Education, teaching, and learning: all good for health

BMJ 1999; 318 doi: (Published 16 January 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;318:0

Education is good for your health. We know this best from the developing world, and R K Bansal applauds India for being about to enact the provision of primary education enshrined in its constitution (p 141). Less worthy of applause are the facts that 24million children are outside the primary school system, 52% of adults are illiterate, and only 20% of government expenditure on education goes on primary and secondary education. Worse, women and girls lag behind boys and men: 73% of rural women of childbearing age are illiterate.

The failure to provide primary education to girls is particularly unfortunate because this is one of the most cost effective ways to improve health in a community. “To some extent,” says Dr Bansal, “education compensates for the effects of poverty on health, irrespective of the availability of health facilities.” Educational attainment of women correlates strongly with infant mortality, vaccination and nutritional status of children, and use of family planning and oral rehydration therapy.

Dr Bansal also points out that “to succeed education needs to be an attractive and joyful experience, relevant to daily life.” (Similarly for medical education.) I dwell on Dr Bansal's editorial not only because it is saying something of enormous importance to the developing world but also because I believe it to be a good example of where the developed can learn from the developing world.

Education features in a randomised controlled trial from Manchester on managing patients with bipolar disorder (manic depressive psychosis) (p 149). Patients in the treatment arm were taught to recognise manic prodromes and to seek early treatment. As a result they did better than controls in time to their first manic relapse, social functioning, and employment.

All this talk of education and teaching prompts me to share with you my favourite quote—on the value of learning. It comes from the American author T H White: “The best thing for being sad …is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. This is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”

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