Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

This is kinda weird . . .

But I'll pass it along anyway. Our friends at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (disclosure alert: they funded research of mine many years ago) offer an "'calculator' that explores the link between education and mortality in America". "The tool allows users to adjust the education level where they live – on a county-by-county level – and see how many lives could be saved if education were improved."

Now, it's true that education correlates with health and life expectancy, and improving educational effectiveness, retention in school, and providing universal access to higher education should be a very high social priority. I've said before that I wish President-elect Obama would say more about education, including higher education, which is still an assortive mechanism that functions more to reproduce the ruling class than it does to offer opportunity and equality.

On the other hand the RWJ calculator strikes me as rather simplistic. Education is a proxy for social status more broadly. If everybody had a college degree, then a lot of people would end up in jobs that were not commensurate with their skills, because after all we would still have inequality and somebody would still have to clean the toilets and pick up the garbage. In fact this is exactly what has happened in many developing countries where college graduates find themselves without work opportunities, and the result is often social unrest and alienation.

So we need to think more broadly about the the organization of work and the expansion of opportunity. Not everybody can or should go to Harvard. Lots of people are happy and well suited to put their talents to work as electricians, carpenters, automobile mechanics, and in other jobs that require vocational education rather than a B.A. More menial jobs can be done by teenagers and people working their way through school, and by people with cognitive limitations, or the responsibilities can be shared by people who also have more challenging responsibilities. Even in my own office setting, technology has largely replaced what used to be pink collar work and I do my own copying and typing and filing, for example. But how to create a society in which everybody has the opportunity for fulfilling and decently remunerative work is much more complicated than just getting everybody through more grades of school.

A lot to think about.

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