Reaching for an Education: It’s not a commodity

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What is education?

For hundreds of, if not several thousand, years obtaining any sort of education was a privilege, being restricted to narrow segments of most societies, usually male and members of whatever constituted the dominant power structure, or religious hierarchy.

In the West, the first glimmers of change came with the invention of the movable type printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in c. 1440, as it significantly lowered the cost of producing distributable information – books.

However, not until the second half of the 19th century, did governments begin to understand and accept that “educating the masses” (at least in the sense of enabling them to read, write and understand basic arithmetic) was not some dangerous social experiment, but rather essential to the development and functioning of rapidly industrializing societies.

Even then, access to “higher level knowledge”, firstly in the form of a secondary education and then through a tertiary, or university education, tended to be highly restricted.

So, it is really only since World War II that universal education has become the norm; and only within the last 40 years or so that an individual, male or female, could have a reasonable expectation of being able to obtain a university degree. Of course, there are still societies in which, usually for religious or embedded discriminatory reasons, certain groups (girls/women, members of certain castes or perceived racial categories), are discouraged or even prevented from access to education.

Let us suppose, however, that access is universal, as it theoretically is in Bermuda, the US, UK and Canada. Why obtain an education, which, for these purposes, we shall assume means up to a first-level degree?

We suspect that most people would answer: “So that I can get a good job”. This is entirely rational, as there is clear evidence that, across the population as a whole, earnings potential increases with the level of credentials obtained – and who would not wish to earn more money?

Unfortunately, this mindset, without further thought, leads to the view that “an education” is an essential commodity, which can be traded for money. In one sense, that is obviously true. However, it also represents a very narrow view of the issue, because it also assumes that everything can and should be measured purely in monetary terms.

In your opinion, does this underestimate the potential lifelong benefits of education?

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