Differentials in Life Expectancy by Educational Attainment

An interesting study was published in Health Affairs last year finding a fairly stark difference in life expectancy based on years of education (emphasis added).

In this article we update estimates of the impact of race and education on past and present life expectancy, examine trends in disparities from 1990 through 2008, and place observed disparities in the context of a rapidly aging society that is emerging at a time of optimism about the next revolution in longevity. We found that in 2008 US adult men and women with fewer than twelve years of education had life expectancies not much better than those of all adults in the 1950s and 1960s. When race and education are combined, the disparity is even more striking. In 2008 white US men and women with 16 years or more of schooling had life expectancies far greater than black Americans with fewer than 12 years of education—14.2 years more for white men than black men, and 10.3 years more for white women than black women. These gaps have widened over time and have led to at least two “Americas,” if not multiple others, in terms of life expectancy, demarcated by level of education and racial-group membership.

The actual study is behind a stupid paywall, but there doesn’t seem to be any consensus as to what is causing such a large gap. Part of it appears to be down to things like increased smoking rates among people with less education (especially white women) as well as more obvious things like higher levels of education begin correlated with better access to health care.

George Pitcher In Defense of Compulsory Religious Education

In general, I tend to think of Great Britain and Europe as significantly more secular than the United States, which is why I always get a bit weirded out reading op-eds like George Pitcher’s defense of compulsory religious education in the United Kingdom.

The thing is that compulsory education is already the norm — although from what I can tell just from news accounts, many public schools give only a perfunctory nod to their legal obligation to provide religious instruction to their pupils.

A joint committee of Parliament recommended giving some children the right to abstain from religious “education.”

We recommend that the Government reconsiders its objection to permitting a child of sufficient maturity, intelligence and understanding to withdraw from religous education. As for religious worship, we recommend that children who are not in the sixth form but who have sufficient maturity, intelligence and understanding to be permitted to withdraw.

Pitcher finds even this recommendation as part of a secular attack on religious faith in the UK,

The NSS’s [National Secular Society] agenda is simple: it wants to force the next generation to stop thinking about the spiritual, the transcendental and the mysterious, in favour of a negative utilitarianism. That can be the only reason for picking on this particular bit of the syllabus.

Which is odd because, in general, the widely accepted explanation for the much greater religious fervor in the United States is precisely the strict separation of church and state. And, of course, nothing even close to the existing regime of religious instruction in school nor this rather mild modification of the same would have a chance in hell of passing muster in U.S. courts — they’d be rejected out of hand as impingements on fundamental freedoms.

So from a strictly utilitarian perspective, perhaps atheists and secularists in the United States are engaged in self-defeating behavior when they run around trying to extinguish mention of religion from the public sphere. Receiving religion from the state — at least a liberal democratic state — seems to have the same effect on religion that perhaps a teenager receiving a pornographic magazine from his parents might have on the libido. It takes all the fun and interest out of it.

Blackboard Tries Divide and Conquer Approach

Color me unimpressed with Blackboard’s latest move in its ongoing war to kill innovation in the courseware market by patenting obvious CMS features in the education market.

Blackboard is now promising that it won’t go after non-profits and universities who develop their own internal or open sourced courseware. But it is still pursuing actions against its competitors, which will detrimentally affect the courseware market by stifling innovation there.

Fortunately, several groups opposed to the awarding of the overly-broad patents to Blackboard have teamed up with the Software Freedom Law Center to challenge the patents. In November 2006, the UPSTO agreed to re-examine all 44 of the claims of the Blackboard patents in question.

Richard Fontana of the Software Freedom Law Center isn’t buying Blackboard’s latest gambit, noting that Blackboard has confused the issue by suggesting it might still sue open source projects that are bundled with proprietary code.

CNET News.Com’s Stephen Shankland quotes Fontana as saying,

Blackboard could have acted responsibly by making a clear and unqualified commitment not to assert its patents against open-source software. Instead, Blackboard has produced a convoluted document in which, for example, it reserves the right to assert the patent against open source software that is “bundled” with other software, an ill-defined concept that could potentially cover most circumstances in which open e-learning software is used.

Hopefully the USPTO will do the right thing and render this debate moot by invalidating the patents it awarded to Blackboard.


Education software firm OKs open-source patent use. Stephen Shankland, February 1, 2007.

The Blackboard Patent

Probably one of the more absurd recent software patents has to be Blackboard Inc.’s successful application for a patent on “learning management systems,” and its attempts to strongarm competitors by charging them with patent infringement.

Blackboard Inc. owns two “learning management systems” — Blackboard and WebCT. Those are easily the two most popular commercial course management systems, though anyone who has had to use either as a student has to ask why. For the most part, they are stripped down versions of genuine content management systems that force users to jump through hoops right and left to accomplish anything. Their sole advantage seems to be that they scale well on the backend, but open source alternatives are starting to catch up there.

So it makes sense for Blackboard to go the patent route — better to sue your competitors rather than have to compete with them — but its patent again raises the issue of just what the folks at the USPTO are smoking. Just take a quick look at the abstract for the Blackboard patent,

A system and methods for implementing education online by providing institutions with the means for allowing the creation of courses to be taken by students online, the courses including assignments, announcements, course materials, chat and whiteboard facilities, and the like, all of which are available to the students over a network such as the Internet. Various levels of functionality are provided through a three-tiered licensing program that suits the needs of the institution offering the program. In addition, an open platform system is provided such that anyone with access to the Internet can create, manage, and offer a course to anyone else with access to the Internet without the need for an affiliation with an institution, thus enabling the virtual classroom to extend worldwide.

That’s right folks, Blackboard has essentially been granted a patent on applying a CMS to an educational environment. A close reading of the various patent claims reveals there’s not a goddamn single point of originality or innovation here at all.

Blackboard flaks have publicly said that one of the strongest claims they will pursue is on claim 36 of the patent, which essentially describes a system that provides different levels of access to a website based upon a user’s role — a fundamental feature of most content management systems and of computer systems in general.

As Eben Moglen, attorney for the open source Sakai Foundation, put it in a press release,

The recent announcement by Blackboard that it is attempting to assert patent rights over simple and longstanding online technologies as applied to the area of course management systems and e-learning technologies, and its subsequent litigation against a smaller commercial competitor constitutes a threat to the effective and open development of software for higher education and the values underlying such open activities.

Blackboard is currently pursing legal action against Desire2Learn and presumably will aim its guns at other competitors sooner or later.