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It’s a Wonderful Education – Part 2

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

Yesterday’s post was a rather bleak fictionalization of what the world might be like if there were no education, or particularly no public education – A bleak industrial wasteland, constant war, few luxuries, children working in factories and dying in wars. Not a pretty picture.

My story was inspired by Frank Capra’s 1946 classic holiday film in which George Bailey (Jimmy Stuart) is shown what the world would be like if he wasn’t a part of it. Capra’s story is also quite dark at times, so I feel justified in my own pessimism about a world devoid of education.

It’s a Wonderful Life is a holiday classic not due to its gloomy portrayal of what life could be without George Bailey, or even its uplifting message of community, but rather because of the stark contrast between those two elements. That is the effect I am hoping for, though I have no delusions that these two posts will become an instant holiday classic. The following points are some benefits that education has provided human civilization and some speculation about what life would be like without those elements.

Freedom from Child Labor – This seems silly to say, but really, what would we do with our children if there were no educational system? Put them to work is the easiest answer, a practice that was employed throughout much of our history – in 1900 there were 1.75 million child workers age 10-15 in the U.S. (Bureau of Labor Statistics). This is a trend which still continues in economically and educationally disadvantaged parts of the world. It was a long struggle to come to the realization that children are not cheap labor to be exploited. Education drove an expanding consciousness of right and wrong and spurred scientific knowledge about the impacts on developing children that working in a coal mine or smoky factory produced. Education led to a repurposing of the child from cheap, expendable menial labor to more skilled, valuable, educated labor later in life.

Healthcare – The sheer number of people on this planet requires some sort of educational system to simply train enough doctors to care for them all. Advances in education have led to a greater public understanding of healthcare and health-related issues – Increased lifespans, public hygiene, and the ability to deal with disease (The New York Times, Jan. 3, 2007). As with all things, education provides new sources of insight which lead to innovation. Many of our medical advances would not have been possible without formal education.

Social Services – Education is a self-replicating social service, producing individuals who can provide other services. Without education we would have no healthcare workers, child welfare advocates, social workers, law enforcement, public works, roads, or any number of social supports that make our lives safe and happy. This is an historically rewarding field and one that is fairly popular among all higher education degrees.

Stability – While I sometimes rail against the cookie cutter approach to education characteristic of the Industrial Age, such uniformity and forced conformity does provide a great deal of societal stability. Having a society formed of people with similar education, beliefs, and experiences benefits us all by reducing the internal strife that is tearing apart the world in which George Bailey finds himself trapped.

Relative Peace – A lack of stability can lead to internal conflict and ultimately civil war. Peace is one of the seldom considered side effects of our education system. Just realizing that the American Civil War was caused by the disparate belief systems of the Union and Confederate states is enough to demonstrate the incredible value of education.

Literacy – In the most conventional sense – reading and writing – we simply wouldn’t have it without widespread education. Our’s would look much more like the monastic-based literacy of the Dark Ages, where only a select few had access to texts and possessed the ability to read or write them. This lack of literacy would also extend beyond the basics to include (or exclude?) numeracy, scientific literacy, technological literacy, and any number of other forms of literacy that are primarily acquired through schooling.

Leisure Time – This is a “chicken and egg” category. Does our literacy provide more leisure time, or does increased leisure time yield more literacy? It is impossible to know, but having a more literate society inevitably leads to increased freedom from the need to physically grow, gather, or kill your food. Education frees some members of a society from the need to be manual laborers in factories. Lastly, a more educated populous is more likely to develop innovations that create further leisure time. 

Technology – Sure, without education we would still have some technology. But without education the development of technology would be glacial. Further, a lack of education would preclude the type of wide-based contribution to innovation and technological advancement that we are witnessing in the Information Age. Today, almost any individual can contribute to the inevitable march of progress. Without education, only a select few individuals would be capable of contributing. We would be robbed of a great diversity of ideas as well as the contributions of user input in the development of new technology.

Education is Wonderful
There is currently a good deal of resistance to the concept of free public education. People fail to recognize the value that having educated neighbors, friends, and coworkers brings to our entire society. So the next time someone starts to rail against the public schools or higher education, ask them to really think about what the world would be like without it. Feel free to use some of my examples.

No matter what happens, take a stand in support of learning, intellectualism, and education. You’re likely to hear some bells ringing for yourself just like Clarence did when he helped George Bailey realize that he really did have a wonderful life.