By JOHN RICHARD SCHROCK
Education is “standing down” across the globe to slow the contagion of COVID-19. Many schools are shuttered. And despite the efforts of teachers in affluent countries using online education, there is a lot less learning going on. How much will this affect the progress of world civilization?
There is a concept in medicine abbreviated “YPLL” for “years of potential life lost.” YPLL explains why pediatricians might be happier than gerontologists. Save the life of a baby and you have potentially saved 60 or more years of life. Save the life of an elderly person and you have perhaps given them another five or ten years of life. That is not to say that we should not work to save the elderly. But it is true that saving a baby’s life usually results in saving far more years of potential life.
The YPLL math formula is used in making decisions on funding medical research and drug development. Factors that cause death in the elderly have less of an effect on the wellness of an overall population than do factors that cause childhood fatalities and disabilities.
In medical epidemiology, YPLL is a mathematical measure of the loss of life in a population due to various accidents, diseases, etc. Expected lifespan varies from high ages in Japan and Italy to lower life expectancies in the tropics with alligators and tropical diseases. YPLL is calculated by identifying a “standard” age of survival (often 65) and then measures the lost years when a child dies from a childhood disease (if age 5, YPLL = 60). Or if an adult has a heart attack at age 50, YPLL = 15. So YPLL can estimate the toll that a particular ailment takes on a population.
In its most simple form, years are considered equal. However, “time discounting” or non-uniform age weights can be used to devalue the years lived in infancy and old age, as in Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALY). Years lost to disability (YLD) considers the decreased quality of life rather than just age at death. Such calculations help measure the medical health of a population.
But now we face the reality that around the world, our educational systems are shutting down or dramatically slowing while teachers attempt to provide some distance learning. Here I propose a related measure: Years of Potential Intellectual Life Lost (YPILL).
This would estimate the extent of damage done to a population when portions of the population are reduced or eliminated based on their educational level and potential to contribute intellectually to that society, or when educational efforts for students are curtailed by school closures, war, etc.
Long before this crisis, I did back-of-the-envelope calculations based on some major educational tragedies elsewhere in world history.
—In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge specifically killed teachers, doctors and their most educated citizenry. Cambodia has still not recovered.
—In the People’s Republic of China, from 1965 to 1977, nearly all schools were closed resulting in a generation of uneducated students. Their opening up and massive funding of education pulled them forward dramatically, but it left behind a lost generation.
—And currently in the Middle East, large populations of Syrian refugees lack schooling for their children.
All of these situations can be subjected to mathematical analysis to measure how much this loss of educated citizens slows down or retards the quality of life for future generations. But the above examples are “over there” and not here in the United States. Now, we join in as the whole world “stands down” to prevent an epidemic from exceeding our medical capacity. And that means standing down education.
There is a Peanuts cartoon where Linus is in bed with a thermometer in his mouth, protesting that when he returns to school, everyone will know that he is “one day dumber.” Of course, no one would consider a child who misses a day of school to be seriously “dumber.” But now we are looking at millions of school days of learning lost worldwide—a huge amount of potential intellectual life lost. —And a world that is a lot more than one day dumber.
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John Richard Schrock has trained biology teachers for more than 30 years in Kansas. He also has lectured at 27 universities in 20 trips to China. He holds the distinction of “Faculty Emeritus” at Emporia State University.