Thursday, May 8, 2008

Education won't solve poverty

When people talk about making the world a better place, they frequently start with bringing education to those who can't afford it. We take it as a given that people's lives will be better if they graduate high school or, better yet, college. But education alone is a short-term fix.

The problem is in the very reason we think of education as the panacea to poverty: it's a way of getting out of low-paying jobs. We try to get it through people's heads that if only they get a degree, they won't have to work as janitors, factory workers, rice patty farmers or other undesirable positions.

But the world will always need janitors, factory workers, rice patty farmers and the rest. If everyone had a high school degree, you'd need a college degree to move up the socioeconomic ladder. If everyone had a college degree, you'd need a master's. This has already started to happen in America; even unskilled white collar positions often require an undergraduate degree.

The crux is that educating someone doesn't stop the exploitation of the world's poor; it just lets that person do a bit of the exploiting.

Instead of pretending that we can rid the world of unskilled jobs, we should work to ensure that the people who work those jobs can still lead good lives. Education is a piece of that puzzle because it effects social mobility for those who have the desire and natural abilities. It can also expand minds and give us new ways of thinking about the world, which is good in itself.

But at the end of the day, someone has to clean the floors and work factory machines. Those people should be happy even if they never make it to shift manager.


Andrew Beckwith said...

Meh. I sort of agree, sort of don't. I think the world does need more educated people - especially in certain areas, like engineering and the sciences.

I also think you're criticizing an argument that doesn't necessarily exist. I don't think anyone is saying "everyone needs to be educated." I think people are saying "everyone needs to have *access* to education." I think that's the great inequity today - some people have opportunities that some people don't, and I think working to equalize opportunities will go a long way in alleviating poverty. Some people, even with opportunity, don't want to be aerospace engineers - and they can work a cash register. I don't think a cogent argument could be made for why some people should have opportunities that others don't have.

Blackguy Executive said...

First, you have a very interesting and valid point of view but I am going to have to disagree. Poverty is a vicious cycle where usually the poor uneducated people get stuck in society. For example, poor urban communities where more likely then not entire families are uneducated. The parents didn't graduate from High School so the children have a lower chance of graduating from high school and continuing the vicious cycle of poverty. If you don't strive to educate these people we are hurting the entire society. There will be a lack of innovation and new ideas.

There is still extreme inequality in education in the American society as far as who has access to education. It is even worse for those people in the Third and Fourth world where access to primary education is nonexistent. The more education (or at least the basic education, of reading, writing and arithmetic) is neccessary to break the cycle of poverty.

Yes, we will always need garbagemen and janitor, and people who work in the feild but they too should be have access to education to break the cycle of poverty. (Which in a way is an entirely different discussion).

Yuval Shavit said...

Thanks both for your comments! My second-to-last paragraph did bury a bit a point that you both brought up, and which I fervently agree with. Education is a necessary element if people are to break out of the cycle of poverty. The way our society is structured, there's no way to have social mobility without universally high-quality education. My point was just that even with all the education and social mobility in place, there will still be people at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder in any scalable system (you can equal out people in small communes, but that's about it). We should strive to build a world where even those people can lead a good, comfortable life. Part of that good life is the ability to have their kids be well educated, though.

In a sense, this is just an expanded version of the "livable wage" idea. A person who's willing to put in a 40-hour week shouldn't have to worry about being able to pay for food, rent, health insurance, education for their kids, etc.

Blackguy executive, if you don't mind my asking, I'm curious how you found my blog. :-)