What is the Value of Life, Pt. 6: Education
What is the Value of Life, Pt. 6: Education

What is the Value of Life, Pt. 6: Education

One of the most astonishing news stories of the past couple of weeks is the large number of people taking an animal dewormer, ivermectin, in an attempt to cure or prevent COVID-19 without taking an FDA-approved vaccination. The problem is so widespread that the FDA released a lengthy statement about why ivermectin shouldn’t be taken, especially in the doses intended for horses and other large animals. 

The lack of logic here is astounding. There are three drugs, all administered as vaccinations, approved for the treatment of COVID-19 in the United States. They have been tested, vetted, and the Pfizer vaccine has full FDA approval. Making things even better, they’re free. You don’t have to pay for them. Just show up at your local pharmacy in most cases and they’ll be happy to give you a jab. So, if an approved medicine is available for free, why would anyone take an unapproved drug that is proven to be dangerous?

 This is just one of a growing number of incongruencies that lead us to question whether our secondary school science education is failing and the decline of the whole education system in the United States. What’s wrong? Every child in the United States is required by law to attend school, regardless of where they live, what their economic or family situation might be, their religion, their gender, or their presumed capacity for learning. If everyone is going to school for at least twelve years, then why aren’t we, as a nation, smart enough to not take horse medicine?

Researchers, teachers, and pundits offer plenty of excuses for this problem. Everything from decreasing school funding, excessive emphasis on standardized testing, child and family poverty, the No Child Left Behind Act, and plenty of other factors have a part in explaining why a high school education in 2021 is less valuable than, say, a high school education in 1975. Not that 1975 was infallible, mind you. The American educational system has a long history of bias and underserving particular populations, such as people of color and children from indigenous families. What has become evident, though, born out through the challenges of the pandemic, is that our education system has some pretty severe flaws. 

Equally disturbing is what seems to be a rise in anti-intellectualism in the United States, further devaluing not only the education system but those who appear to be well-educated or in some fashion smarter than others. Anti-intellectualism isn’t new, historian Richard Hofstadter took a deep look at the problem in his book, Anti-intellectualism in American Life all the way back in 1963. Devaluing education is a uniquely American thing to do. For far too many people, the question is not what is the value of education, but is there any value to education at all?

To understand the impact of education on a person’s valuation we have to first look at the definitions of things such as education, intellect, knowledge, and learning and understand that those definitions have been in a constant state of debate for thousands of years. The fact that there is no widespread consensus on those definitions may itself be a part of the problem. This is embarrassingly reminiscent of President Clinton’s statement in August 1998, that “it depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is.” Without clear definitions, how can we begin to assess the value of anything at all?

At The Foundation of Education

Intelligence, Knowledge, Education, and Learning are all terms to which we think we understand the definition, and on a superficial, everyday conversational level we probably do. If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the past few weeks, though, it’s that definitions are like icebergs: there’s always more beneath the surface that most of us never considered.

Before we dig into education, before anyone can be educated, we have to first have some understanding of what intelligence is and what it means to have knowledge. Yes, those are both separate terms, and grasping the difference is as important as the definition itself.

At a fundamental level, intelligence is “ a capacity to acquire, adapt, modify, extend and use information in order to solve problems. Therefore, intelligence is the ability to cope with unpredictable circumstances. [Philosophy Now]” That sort of seems straightforward enough for most people to grasp, I suppose. 

Granted, that whole acquire, adapt, modify, extend, and use part can be a bit challenging. How I acquire information affects how readily I can adapt it into something I understand. I can look at mathematics textbooks all day and none of it will make a lick of sense to me. I need someone to verbally explain, carefully, what all the integers mean and even then I’m going to need multiple iterations and examples before I’m ready to adapt and modify anything. My brother, on the other hand, can pretty much look at an equation and know exactly what to do with it. When we were younger I thought he was just odd. Turns out, much of our world is dependent on people like him having the intelligence to do the same thing.

We could talk all day about the acquisition, adaptation, modification, extension, and usability of information. There are multiple variables to each of those pieces and then when you get to the end of those conversations and find there’s a flaw with the information you have to start all over. 

