Going all the way should mean more than completing high school

So what is the one thing that I see over and over and over again in the management of emergency room psychiatric patients that makes me fear for our survival as a country and even as a species?

Is it the severity of psychotic illness? The rampant drug and alcohol use that starts now when kids are pre-adolescent? Is it the broken families that are producing another generation of children who have one parent or no parents and are raised by distant relatives? Is it financial poverty? Is it reliance on government assistance?

Well, I could write about any of these and make a case for all of them, but that’s not what keeps hitting me right between the eyes most days that I sit in my chair and talk to people via the Polycom screen.

The problem?

Lack of education.

One of my standard questions when taking a medical history is, “How far did you go in school?” I ask everyone this question because it is so very important in understanding someone’s frame of reference and their ability to assess a problem and deal with it realistically, be it a kidney stone or an episode of depression. I get answers to this question that are all over the map. I have seen teens who have graduated college already. I see old women who never graduated high school but raised entire families on their own. I see proud aging men who ply their trades, hard workers with calloused hands who had formal schooling up to the third grade and no further. I have seen professionals with decades of formal training and multiple degrees who are as psychotic as they can be, completely out of touch with reality due to drug use or mental illness.

Two things come to mind here of course. One is that mental illness is no respecter of educational level. I have written about this before and I will write more about it I’m sure. The other is that many people do not see the need, or are not given the opportunity, to further their education beyond the very minimal level that gets them by in the world.

This is not a prescription for growing a strong, healthy society.

Often, the answer to my question about education, “How far did you go in school?” is answered exactly like this:

“All the way.”

That person almost always means that they finished high school.

In many parts of our society, and among many sociocultural levels, finishing high school is the ultimate achievement. The peak. The holy grail. You are expected to make that level of education and then to get out, find a job, make your own living and support yourself in the world. Many of the families I see are more than happy to kick their kids out of the front door and onto the street the minute, the second they turn eighteen, never thinking twice about it.

The problem is that economic considerations, lack of parenting, lack of role models, early drug and alcohol use, the necessity of working to help support the family and other issues get in the way and take precedence over getting a good education. Kids are passed to get them out of one classroom and into another to avoid further negative behavior. They are still socially promoted, something that might eventually get them a degree but that might be worse than useless to someone who cannot read, problem solve or think critically.

When one thinks nowadays that getting a high school degree is going “all the way,” educationally speaking,  then we have a real problem. There are many other countries (Japan, China, and India immediately leaping to mind) who are producing generations of kids who are hungry to gobble up degrees from our colleges and universities and take high-level and high-paying jobs that Americans are not aspiring to at all any more. It is a sad state of affairs indeed.

It breaks my heart to see a hardworking middle aged man, my own age, in the emergency room, who has a third grade education and is embarrassed to tell me that he cannot read or write.

We have become a nation of people who value smartphones more than we value smart people.

I know that mental illness is a strange beast, hard to ferret out and even harder to diagnose and treat some times. I know that its causes and precipitants are multiple, some genetic, some economic, some cultural. I know all this. I also know, as surely as I know my own name, that if we do not pay attention to the education of our society in America, and our society globally, that we are going to slowly slide down the slippery slope of ignorance, class warfare and division that will be the end of us.

We must turn this around.

We must make it a priority, starting now, to educate our children.  We must teach them to see things as they are, think critically about problems, think creatively about solutions, invent new wonders, and leave the world a better place than they found it.

This is not a luxury for us in the twenty first century. It is a necessity.

Greg Smith is a psychiatrist who blogs at gregsmithmd.

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  • Rob Burnside

    As usual, Greg Smith packs much meat. In the second decade of the 21st century, we’re light years ahead of where we were a generation ago in terms of total human knowledge, but the ability to use our collective knowledge successfully is at risk without affordable higher education. Unfortunately, we’ve grown complacent because we can now “Google” whatever we’re curious or concerned about, and we often feel smarter than we really are.

