A sincere question

It seems to me that in popular discourse, education is uniquely susceptible to instrumentalization as compared with other quality of life issues. Getting a job is seemingly the sole horizon within which education can be discussed — even humanities scholars continually exhort each other to “make the case” that their graduates actually have the most valuable job skills of all, etc., etc. There are more “idealistic” visions of education that tend to place it within the context of democratic citizenship, but that is just a larger-scale vision of practical instrumentalization. There just doesn’t seem to be room in mainstream discourse for someone to say, “Being educated improves and enriches every part of life, not just your work life.”

Now it’s clear that people need skills and jobs and that education should help to serve that end. Yet to understand how strange it is for that to be the sole focus, let us consider another quality of life issue: health care. No one goes to their doctor and says, “Let’s cut the impractical bullshit — just give me enough medicine to get me through my working day.” No one looks at their cholesterol level and says, “I guess that’s pretty high, but it’ll get me through my working life.” I don’t think any politician has ever said, “We need health care reform because we lose millions of person-hours a year to illness.” Similarly, when working out or eating healthy, people are generally not thinking of how it will improve their performance and endurance at work.

Obviously you need to be healthy in order to work, and obviously working is an important part of life — but being healthy is an intrinsic good. In fact, if we hear stories of people who do get the minimum treatment necessary to get them back to work when more is needed to restore their health, we tend to assume either that they’re in a pretty desperate and impoverished situation or else that they have radically skewed priorities.

So my sincere question is this: what accounts for this difference?

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23 Responses to “A sincere question”

  1. Kieran Says:

    > I don’t think any politician has ever said, “We need health care reform because we lose millions of person-hours a year to illness.”

    That one I wouldn’t be too sure of.

  2. Tom Elrod Says:

    I agree with Kieran. And, if they haven’t said it yet, I guarantee it will show up under some Washington Post columnist’s byline within the next year or so.

  3. dominicfox Says:

    “So my sincere question is this: what accounts for this difference?”

    Hatred of intelligence. A cultivated intelligence is just barely tolerable if its exercise can be constrained to some task for which it is unarguably necessary. A good in itself? What are you, some kind of elitist know-it-all snob?

  4. david Says:

    The difference seems pretty thin to me these days. For example, the stated goal of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is to “help all people lead healthy, *productive* lives.”

  5. Justin Roby (@JustinRoby) Says:

    The rationale behind various attempts to get illnesses covered has often been “We need health care reform because we lose millions of person-hours a year to illness.” People who advocate for the treatment of alcohol or drug problems be covered by employer provided insurance often makes this argument. The creation of the social safety net in the 60s was spurred, in part, because something like 50% of adults who would otherwise be eligible for armed service were in fact ineligible due to health deficits (here’s a citation: http://www.gwumc.edu/sphhs/departments/healthpolicy/dhp_publications/index.cfm?mdl=pubSearch&evt=view&PublicationID=35A8D671-5056-9D20-3DEFF238AEFA7071)

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    What I thought was a throwaway line has revealed to me that the world is apparently an even worse place than I thought.

  7. Wilson Says:

    The reason for healthcare insurance reform was precisely because people saw health care as a utility analogous to education. You need it when you need it. That’s why emergency rooms are crowded. Health, as well, has as much to do with surface appearance as education: the degree matters not the knowledge, eating and exercise matter because of how you feel in the mirror not in your veins.

  8. Aric Says:

    I think this is a very sad reality as well. Obviously, the primary difference between physical health and education is that one renders a quality of life more easily (and objectively) measurable than the other. It’s easy to determine whether someone is physically sick and in pain; it’s hard (some would argue impossible) to determine whether someone is ‘mentally sick’ or rather ‘intellectually depraved’. Moreover, some people are severely undereducated and extremely happy. In fact, many claim that higher education itself is actually a hindrance to happiness. This does not, I would disagree with domincfox here, equate to a hatred of intelligence so much a fear of change, a contentment with present circumstances, or even a skepticism of “intellectualism” as a means to happiness.

