Joyce Meng's Blog

More Education, Not War

Nicholas Kristof’s opinion peace “More Schools, Not Troops” in the New York Times today really captures the true opportunity cost of waging war in Afghanistan rather than investing the money in education. In particular, Kristof writes, “For the cost of a single additional soldier stationed in Afghanistan for one year, we could build roughly 20 schools there.” He estimates that for the 40,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan each year, this would approximately equate to 75 million additional children educated.

Certainly, education cannot solve every problem, but studies have shown the benefit of education in promoting democracy, empowering women, improving health practices, increasing civic engagement, and ultimately, spurring economic growth through raising the stock of human capital – in essence, making each worker more productive. And clearly, stable economies tend to be associated with stable governments. Notably, Kristof highlights that although American foreign policy makers haven’t yet tapped into the power of education, the Islamist extremists certainly have. The construction of free madrasas that offer free meals and free schooling inculcates and perpetuates as new class of young fundamentalists. In the end, whoever controls the mind always triumphs.

Anecdotally, I think back to Japanese occupation of Korea – although the Japanese built up institutions and monopolized coercive power in society, the acts of brutality (despite policies to spur industrialization) alienated the government from the people, and ultimately, strong resentment still persists. In contrast, Japanese occupation of Taiwan has been historically remembered much more favorably, where education played a critical role. For the Japanese, public education constituted an essential mechanism for facilitating control and intercultural dialogue. During Japanese occupation in Taiwan, free compulsory education was created and by 1944, primary enrollment rates and literacy rose dramatically. Although Japan likewise attempted to introduce a similar education system for Korea, the scale of activities in Taiwan exceeded that of Korea by a substantial margin, partially because Taiwan was a much smaller, easier to administer colony at the time. In winning over the minds of the people, the degree of anger left today is on aggregate more diminished in Taiwan than Korea, although clearly antipathy to occupation still remains (the Japanese certainly indisputably suppressed the people).

By no means am I advocating colonialism or education as merely an instrument of the state! Rather, the above example serves to demonstrate the power of shaping the minds, rather than merely coercing the bodies, of people. And even if critics of western cultural imperialism decry the “doctrine of democracy and liberalization”, I still believe in the intrinsic value of a system that promotes human rights and enables individuals to participate actively in society. It would be a true travesty to mask and enable the abuse of human rights and civil liberties under the cloak of “cultural relativism”.

Taking a more philosophical view, I believe education liberates the mind. Regardless of its benefits to development, education has intrinsic worth in it of itself because it really enables an individual to express his or her rationality and live fully as a human being. What separate us from animals is the ability to think richly – to use our minds to explore and create meaning for ourselves.

In life, we are truly constrained by what we know – education allows us to expand our experiences and our “language” of self-expression. I often wonder, would humans be capable of complex thought if we did not have language? For example, how would one be able to communicate highly abstract, complex concepts if we did not have in the beginning the words to express such thoughts? Concepts such as “irony”, “irrationality”, and “logic” all require some level of sophistication. The powerful realm of mathematics with nearly universal applications in all spheres of life requires knowledge of the concept of numbers. (Recall how important the discovery of zero was to the progress of the entire field!) Without the tools given to us by words and language enabled by education, then we are left with only the base instinctual emotions and thoughts. Without education that provides us with the language to really think and develop our own self-expressions, an individual is so severely limited and constrained in his or her potential.

During the Victorian era, women were patronized for being creatures of emotion, rather than rational beings. The lack of education diminished the value women could contribute to society, so in essence, a cycle of perpetuation of discrimination continued. Women were seen as less worthy members of society, and hence investments in the education of women appeared profligate for a more indigent family (which in turn, continues the cycle of women not seen to create value, and so forth).

Half the Sky by Kristof is well worth reading. In many developing countries, household expenditures of cigarettes and alcohol are treated as essential, while the education of girls discretionary. When females have control over expenditures, however, more money gets spent on education, food for the family, and health. Going back to Kristof’s column, imagine the impact if the American government invested substantially in the education of girls and these girls in turn became active participants in the economic and social fabric of society! Kristof cites the example of the positive impact of the education of Bangladeshi women in promoting civil society, contributing to economic growth, and creating government stability. There is certainly no reason to suspect that such a positive result cannot occur in other countries.

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