Who’s the smartest?

A new ranking of European countries places the Nordic nations at the top of the list. As for the bottom . . .

Robin Utrecht Keystone Press The Netherlands also scored well in the index

Since politicians are fond of mouthing platitudes about how learning is essential for growth, development and prosperity, the Bertelsmann foundation decided to analyze which nations backed up those statements with action. This week, the German think tank unveiled the European Lifelong Learning Indicators (ELLI) Index, a measure of learning from cradle to grave that evaluated 23 European Union nations on everything from Internet access to participation rates in job-related training. While Denmark was thrilled with its No. 1 overall place, education-proud Germany was shocked that its 10th-place spot was just above the EU average. Greece, Bulgaria and finally Romania were consigned to the bottom of the pile, along with most of southern and eastern Europe.

The index originated at the Canadian Council on Learning in Ottawa, which has been releasing a comparable domestic survey since 2006, published annually in the “Smartest Cities in Canada” issue of Maclean’s. The statistics that form the basis of the CCL’s Composite Learning Index as well as the ELLI come from four distinct areas of education: vocational learning, formal education, personal growth and social cohesion. By evaluating data on 36 separate indicators, the Bertelsmann foundation wants Europeans to understand that “learning cannot and should not start or end in the classroom,” Ulrich Schoof, a co-writer of the report at Bertelsmann, states. “We learn on the job, during our leisure time, in the community and in our families.”

It is no surprise that the Nordic nations of Denmark, Sweden and Finland occupy three of the top four slots, largely because of their innovative education systems. The Netherlands finished in third place overall. Given that Dutch society is in the midst of a fierce debate about how to integrate a growing Muslim minority, it is not surprising that the nation did relatively poorly in the “trust in others” measure included in the social cohesion category. Still, it finished in the No. 2 spot for that category because of its extensive volunteer work, tolerance and strong social networks, Schoof explains.

Interestingly, the survey also compared the ELLI results to corruption, global competitiveness and access to health care, and reported that in every case the countries high in the ELLI did well on those indicators as well, while the ELLI’s bottom dwellers—such as Greece—were equally abysmal on the other scales. The report bluntly assessed the impact of those low scores: “The effects of corruption can cripple economic development while accessibility of health services can literally make the difference between life and death. Recent economic events prove that the institutions and policies that enable a country’s competitiveness are not merely facilitators of productivity, but are also the mechanisms preventing social and economic collapse.”

Ironically, while the ELLI was launched to fanfare in Europe, the original Canadian index is in jeopardy. In March, Ottawa cut all of its funding to the fledgling organization, eliminating 90 per cent of its budget. Unless a generous donor comes forward, the original learning index might be expelled from Canada.




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Who’s the smartest?

  1. Wow, education serves a purpose?! Somebody tell the CPC!

    Wait, this is based on research? Never mind, they're not interested.

    • This is not based on research in a meaningful sense. It is an indicator that aggregates various weighted indicators of learning (generally using data that is publicly available). The idea that these things require funding (implied by the last paragraph) would be hilarious except that somehow these things do get money from some people. I could create a reasonably credible learning indicator in about half an hour. It might take a bit longer to skew the weights to favour whatever countries I wanted the indicator to be biased towards, however.

      • (Okay, sorry, they also use factor analysis. So it might take 15 minutes)

    • Right on!

  2. I think the last paragraph shows us who the least smart are.

  3. These indicators are rather pointless. What they tend to do is lump some legitimate indicators with a few preferred pet projects of whomever thought up the indicator. Then they use similar indicators to effectively double-count the ones they like.

    Secondly, indicators like this often have a bias towards "quantity" over "quality". More schools, more spending, more people with degrees – instead of any indicators of how effective that spending is or how good those degrees are. This can generate some real difficulties. For instance, the Soviet Union had far more researchers than the United States at any given time, and spent comparable amounts of money on R&D.

    This is primarily an exercise in ideologically motivated framing. The kind of people that concoct these things value education largely because they are highly educated (and the generally well-educated, or at least aspirational sorts that read Maclean's will all predictably cluck in approval of such an indicator). Education and learning are not ends in themselves, but rather are means to an end. In terms of their social value, education is worthwhile because it produces productive workers, innovative researchers and good citizens.

    However knowledge is a public good. That is to say, an idea produced anywhere can be read about and absorbed almost anywhere. What is critical then is not a country's ability to produce ideas, but their ability to integrate ideas. Britain and the United States did not become the world's most advanced states in the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively, because they had the best education system or the most brilliant scientists. Rather, they excelled because they had the best entrepreneurs and institutions.