    And I think that last issue is the real key here; how does one become happy? People get physically fit and stay physically well because it makes them happy. It’s almost a tautology: when people feel good they feel good. We all know, however, that more intelligence does not necessarily equate to more happiness, in fact, often, it leads to all kinds of existential misery.

    When we think it terms of getting physically fit, however, that’s more akin (yet not analogous) of higher education. People wanting to have defined muscles and rock hard abs is often similar to why some people delve in graduate work; pride. Not necessarily a bad kind of pride, but a motive rooted in the desire to cultivate a natural propensity and a foreseeable “intellectual physique”.

    All this aside, I still think education is vitally important, but for a different reason. I understand the love of knowledge as something that makes us distinct as human beings; to pursue knowledge and wisdom is to become more human, or rather, to exercise our humanity over our animality. Most importantly, (and here I’m probably a dissenting voice) I understand education as the contemplation and seeking of truth, something that I believe holds eternal significance. In addition, education arms and equips individuals against certain kinds of power that prey on those who lack knowledge and wisdom: “Study wisdom, my son, and make my heart joyful, that thou mayest give an answer to him that reproacheth.”

    There’s a lot more to discuss here, like how education has been turned into a commodity under a kind of capitalistic ethos, and how certain kinds of people are inherently more inclined to educate themselves than others (which I think is totally great, society is made out many different intellectual ‘types’) – but those are some of my sincere thoughts to your question.

  9. Aric Says:

    Also, Natalia Cecire writes a great piece on disciplinarity that touches on some of these same issues.

  10. Gabe Says:

    To respond sincerely: Is education really like health?

    “Being educated [in dentistry] improves and enriches every part of life, not just your work life.”

    Does the way you are conceiving of “educated” here basically beg the question? Does it still work if you say “Having a Phd [in the genome of certain mosses growing in Wales] improves and enriches every part of life, not just your work life.”

    Either we say (as people frequently do with respect to the arts) that education just is a semi-sacred end in itself, or we say education is a prerequisite of a certain basic quality of life (like health), but that still leaves open the question of education in what, and to what level?

  11. Richard Says:

    it seems clear to me that healthcare is in fact organized around our need to get through our working lives; how often do we take something (prescribed or otherwise), when we’d probably just do well to take time off and rest… but sufficient rest is rarely an option; we learn to medicate

  12. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Gabe, I don’t know that every Welsh moss enthusiast should get a full ride through a PhD on the taxpayer’s dime, but what’s wrong with studying Welsh moss if you find it interesting?

  13. Gabe Says:

    Nothing, but it’s just a) an example of a type of education that doesn’t obviously enrich *every* part of your life, and b) it’s easy to imagine someone who finds studying mosses enriching *not* to have that interest enhanced by doing a Phd in it.
    I’m just trying to get past the general term of “education” which somehow already means “enriching”, as in “my trip to China was a real education”, which as I said, begs the question.

  14. mattintoledo Says:

    Unfortunately, I think when you look at health care and education decisions side by side, they would both boil down to money.

    For example, say the hypothetical health issue Adam talks about above has a minimal procedure that is covered by somebody’s health plan. They could authorize the doctor to go beyond this minimal procedure and address the problem in a more long-term way, but doing so would come at great cost. That person is almost certainly going to ask if they’ll be able to get by with just the procedure their insurance covers.

    Even thought the person with health issues isn’t making their decision mainly to get back to work, this really doesn’t seem all that different to me than the person who sees something they’d like to do as a career and decides to go through a “job factory” type school to achieve it rather than paying all that extra money for a well-rounded education.

  15. mattintoledo Says:

    Having said that, I spent the better part of five years at a tech university explaining to people that college should not just be a job factory. My argument was always that if they only received education requisite to get the job they want, they’d likely end up living the same life they would’ve without the education, just watching a nicer TV on a nicer couch in a bigger house.