Then, as if that weren’t enough, we have to consider that there is more than one kind of intelligence. There’s also social and emotional intelligence and just because a person might have one kind of intelligence doesn’t mean they have either of the other two. The long-running television series, Big Bang Theory derived a large part of its humor from the conflicts arising from academically intelligent characters having limited social and emotional intelligence, a stereotype perpetuated particularly among those involved in the sciences. 

So, how do we know if we’re intelligent, or if someone else is intelligent? Turns out, that’s a touchy question because not only are there different definitions of intelligence, how to measure intelligence is a whole other can of worms made complicated by its historical ties to the practice of eugenics. Eugenics, in case you slept through that class or decided to go surfing that day, is the practice of trying to increase desirable traits in reproduction by deciding who should mate with whom and eliminating those who don’t have those traits. If that sounds nasty, it is. While they didn’t invent the concept, eugenics was the justification Nazis used for the extermination of Jews. 

Alfred Binet developed the first intelligence test in 1904 to try and identify which students would benefit from special education. It didn’t take long for a number of issues to be identified with that test, though, so in 1914, psychologist Lewis Terman decided that if one takes Binet’s intelligence score, divides it by a person’s chronological age, then multiplies that number by 100 so there aren’t all those pesky decimals, then one would have an indexable measure of relative intelligence. However, without any reference to a particular theoretical framework, those measures are meaningless and shouldn’t be used to judge a person’s capabilities. 

There have been other attempts to try and measure intelligence, each one claiming some level of accuracy, but each of those have proven to be flawed in various applications. When we get to the end of the day, there is no single instrument that accurately defines intelligence over a wide group of people. Sorry, Mensa, but in the grand scheme of things your IQ scores are irrelevant and anyone who tries to tell you differently is either delusional themselves or hoping you’re not as smart as you look. 

If intelligence is so difficult to define and impossible to measure, how then are we supposed to build on that to define knowledge and education so that we know if someone has learned anything? We know that being intelligent has value, but we don’t have an equitable system for understanding it and, after looking at the history of eugenics, I’m not sure that kind of information is something with which humanity can be trusted.

Knowledge Is A Nice Word To Know

For a lot of people, it would seem that intelligence and knowledge are two sides of the same coin. After all, if you’re intelligent, you know a lot of stuff, right? That’s not actually the case, though. Intelligence is a measure of what you’re capable of knowing, how much information you can retain and process, and there’s no real way to significantly increase one’s intelligence. Knowledge, on the other hand, is something one can obtain, grow, and develop to the extent that one’s intelligence bucket is capable of holding it all. 

Among the list of things you need to know at this particular moment is the word epistemology, which is the formal, largely philosophical study of knowledge, what it is, how it occurs, and all that fun stuff. A lot of recent work in the field involves how our confidence in any particular set of facts is constrained by the amount, source, and understanding of that information. There are also a lot of contemporary studies around how our interests and biases affect our views of any particular set of evidence. What epistemology ultimately wants to understand is the reasons and conditions for cognitive success or failure. What causes us to successfully know something?

You also need to know that the entire discussion around knowledge ultimately stems from Plato’s statement that knowledge is “justified true belief.” [Theaetetus] A lot of people consider this to be the starting point for understanding what knowledge is and the value of knowledge. Plato provided a basic framework of arguments around that statement, such as whether or not there can be such a thing as a false belief, and we’ve been arguing those points and trying to apply them to contemporary applications ever since.

Of all the areas we’ve talked about the past six weeks, this is the one that could justifiably be its own series, which I might consider if I thought anyone would actually pay attention. The arguments go deep and get long, though, and at times appear to get bogged down in minutia that may not significantly affect the outcome. If it helps you understand how challenging this is, even Plato ended at an impasse, not able to fully resolve his own definition.

Plato revisits the subject of knowledge again in the Socratic dialogue Meno, where he addresses the question of why knowledge is more valuable than true belief. Right away, you know that this part of the discussion is likely to be upsetting to the religiously devout who put an emphasis on belief, or faith. Plato’s solution was that knowledge is intrinsically tethered to the truth, that knowledge cannot and does not exist where there is not truth. 

