Before I go any deeper into the arguments in favor of the School is Bullshit hypothesis, I want to start outlining the basic, gut-level arguments against it.
To start with, as soon as you say that schooling might not be needed for good life outcomes, you start to think, but isn’t one of the main tenants of international development that schooling is necessary for good life outcomes?
Indeed, one of the millennium development goals is universal primary education. But is this a means, or a goal? Does sending kids to school help improve life outcomes, or do we consider school attendance as one of the life outcomes we’re trying to improve?
When I tried to find evidence on this question, I came up unexpectedly short. It’s easy to prove that there is a high correlation in the developing world between a mother’s educational level and her children’s life outcomes. But this is not relevant to the question at hand. If education were a consumer good, we would expect wealthier people to attain more of it, and also to have better access to healthcare and other resources. This doesn’t prove that one causes the other.
I’m having trouble finding any good review of actual research on causation. The closest I can find is Givewell’s review of education charities. They are dubious. Though they don’t dismiss the idea, just say that there’s not enough evidence to substantiate it. So it may just be no one’s bothered to check.
I will keep looking and report back if I find anything more firm, but at the moment, I think we can at least say that we should be highly skeptical of education’s effects on life outcomes.