    The 21st century will be China's century (or perhaps India's), not because either is committed to learning, but because both are poor enough and weak enough to recognize the utilitarian purpose of education and learning (prosperity and military superiority), while we twaddle on with our Henry-Higgin's-esque designs to make the working classes read Proust.

    • That might be true had they not done the second comparison, which, if you'll note, includes "global competitiveness" and determiend that the ELLI has a high correlation with being successful in a number of other areas as well.

      Or in short, just because you don't like what they measure doesn't mean that what they measure isn't significant.

      • If you look at their study (http://www.bertelsmann-stiftung.de/bst/en/media/xcms_bst_dms_32077_32078_2.pdf) they do not use controls and do not account for reverse causality with appropriate methods (eg. 2-stage least squared regression). Is it not reasonably plausible that rich countries are more likely to produce lifelong learners, as opposed to lifelong learners producing more competitive economies? Moreover, only looking at 23 countries is problematic, because it limits the degree of variance. Results of any regression (especially one with no controls) are going to be driven largely by the big gap between Eastern European and Western European countries.

        • As I said: Just because you don't like what they measure doesn't mean that what they measure isn't significant. They do the data correlation, they put it out there, now every government can look at it and decide if it's important or not.

          Since even you are suggesting education is important, I'm really not sure what your whole bugaboo is with this thing. You complain that it's a quantity based measurement rather than a quality based one, I'd suggest that the quality based measurements are done by looking at the already available employment measures, and other such things. This one, however, is looking at the various activities of the citizenry and coming up with a measurement (of which there heretofore hasn't been one) of lifelong learning that can be compared between regions.

          Do you have any better ideas, or are you simply bringing forth the argument that because the tool isn't perfect, it shouldn't be used at all, and would have us stumbling around in the dark without any data whatsoever? "Hey, this country seems to be doing better than that one, I wonder why?" "Who knows..any data set we can think of isn't perfect so we don't use any.. it's all a crap-shoot to us.."

          Seriously, if you have a problem with the integration they've done, and it is all done on freely accessible data as you say, then perhaps you should get off your rear end and show them how it's done.

    • "both are poor enough and weak enough to recognize the utilitarian purpose of education and learning "

      You forgot SMART ENOUGH. We are smart enough to understand that you are "twaddle on with our Henry-Higgin's-esque designs to make the working classes read Proust. " We have chosen to go beyond those limitations that you still hang on to. If you were actually willing to learn, you could reach the "utilitarian" levels of education, understanding and prosperity that we have achieved.
      Ask yourself this. If we are not committed to learning, how come all the nice jobs from here are going there!? I know you will have a terrific answer and I look forward to it.

      • I'm not entirely clear on what you are arguing. On the one hand you appear to suggest that we should transcend utilitarian goals in education, while on the other you suggest that good jobs are going overseas (this is generally not as big a phenomena as people think – primarily, China and India are creating new jobs, which are generally worse than the jobs here). The real issue is that because China is able to create more/better jobs than before, it will eventually be able to challenge western hegemony.

        My point is not that education is bad, I merely suggest that education is only useful up to a point (and that this point varies depending upon the individual). Some people are not smart or hardworking enough to get much out of further schooling (or further educational activities). Some kinds of knowledge have relatively limited utility for society. Since education is not free (especially when you consider the opportunity cost of learning), and since the state has decided to subsidize education to some degree, we need to make tradeoffs.

        If the cost of educating somebody is lower than the societal benefits of what they have learned then education produces a negative return on investment. Often the main benefit of a degree is to an individual – degrees signal some degree of aptitude to employers. However, there are far less costly means to make such signals. Once upon a time a student's performance at the high school level or on-the-job training was sufficient (and in many cases is still sufficient).

        We need to educate fewer people, and to direct people towards more socially useful kinds of education. Individuals that want to do other things surely can, but they should not expect the aid of the state in doing so.

  4. hosertohoosier do you ever love to yap you are in love with your own verbosity.

    • Actually I know you are not the only one to have difficulty understanding hosertohoosier, but from my limited knowledge of his writing, I suspect he is very knowledgeable about some subjects ( research surveys for example ) and I probably learn as much from him as anyone here. So maybe forgive him any verbosity that you detect.

      The fact that he manages to avoid dead-end conversations with the unnamed one who has a verb named after her is a credit to his wisdom.

      • Or perhaps both of you are aware you can't keep up.

      • I've had plenty of dead-end conversations with the nameless one. My theory is that "she" is actually a vast committee of people named Emily organized to make people waste as much time on comment boards as possible, in order to draw our attention away from their world domination schemes.

  5. It'll be okay if the index doesn't get its funding, we'll just figure it out from census data… oh.

  6. Denmark, Sweden, and Finland may be smartest European countries, but they're also the most boring.

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