This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 13th (it will be out in January 2020), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Wednesday, August 5, 2015

What is Education Good For?

As we approach the start of a new academic year, the value of education rises to the surface as a topic for discussion. Education is a key demographic characteristic, of course, and I can guarantee you that it is one of the more frequently mentioned items in this blog (click on "search" and see for yourself). Two stories today emphasized why that's true, and they both go well beyond the idea that education is just a commodity that you buy because it is useful to you. Rather, it is an investment in yourself and, ultimately, in your children as well. For the former, we have a piece in the Washington Post by a former professor and university president, focused on the value of a college education:
If we are going to treat college as a commodity, and an expensive one at that, we should at least grasp the essence of its economic nature. Unlike a car, college requires the “buyer” to do most of the work to obtain its value. The value of a degree depends more on the student’s input than on the college’s curriculum.

The ultimate value of college is the discovery that you can use your mind to make your own arguments and even your own contributions to knowledge, as do many students pursuing research in college. That too is a new sensation, and a very good one. Yes, it generally leads to higher career earnings. But it is the discovery itself that is life-changing.
Education is important because it allows us to see the world differently, to challenge existing assumptions, and to work to make the world a better place. That is scary for traditionalists, but it is precisely the recipe for bringing down the death rate, bringing down the birth rate, and having people migrate to places that can best use their skills and talents.

Now, as to your children, research just out in the journal Pediatrics demonstrates that parents who read to their children from the earliest days of the babies' lives can actually influence the brains of their children.
The researchers saw that, when the young children were being told a story, a number of regions in the left part of the brain became active. These are the areas involved in understanding the meaning of words and concepts and also in memory. These same brain regions have been found to be active when older children listen to stories or read.
Even more interesting, according to Horowitz-Kraus, is how the brain activity in this region was higher among the children whose parents reported creating a more literacy-friendly home. "The more you read to your child the more you help the neurons in this region to grow and connect in a way that will benefit the child in the future in reading," she said.
Obviously, a parent has to have some education in order to be able to read to their child, but that education can then be used, among other things, to stimulate their own children--a true upward spiral. 


  1. Prof Weeks - I AGREE wholeheartedly!!

    Two things have been noticeable to me during my travel in "third world" countries:

    1. The people without education had no chance to change their lives. And indeed the thinking style is usually "things have always been this way, things will always be this way".

    2. Many of the people who DID manage to get a college education were not able to use their skills, because the economic opportunities did not exist.

    Item #2 is frustrating, and is also affecting college grads inside the USA. The world needs both "education" and "real economic opportunity".

    The "ignorance gap" - if you can call it this - is a difficult problem to overcome. For example, I did a simple humanitarian project in Kenya where we identified families living in dire poverty (rural villages). The conditions were very bad. We decided that one way to help the kids was to buy them ONE good pair of shoes. This way their feet are not cut by the thorns in the wilderness, and they are protected from skin parasites. We bought the shoes (correct sizes) and gave them out. The kids were very excited! But I found out later than 80% of the parents sold the shoes for cash within a couple of weeks after they were distributed. They used the money to buy a few food items. So the kids were barefoot again. My impression is that these families were very poor, but they did have a few staple items. They could have kept the shoes on the kids feet if they decided to. It was just a decision based on short-term gain.

    I have seen the Third World do this countless times. GOOD MONEY thrown away and wasted, so people can get a short-term gain. I think this point reaches to the value of education - if people can think, then they can see a long-term payoff.

    Pete, Redondo Beach, CA

    1. This is a very important point. The structure of society has to change to accommodate population growth, but this isn't happening in many places, and so people continue to live in the short-term, not with long-term goals.