To frame this in terms of a contemporary argument, one might believe that the 2020 election was stolen or in some way falsified. One is free to believe whatever they wish on the topic. However, what the evidence presents as truth is that there were no significant improprieties in the election process and that Mr. Biden won the election as fair and square as any election in the United States is ever won. We know that Mr. Biden is president because that is what the truth determines.

Obviously, that example is an oversimplification of the argument, especially when it comes to the matter of whether it is enough to know something, to be cognitively aware that something is true, or whether one needs to understand why or how that thing is true. Let’s go back to the subject of me and math. I may know that the formula for finding the circumference of a circle is to multiply the diameter times pi. However, if I don’t understand how or why I might apply that information to a real-world situation, then does that knowledge retain its value? Similarly, I know how to play the piano. In some people’s opinion, I know how to play the piano quite well. However, if I never actually play the piano, if I’m never around a piano, if I never listen to anyone else play the piano, is the value of my knowledge reduced? I would argue that at this point in my life my knowledge of the piano and how to play it proficiently is pretty much worthless. However, the moment I’m asked to play one and sit at an instrument, that valuation changes, and the fact that I can respond affirmatively to such a request also has value.

Now, there are plenty of people who argue that justifiable truth is valuable in its own right whether we understand it, need it, or have any relation to it at all. I don’t have to be aware of the speed of an atom when propelled through a supercollider for that information to be valuable. I don’t personally have to know the tensile strength of a steel girder for that truth to have value. My knowledge of the contents of a vaccine does not affect the value of that vaccine. 

While the precise method for valuing knowledge is debatable and that such a valuation might be variable depending on a host of circumstances there’s little question that knowledge is valuable. What ultimately makes the difference is what we do or don’t do with that knowledge and that, my friend, is where we finally get down to the topic of education.

Is Education Working For Us?

When we start talking about education, we have to understand from the outset that anything I say in the next handful of sentences is inevitably incomplete. Education is an enormous field of thought. The 2003 encyclopedic A Companion to the Philosophy of Education commits over 600 pages to 45 subfields of work and still barely skims the surface.  I have a budget of roughly 600 words or less before you start nodding off. 

Way back in the dark ages of 1981, I was required to take a course in the fundamentals of education because it was a widely held belief among musicians that teaching is an inevitable task for any musician and, therefore, it would behoove us to have some basic concept of what to do, or not do. The course focused primarily on the works of psychologist B. F. Skinner and the influences of John Locke, Bertrand Russel, and a healthy dose of Pavlov and his bell-crazy dogs. The lesson most of us took from the course was that a person would have to be at least marginally insane to enter the field of education.

What is probably more important for our conversation is to understand that much of the American concept of education once again goes back to Plato. American’s take a lot of our general philosophy from his Socratic dialogues and we’re especially fond of The Republic. So, it’s not terribly surprising that when he makes the argument in that treatise that everyone in the country needs to be educated for the betterment of the government, we bought into that idea 100% at a time when most the rest of the world only provided education to the elite with a strong preference towards educating young men. The state of Massachusetts was the first to require compulsory education in 1852 and it didn’t take long for other states to follow suit. By the time the US entered World War II, it was reasonably arguable that the United States had the most educated military in the world.

Education is more than just the act of going to school, though. In The Logic of Education (Hirst, Peters, 1970) the authors set a pretty high standard for what education has to achieve. They laid out three criteria that must be met before one can say that a person has been educated.

  1. The person has to be changed for the better.
  2. That change has to not only include the attainment of knowledge and intellectual skill but has to also include demonstrated understanding of the field.
  3. The person has to actually care about what they’ve learned.

Based on that criteria, one might find plenty of room to challenge whether education is taking place in public schools at all. Yes, we are sending children to school, and yes, we are measuring their ability to regurgitate information, but the question of whether they care at all about what they’ve learned leaves open the question of whether they’re being genuinely educated or merely indoctrinated.

Briefly, indoctrination differs from education when the purpose of what is taught is to achieve an end separate from what is intrinsically in the best interest of the student. Yes, there’s plenty of room to argue. No, we’re not getting into that now.

So, assuming that you or your child are one of the lucky ones who achieve a full education as we’ve defined it, what is the value of that education? Hold on, you may not like the answer. In the US, there are basically two forms of valuation for education: The human capital theory and the signaling theory

Human capital theory is arguably the dominant take in the United States. The concept is that education gives people what they need to be more valuable to employers and therefore they’ll make more money. Yes, this is very telling as to where our national priorities lie if that wasn’t already evident through a thousand other sources. 

