Long Life and Education

What a strange people we are. We apparently need reasons to pursue education — as though training the mind to be more perceptive, critical, and insightful needs to be justified. We have for years tried to send our kids off to school with the promise that getting an education will guarantee them a good job and more income in their lifetimes. Recently, however, that line of reasoning has come a cropper. It appears that the jobs aren’t there and we now find PhD’s working as greeters at Wal-Mart. Whatever!

But lately there’s a new reason to get an education. We are told that educated people live longer, as an interesting Yahoo News story reveals:

If you want to know how long you will live, you might stop fretting over genetics and family history and instead look at your educational achievements. Education is certainly not the only variable associated with longer lives, but it may be the most powerful.

If it is true this is good news indeed for those who have stuck it out in school, especially since they may find themselves financially strapped. However, there are a couple of problems with this story and the reasoning behind the conclusions drawn by the author.

To begin with, it smacks of “false cause,” the fallacy that reasons from a coincidence of events to a causal relationship: it has rained every time I put out the trash, therefore putting out the trash must be causing it to rain. Yeah, right! Believe it or not, people actually buy into this line of reasoning. In the case of length of time in school (which we wrongly equate with being educated) and length of life, there could be a great many other factors that enter in that lead to a longer life — perhaps, as suggested, the kinds of lifestyle so-called educated people live. Perhaps they know enough to stay away from the kinds of foods that cause cancer and heart attacks. But whatever we factor in, the leap from A to Z is huge. Education, in itself, cannot possibly lead to a longer life — it may not even be the most “powerful” factor in the equation.

But more important is the consideration I raised at the outset of this blog: assuming that this is suggested as a reason to pursue an education, why do we need such a reason in the first place? Given that education properly conceived means the ability to use one’s mind, one would hope that everyone in this country, if not the world, would want as much as possible. But we do confuse schooling with education when there are a great many people who are well schooled who are horribly mis-educated — they may be well-trained to do a particular thing, but they cannot use their minds and are captive of every intellectual fad that passes their way. And there and a great many who never went to school and who are positively brilliant — like Eric Hoffer or Abraham Lincoln. What these people did was read copiously and explore the world around them: they kept their minds open and examined every passing notion to see if it was worth holding on to. Education should help us achieve these goals, but it may not.

In a Republic like ours it is essential that all citizens acquire the capacity to use their minds, to know whether or not they are being led astray — keep an open mind, stay on top of what is going on around them, and think their way through all the nonsense to see if there is a kernel of substance at the center. Education properly pursued will assuredly lead to this end; but it is not the only way to get there. And even when schools do their job and lead us down the path to an education, it does not stop there. Education properly conceived, lasts a lifetime. If education also leads to a longer life or a better job, so be it, but neither of those should be the goals.

9 thoughts on “Long Life and Education

  1. Great post. I like the pictorial on taking out the trash causing it to rain. But I digress. You said in an earlier post that a key in going to college is to learn to question things and have a healthy sense of skepticism when confronted with a position on an issue. I agree 100% with this and also the belief that education helps us become better citizens of our country and world, actually helping to break down barriers. So, we may live longer as we know the impact of bad choices, but we will live better as we are forever expanding our minds. I tell my kids I learn something new everyday and my plan is to keep on that mission until I die. Thanks for writing and what you personally have done to educate others.

  2. Good post, as always! I wish education was more affordable – I would have gotten much more education if the cost hadn’t been so high to do so. And so what does that mean? Where does income factor into this analysis? Thanks for another thought-provoking post Professor!

  3. It certainly does not stop at the end of school. Having experienced the results of extensive schooling/education with many law graduates, there is a huge difference between being academically educated and being smart. I am a strong advocate for education as I believe it grants you many, many opportunities, maybe even a longer life…who really knows. However, being smart requires more than just an education.

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