy.

I don’t think this kind of loyalty is biasing, though I’m happy to report it when required. In fact, I think it’s a kind of methodological superpower. Peter Levine expanded on this theme in a recent blog post, “Loyalty in Intellectual Work:”

“I’ve noticed that sometimes people expect me to endorse the underlying “theory of change” of a given field very strongly and are disappointed when I won’t. I usually cannot say that a given strategy or premise is the best one available, because I don’t really believe that. Instead, I think that a field or movement turns into what people make of it. So I see myself as a member who wants to make the movement as good as it can be, not as an independent scholar who has judged the movement and found it superior to others.”

Levine is a member in good standing of at least nine different scholarly communities and social movements, and as far as I can tell he has produced and disseminated useful scholarship in each. Yet he claims to have little attachment to the specific accounts of the world to which those communities seem to cling. This is only possibly because he rejects the cognitivist view of the joint endeavor: his loyalty is to the people, not the ideas.

On this approach, any active scholarly endeavor that is attached to, or feeds into, a political project on behalf of a group of people needs to hold its middle range theories relatively lightly. Our loyalties are to communities of practice and inquiry rather than to the reigning theory of etiology and efficacy that the community holds.

To me, this feels familiar. Prison education has a reigning theory of efficacy: the decreased recidivism rates of our incarcerated students. But there’s good reason to hold this view a bit lightly: our loyalty to incarcerated students themselves. If a particular theory of the efficacy of prison education is disproven, I don’t suddenly lose interest in working with prisoners. Indeed, I hope this happens frequently and rapidly in any field I participate in, because theories imply methods, and using the wrong method means we’re being ineffective.

Therefore, even though the body of evidence for prison education looks quite strong, it is not unassailable. We should anticipate that some of the most famous causal claims will come under fire, and we shouldn’t worry: we should seek new theories and work to clarify the old ones. Our loyalty is to the national community of incarcerated student scholars, not to the particular vision of education spelled out in the Three-State Recidivism Study or the RAND Study. I’d even willingly rethink the claims that Daniel Levine and I made in our own contribution to this literature given the right kind of evidence. Nor is our loyalty to particular students: the project of improving prison education nationally and ending mass incarceration has to take precedence over our loyalty to the men and women who are currently benefiting from the Second Chance Pell experiment, since this small group can make or break the program for the country.

Yet this is still a bias of sorts: we’ll always going to be looking for research that humanizes prisoners (thankfully, they are in fact our fellow human beings, so we’re unlikely to be in error there) and reduces our reliance on incarceration. If a strategy doesn’t work, we’re more likely to ask whether it can be tweaked or fixed than to abandon it.

And there’s good evidence that this is an important feature of social science research. One can evince a generic loyalty to a community of people affected by an overarching problem, but who are presented with conflicting narratives for resolving that problem. The researcher can then help adjudicate these explanations and theories of change. For instance, Kristie Dotson’s paper, “How is this paper philosophy?” proposes that disciplinary norms in philosophy departments and journals be altered to make room for work like hers by and in service of diverse practitioners. And in explaining her work, she celebrates the communities to which she belongs for inspiring it:

“I use philosophy to help support, generate and defend research, advocacy and activism that might change the current plight of Black people in the US, particularly promoting better conditions for Black cis- and trans* women, girls and gender non-conforming people. In other words, I am a Black feminist professional philosopher working in the service of Black feminist agendas.” (Philosop-her interview)

Loyalty to a community is not loyalty to a specific theory of change or efficacy, and in fact loyalty can motivate dissent from reigning theories in favor of alternatives. In prison education in particular, I think we need to worry about the sheepskin effect and the signaling theory of education: most of the college wage premium comes from completing school, rather than bit-by-bit along the way. That’s surprising: most skills are learned incrementally, and are beneficial in that incremental way. College, it seems, is all or nothing. Half or even 90% of a college degree does very little to increase your income, while finishing that last course makes a big difference.

Our anxiety should be that college seems to serve more as a signal of ability and conscientiousness than as training in necessary skills. The difference between someone who has a bachelor’s degree and someone who has 117 credits is quite small, in terms of knowledge. But the person who is unable or unwilling to finish his degree must have some incapacity or impediment. The degree is a signal that those elements are missing. Employers are paying for smart and hardworking staff, and a college degree is a reliable signal of those qualities. And indeed in college campuses throughout the country we see evidence that this is true: no one thinks that a cheater or a plagiarist is “only cheating himself,” they worry that he has an unfair advantage. The grade matters more than the work, it seems, which is also why students seek out “easy As” and rejoice when class is canceled. And many students readily engage in “cramming” for exams knowing that they will not retain the material in the long-term. (I owe these examples to Bryan Caplan, though they now seem almost too obvious to attribute.)

In this sense, then, we have to worry that prison education will, like education outside of prison, create a meritocratic hierarchy among prisoners. Rather than humanizing those behind the fence, it may sometimes have the effect of selecting a chosen few, “the exceptions.” So we should be willing to hold the various theories of education lightly.

  • Perhaps prison education is valuable because it enhances signals of employability, reducing the stigma of incarceration.
  • Perhaps prison education works to connect high status faculty with low status prisoners, and that association passes along cultural capital.
  • Perhaps prison education works by identifying and raising the profile of certain organic intellectuals among people who are incarcerated. Or perhaps it simply allows the Du Bois’s Talented Tenth to rise.
  • Perhaps education is a human right and we should ignore efficacy evidence for prison education.
  • Perhaps prison education in the humanities and liberal arts teaches students important self-regulation and conflict resolution skills.
  • Perhaps prison education provides important opportunities for deliberation over fundamental values which can lead to effective reprobation and rehabilitation of the moral injuries of a crime.
  • Perhaps prison education is a part of a larger process of reframing people who are incarcerated through the lens of deficits to seeing them as assets to their community.
  • Perhaps the soul knows no bars, and prison education is an important corrective to our overly punitive system of mass incarceration.

Loyalty requires to keep exploring these alternatives rather than rest easy with the RAND study. We’re better researchers because of it.