Signaling theory, by contrast, claims that education makes an employer more likely to hire someone than they would the person who has less or no education. This explains why you see degree requirements in hiring for jobs that really don’t require or even benefit from a degree. The thought is that just the act of having an education makes one a better employee.

So, where does that leave those of us with arts or humanities education? Is there value in an education that has no inherent or direct employability attached but generally makes one a better person, a more informed citizen, with a greater appreciation for life itself? Does education only exist to create a better class of workers, or is the greater value in being able to find beauty in and through whatever life we’re leading? If the only reason for going to school is to receive the credential, one might be tempted to question whether there is any genuine value at all.

Are We Learning Anything?

If education is to have any value, we must assume that someone has learned something, otherwise, the entire practice is meaningless. This raises yet another question: is there value in the act of learning? The answer is almost a requisite yes. We can argue rather handily that having learned anything improves who we are and what we experience because we now know, or at least perceive something we did not or could not prior to that education.

Reality is starkly different from theory, though, and it is in looking at the value of learning that we see the strongest discrepancies in the value of education as a whole. Take, as an extreme example, the battle for getting one’s toddlers into elite preschools. The fact that such schools exist anywhere creates discrimination in education from the very beginning. That some children’s minds are being prepared and conditioned for learning almost from the moment they exit the womb gives them an arguably unfair advantage over their peers who don’t have the same advantage. 

For example, I grew up in rural Oklahoma. There were no elite preschools anywhere near us. The only preschools that existed in our neck of the woods were basic childcare services for children whose parents both had to work. We all started kindergarten at age five, but it was only a half-day and a good chunk of that was spent either in recess, snacks, or nap time. We all went to the same public school. None of the counties where I grew up had any kind of private school available. So, to a large extent, the level of education and the opportunity for learning were arguably equitable for everyone who wasn’t forced to go to one of the Indian schools. [The sad reality of indigenous schools is a separate mess for a different conversation.]

Now, when we all got to college, especially those who graduated at or near the top of our high school class, many of us were caught off guard because now there were peers who had the benefit of that elite, private school education. Their learning processes were different. They had a larger base of learning skills from which to draw. Their education had provided them with something ours hadn’t, and that gave them a distinct advantage. That doesn’t mean the rest of us couldn’t learn just as readily, but we had to work harder, with greater levels of determination to make it happen.

Learning, in its most generous definition, refers to long-term changes in perception based on some combination of practice and experience. If we do not experience a change in perception, then our knowledge of that field has not changed and education has not taken place.

One important aspect of this conversation is understanding that learning does not occur for everyone at the same time nor in the same manner. Therefore, the value of that learning differs according to one’s relationship to the method by which they were taught. Going back to my challenge with math, there was a period in the early 1970s where I got a D in geometry. The teaching method was to present the information as described in the textbook and practice the formulas with the goal of achieving adequate comprehension. That method failed to alter my perception in a way that stuck. What small amounts I learned held little value because I didn’t know what to do with it.

Years later, someone came along who showed me how to put those same formulas and equations to work in ways that directly impacted my photography. This time, my perception changed, understanding was achieved, and the value of what I learned increased dramatically. The question was never whether there was value in learning math, but whether my perception was sufficient to utilize the math.

The value of learning is a factor of the outcome of education, a measure of education’s success. Have we learned something that makes our lives better in some way, either by improving our economic situation, allowing us to participate in more agreeable social circles, or experience greater pleasure in how we live our lives? For some, there is value in the credentials that come with academic certification. For others, the value lies in their ability to retain and access blocks of information on command. Still, others find the value of what they’ve learned is their ability to survive in difficult conditions. 

No matter how one values learning, there’s little argument that having learned something is better than the ignorance of learning nothing at all, which is a reality for far too many people.

One Size Fits None

If there is anything we can derive from examining the value of education, at least as it occurs in the United States, it’s that we’re probably doing most of it wrong, inequitably, and horribly underfunded. The number of papers, articles, and research published by teachers lamenting this fact is staggering and they’ve been telling us the same thing repeatedly for over 20 years now without seeing any significant improvement. 

