A Theoretical ‘Case Against Education’

Scott Alexander at Astral Codex Ten: There’s been renewed debate around Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education recently, so I want to discuss one way I think about this question.

Education isn’t just about facts. But it’s partly about facts. Facts are easy to measure, and they’re a useful signpost for deeper understanding. If someone has never heard of Chaucer, Dickens, Melville, Twain, or Joyce, they probably haven’t learned to appreciate great literature. If someone can’t identify Washington, Lincoln, or either Roosevelt, they probably don’t understand the ebb and flow of American history. So what facts does the average American know?

In a 1999 poll, only 66% of Americans age 18-29 knew that the US won independence from Britain (as opposed to some other country). About 47% of Americans can name all three branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial). 37% know the closest planet to the sun (Mercury). 58% know which gas causes most global warming (carbon dioxide). 44% know Auschwitz was the site of a concentration camp. Fewer than 50% (ie worse than chance) can correctly answer a true-false question about whether electrons are bigger than atoms.

These results are scattered across many polls, which makes them vulnerable to publication bias; I can’t find a good unified general knowledge survey of the whole population. But there’s a great survey of university students. Keeping in mind that this is a highly selected, extra-smart population, here are some data points:

  • 85% know who wrote Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare)
  • 56% know the biggest planet (Jupiter)
  • 44% know who rode on horseback in 1775 to warn that the British were coming (Paul Revere)
  • 33% know what organ produces insulin (pancreas)
  • 31% know the capital of Russia (Moscow)
  • 30% know who discovered the Theory of Relativity (Einstein)
  • 19% know what mountain range contains Mt. Everest (Himalayas)
  • 19% know who wrote 1984 (George Orwell)
  • 16% know what word the raven says in Poe’s “The Raven” (“Nevermore!”)
  • 10% know the captain’s name in Moby Dick (Ahab)
  • 7% know who discovered, in 1543, that the Earth orbits the sun (Copernicus)
  • 4% know what Chinese religion was founded by Lao Tse (Taoism)
  • <1% know what city the general Hannibal was from (Carthage)

Remember, these are university students, so the average person’s performance is worse.

More here.