    When I attended college in the 1970s, educators were loudly touting the benefits of a liberal arts degree. We rarely hear this today, primarily because four-year degrees have become too expensive and the need to get to work too pressing for many students. Instead, we seek drive-thru career training, and the “educated” among us have become, in general, narrowly-focused specialists, unable or unwilling to think (and equally important, communicate) outside the familiar box Meanwhile, the arts–all the things that best help us develop imagination and thereby increase our basic knowledge, enhance our understanding, and improve our communication skills and desires — go wanting.

  • buzzkillerjsmith

    Free country, isn’t it? If people don’t want to go past high school that is often suboptimal, both for the person and for society, but it’s a personal choice.

    Time to break out the JS Mill, Dr. S.,On Liberty.

    If people want to smoke and drink and fight and you know what else, I say let ‘er rip– but don’t expect an invitation to my house.

    • meyati

      Low education doesn’t mean low morals, and a high education doesn’t mean high morals.

      A few years ago, the then president of the University of New Mexico was an Internet pimp. Since then the state legislature made Internet pimping and prostitution a felony, and using state owned computers and state Internet connections for any sex crime to be a felony with longer sentences. They had to pay him almost a quarter of million to make him leave for the misuse of state property. The only things that kept him from being prosecuted was that he never pimped UNM students or minors.

      • buzzkillerjsmith

        You are making the assumption that I think smoking and drinking and fighting, etc., are bad things. I never said that, nor do I much believe it, unless innocent parties are hurt. I like people with “active” lifestyles.

        I like happy crazy, I wish the world had more of it.

  • cherterra

    The unfortunate problem is the domino effect of: teachers who are expected to “be all” to teach, not just the subjects but the social norms of the area (which should be up to the parents) and be the disciplinarians without the power to actually discipline. The parents who, in many areas, have not graduated HS, or who got by in HS, so do not have the ability to assist their kids (even in the early grades) to understand their homework. They may also not have a high regard of education or a high expectation of their children’s learning, so they don’t bother, and the kids, who are kids, have no thoughts beyond what they want to do, to put effort into something that they don’t see as important. The lessons of the past (where kids worked the family farm or the local factory) have been forgotten. The other problem is college has gotten so expensive many have no expectation that they will be able to go even if academically they could get in.

  • Eric Thompson

    The assumption that to be sucessful a person needs a college degree is flawed. Many people do not have the temperment and/or ability to attend college, go anyway and drop out. The numbers attending are driving up the costs for all. Germany is a good example where many students go into an apprenticeship track. We need plenty of machinists, carpenters, electricians, plumbers and etc who have skills and make good money. Not everyone can be a doctor, nurse, engineer or lawyer.

  • Ava Marie Wensko George

    Awesome message….Thank you for writing such a wonderful piece.

    If people do not want to go past high school our nation will suffer from a sea of ignorance. It’s not about liberty, personal choice, or any other drivel that we are seeing in the comment section here. It’s about economic survival in a world economy. We are no longer just America….We are the world. We have to take the political rhetoric out of the discussion and really take a close look at the long term consequences of our behavior as a nation.

    Let’s look at China for example. They are just coming out of the third world country mentality and into the 21st century. They value education above all else. They are progressing and developing into a national powerhouse. In America we are going in the opposite direction, dumbing down our society, listening to those in our nation who are pushing and perverting the Constitution to bolster their positions. This will have long-term effects on whether or not our nation will make it or slide into a slow and painful descent into poverty at the national level.

  • medicontheedge

    While poor education has a direct effect on all aspects of overall health, mental & physical, I worry about the increasing infantalizing and enabling that the current model of mental healthcare is providing.

  • LG

    When I am filling out a medical form that asks about education I put one word- “yes”. I don’t want to be judged by my level of formal education. If I say that I didn’t make it through 9th grade a judgement is made. Did I mention that I was a logger, a trucker….oh and an operation’s manager then safety coordinator and accountant? Was there a space on that form to say that I know why Fibonacci numbers are so special? Do you ask if a person is well read? Be careful making judgements based on your question of schooling.
    And yes, I did not make it through the 9th grade…… or is that “And no, I did not make it through the 9th grade”. Nope, I think it is the former; although my education probably didn’t include the uses of a double negative.