When asked about gun control in Tuesday night's presidential debate, both former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama both changed the subject, espousing education as a means to prevent violence.
Romney began his response by saying he's "not in favor of new pieces of legislation on ... guns," adding that by doing a "better job in education," the country could perhaps see a reduction in violence.
Obama responded similarly. "I think that one area we agree on is the importance of parents and the importance of schools, because I do believe that if our young people have opportunity, then they're less likely to engage in these kinds of violent acts," Obama said.
The idea that education can help curb violence might seem like common sense. But is it true? Kind of, say several experts contacted by The Huffington Post. While studies, like those cited below, suggest that education does make a difference on overall crime levels, little research has parsed out the effects of education level on gun violence in particular.
The biggest challenge that researchers face in documenting the relationship between education level and violence is diagnostic. Russ Skiba, an Indiana University professor, explained to HuffPost, "Data on prevention are always hard in terms of making a direct proof -- since preventing violence is about the absence of a certain thing (e.g., violence). How do we measure that education or any given program is successful?"
Studies show that early childhood education does more to prevent violence than any other form of schooling, said Kevin Welner, a professor at University of Colorado, Boulder, and director of the National Education Policy Center. He referred to a study at Perry Preschool, in Ypsilanti, Mich., that found lower incidents of criminal behavior for students who attended high-quality preschool, and added that those those effects have lasted through adulthood.
"Additional research on education here in the U.S. and internationally suggests that better and more education reduces property crimes and some violent crimes," he continued. "But homicide may be unaffected, and white-collar criminal behavior is, not surprisingly, positively associated with increased levels of education."
His comments echo the findings of a May 2010 Center for Economic Performance paper that found that "criminal activity is negatively associated with higher levels of education." The study used data from the United Kingdom and isolated the effects of schooling on criminal activity. It found that it is "unambiguous and clear" and that "improving education can ... be a key policy tool in the drive to reduce crime."
In 2005, Lance Lochner, a University of Western Ontario professor, wrote that "an increase in educational attainment significantly reduces subsequent violent and property crime." But, he continued, "school attendance ... increases contemporaneous violent crime among juveniles."
Pre-school is particularly effective, agreed Hiro Yoshikawa, academic dean of Harvard's education school. "The bulk of economic benefits of pre-school are to prevent violence and chronic crime," he said.
In the mid-1990s, Yoshikawa wrote a paper that looked into the reasons for this, and found that high-quality pre-school programs provide support to parents that mitigate factors that drive kids into a life of crime. "Kids' school success and their cognitive development," he said, is affected. "Reducing things like inconsistent or harsh parenting, and improving the economic lives of their parents ... together can reduce the risk for delinquency and violence," he said.
Skiba, of Indiana University, explains that there's an obvious reason why schools keep kids away from crime. "More education would for instance increase the likelihood that a student is engaged in school, which reduces the risk of dropout," he wrote in an email. "That in turn would be a protective factor keeping youth from being out on the streets."
Jens Ludwig, a University of Chicago professor, recently started a program in the Windy City to learn more about the relationship between education and violence. According to early results provided to The Huffington Post, Ludwig found that the program, which taught 2,740 disadvantaged male students specific social skills, reduced violent crime arrests significantly and could translate into increases in future graduation rates of up to 10 percentage points.