At the same time, it’s difficult to say that the system is completely worthless when a report published this past Wednesday shows that this year’s college graduates are earning more than ever! Granted, the highest paying jobs are all in the high tech sector which is also seeing the highest demand, but salaries for new graduates across the board are up. While some of that increase is related to increased need and/or incentives related to the COVID-19 pandemic, for those who value education based on the ability to find profitable employment, this is a win. The system would seem to be producing the desired output.

Let’s look at it another way. A study published this past March shows that life expectancy is reduced for those in the US who don’t have a Bachelor’s degree of some sort. The synopsis alone is frightening: “The bachelor’s degree (BA) is increasingly dividing Americans; the one-third with a BA or more live longer and more prosperous lives, while the two-thirds without face rising mortality and declining prospects.” This would seem to indicate that the value of education is that one not only lives longer but is happier with their life. However, this study is also predicated on people with college degrees having better jobs and earning more money.

What neither study examines, perhaps because it is too early yet to draw definite conclusions, is the long-term effect of graduating from college with inordinate amounts of debt, something that those at ages over 50 whose life expectancy increased did not have to consider. Student loan debt in 2020 was a record $1.6 trillion. So yes, it’s a good thing that college graduates are earning more than ever because their debt is higher than ever. This impacts their ability to live “more prosperous lives” because they can barely afford a one-bedroom apartment and can’t consider big-ticket items such as buying a new car, a home, or starting a family. As a result, it is possible that this current generation of college grads may not see the life expectancy increase noted in their parents’ generation.

There’s also the fact that of those who graduate with a bachelor’s degree, only 27% end up working in the field of their major. Nearly ¾ of college graduates don’t work in the jobs for which they were educated. In some cases, it’s because there are not enough jobs to employ the number of graduates, but more often than not, it’s the student’s choice to look elsewhere, either because they’ve become disillusioned with the field or an alternative opportunity arose providing more immediate satisfaction.

After all this conversation, we end up questioning whether we’re getting our money’s worth from the education system in the United States. Sure, there is value to be had, but is the return greater than the investment? Most formal studies say that yes, we’re still getting a positive return. At the same time, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that maybe it’s not going as well as we think.

When one gets to the ending point of their formal education journey, we have to ask, “are we better for what we have done?” This question goes directly back to Hirst and Peters’ insistence that education must change the student for the better. If, after spending tens of thousands of dollars for an education one is no better off than the person who barely managed to graduate high school, one has a right to seriously question the value of their education. 

We steadfastly want to believe that education has value because historical evidence shows that it should have value. Every generation from Plato forward has stood by this premise even in periods of strong anti-intelligence movements. Education has value and the more education one has the greater that value becomes. 

However, there are far too many people for whom that experience is not true. Saddled with debt, forced into work they don’t like just to make student loan payments, putting off for decades the markers of prosperity that their parents enjoyed, this latest generation makes a strong argument that, at the very least, the value of education is deteriorating rapidly. Without strong and dramatic changes to the entire system, we could lose that value altogether, which doesn’t seem like a choice smart, well-educated people would make, does it?

We Need Your Help

We’ve hit a snag and desperately need your help more than ever. Specifically, sending charles back to school isn’t going smoothly as his request for financial aid was declined. That means if he goes back to school, everything has to come out of his own pocket. Everything. Total cost: about $7,000 per semester at least for the first two semesters. After that, we’ll have to re-evaluate. That’s not going to happen on what little charles makes.

We’ve changed donation methods, for now, to hopefully make it a little easier and more transparent. You can pay directly through PayPal using either a credit card or your own PayPal account. With this new delay, charles’ target for starting classes is now Fall ‘22. That gives us roughly a year to come up with the funds. If you listen to these podcasts, if you enjoy what charles writes, perhaps you see the value in donating, maybe even on a monthly basis rather than trying to do a lot all at once. 

We would also appreciate you helping us spread the word about these podcasts. charles puts a lot of work into each one and annoys the family to no small end when he’s recording them. Growing our audience increases the opportunity to meet our goals.

Whether you donate today or not, thank you for listening and/or reading. We appreciate you being here.


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