  16. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Gabe, The fact that you’ve chosen such a petty and stupid example makes me think you have an agenda here and are not arguing in good faith. I also seem to recall earlier conversations where you misread me along the lines of “every academic thinks that normal jobs are a pure hellhole,” etc. So I’m probably not going to respond further to your comments here.

  17. Erin Says:

    The machine demands gears, not dreamers. Sappy, I know, but slogging through a Friday I can’t help but think health and jobs are good for the state machine. They are officially endorsed blessings. Education …not so much.
    Maybe it is the framing of the question – physical pain is tangible but future work is a kind of abstraction. Education seen solely in reference to this abstraction is then instrumentalized?

  18. Eric Daryl Meyer Says:

    I don’t like the dynamic that you’ve described any more than anyone else, but I think that the difference between the “work-oriented” nature of higher education and the lack of a similar rationale for medicine etc., lies in the way that the education process still provides credentials that are taken as a measure of whether or not someone is “employable.”

    Because (cynically) education is so much about credentials, students (and their parents) are concerned that they have the “right” credential to get a good job, and educators are put in the awkward position of trying to “pitch” a subject that has intrinsic value to them in terms of occupational payoff.

  19. robotsdancingalone Says:

    To the degree that anything non-health related can enrich ‘every’ part of your life, I suspect that ‘having a Phd in the genome of certain mosses growing in Wales’ would, indeed, do so.

  20. Sunday Link Encyclopedia and Self-Promotion « Clarissa's Blog Says:

    [...] the post of the week is: “It seems to me that in popular discourse, education is uniquely susceptible to instrumentalization a….” I’m so tired of having to explain how the education I provide leads to employment. It [...]

  21. Brennan Breed Says:

    Adam, I believe that this is precisely the argument that we educators need to put forth in the public sphere, and for that reason I think we will have to anticipate questions like Gabe’s being the normal response. But I think that’s fine, because it proves your point anyway. Even the most ridiculous example — such as having a PhD in the genome of certain mosses — most certainly DOES have the potential to benefit every aspect of one’s life, and not only because the researcher in question has learned countless (instrumentalizable) skills in the process of conducting experiments, gathering data, writing a book, and so on.(Let’s leave aside the notion that many of the most incredible scientific discoveries and inventions have emerged from unusual fields, and even mistakes within those obscure fields — moss may hold the secret to curing cancer, but let’s even assume it doesn’t). And your’e still right not only because this hypothetical person has learned much about the structure of life, evolutionary development, and so on. Even so, this person has most likely learned to see the world and reflect — to think, really — in a new way. I remember sitting in my AP Calculus class in high school throwing out stupid comments like, “When will I use this?” And my Calculus teacher, himself a retired engineer teaching for fun, said, “Sure, you probably won’t ever use this exact information, but now you know how to think about the world in a different way.” It’s still about use, in a way — Calculus helps me to use my brain in a new way, which will help me solve problems differently, more creatively — but it’s certainly not a one-to-one correlation with economic productivity. The “use” is just enough removed from the ability to make quick profits that it’s uninteresting to most folks.

    This whole situation reminds me of the problem with R&D in capitalist economies — who funds expensive and in many cases dead-end research, even though every so often it creates the opportunity for huge profits? Corporations do some of this, but by and large governments, universities, and other non-profits fund research, and then corporations monetize the occasional breakthroughs. Research clearly has instrumental benefits, but our version of capitalism is all about the quick return, so most corporations don’t think ahead more than a couple of quarters, let alone think about creating fusion energy or something research-intensive like that. In other words, even our arguments about the benefits of education include the idea of making people and things more useful — but it’s hard to monetize these benefits.

  22. Gabe Says:

    The example wasn’t in bad faith, this is where I got it from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01djny9

  23. Scu Says:

    Today’s xkcd reminded me of this post. http://xkcd.com/1050/


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