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Educating Girls and Human Freedom

December 3, 2007


All cultures and societies have wrestled with differences between men and women and have tried as best they can to adjust life to those differences. The biggest difference, of course, is that women can bear children and men can’t. That difference has dictated a great many of the practices that have been applied towards women, including whether or not to educate them. Many cultures accepted the notion that if girls were trained in domestic duties, including the rearing of children, they knew enough. When life was short and child-bearing a matter of life or death for families or tribes, this policy might have made sense. As life expectancies have increased along with leisure time and increased opportunities, many cultures are re-visiting how they treat women, including how they educate them. Overall, this is a good thing. What business could thrive if half its employees were uneducated, untrained, and under-utilized? The same is true for societies. A society that undervalues the contribution that can be made by its women finds itself relying on half its brainpower and half its strength. According to an article in The Economist, that may be changing [“A man’s world?” 3 November 2007 print edition].

“Few things have been more true, and more universally believed, than that women get the rough end of life in poor countries. They bear the burden of child-rearing and a disproportionate share of the work of running the household, and rarely have real equality before the law. Social preferences for boys over girls are deep-seated: in China and north-western India, around 120 baby boys survive to age four for every 100 baby girls. Yet the sexual balance of power in the world is changing, slowly but surely. New evidence can be found in the 2007 World Development Indicators from the World Bank. It is something to celebrate.”

The focus of the article is on the data surrounding the education of girls.

“The most obvious changes are in education. In 2004 girls outnumbered boys at secondary schools in almost half the countries of the world (84 of 171). The number of countries in which the gap between the sexes has more or less disappeared has risen by a fifth since in 1991. At university level, girls do better still, outnumbering boys in 83 of 141 countries. They do so not only in the rich world, which is perhaps not surprising, but also in countries such as Mongolia and Guyana where university education for anyone is not common. As a result, the sexual literacy gap is narrowing. In 2006, according to the World Bank, literacy rates among young women (aged 15 to 25) were higher than they were among young men in 54 of 123 countries. Everywhere, the gap among the young is much narrower than it is in the population as a whole. Educationally, girls have long outperformed boys in rich countries. Now some poor countries are starting to reverse the male advantage.”

When girls are educated, they find themselves better equipped to join the workforce. They are less likely to remain in the grips of poverty. They have fewer children and support them better (which means that the next generation isn’t born in to grinding poverty). The numbers support those assertions. The article also indicates that educational advances are being reflected in workplace.

“The same thing is beginning to happen in the workforce—at least judged by the rough and ready measure of the number of women in paid jobs (equal pay for equal work is a different matter). In 2005, 58% of women had paid employment, compared with 84% of men. That is still a substantial gap, but it is closing. Out of 200 countries, 122 saw female workforce participation rise, often quite sharply. Surprisingly, some of the sharpest increases came in the Middle East and North Africa, including Iran, Libya, Syria, Jordan and Tunisia.”

As I noted earlier, what is good for girls and women is good for society.

“Ricardo Hausmann, a professor at Harvard University (and a former Venezuelan minister), argues that the changing male-female balance at school and work will unleash wider changes in the family and society. In general, the more girls there are at school, the higher the educational performance for everyone. So the education of girls should be good for boys, too. Better educated women help countries move into higher-tech businesses, as is happening in India. Female education is closely correlated with smaller family size, so the growth in the world’s population should continue to slow as countries move towards ‘replacement fertility’ and the population stabilises. More wives will also have a better education and (possibly) a higher income than their husbands, which is likely to change family roles profoundly, albeit in unpredictable ways. In short, China’s and India’s surplus baby boys may grow up into what will be much less of a man’s world than their parents can ever have imagined.”

If attitudes towards girls really change, infanticide against baby girls will sharply decline, offering up baby girls for adoption will decrease, male/female ratios will improve (also improving the angst of bachelors who don’t desire to remain unwed). More importantly, the brainpower and strength of millions of people will be unleashed. To be totally unleashed, New York Times‘ columnist Thomas Friedman argues that freedom needs to accompany education [“China Needs an Einstein,” 27 April 2007]. Friedman wrote:

“I’ve been thinking about China as I read Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Albert Einstein. China isn’t even mentioned in the book — ‘Einstein: His Life and Universe’ — but Mr. Isaacson’s stimulating and provocative retelling of Einstein’s career plays into two very hot debates about China. First, what does Einstein’s life tell us about the relationship between freedom and creativity? … Second, how do we compete with China, no matter how free we are, when so many of China’s young people are studying math and science and so many of ours are dropping out? … Mr. Isaacson’s take on Einstein’s life is that it is a testimony to the unbreakable link between human freedom and creativity.”

As I’ve discussed pre-conditions that foster the success of Development-in-a-Box™, an educated populace has always been among them. Development-in-a-Box helps countries get started up the development ladder and provides a firm foundation upon which an economy can be built. In order to sustain an economy, all of the pre-conditions, like an educated populace, need to be sustainable as well. To truly flourish once economic development is on its way, Friedman argues that human freedom is just as important as education — by that he means individual freedom.

“‘The whole theme of the last century, and of Einstein’s life,’ Mr. Isaacson said in an interview, ‘is about people who fled oppression in order to go places to think and express themselves. Einstein runs away from the rote learning and authoritarianism of Germany as a teenager in the 1890s and goes to Italy and Switzerland. And then he flees Hitler to come to America, where he resists both McCarthyism and Stalinism because he believes that the only way to have creativity and imagination is to nurture free thought — rebellious free thought.’ If you look at Einstein’s major theories — special relativity, general relativity and the quantum theory of light — ‘all three come from taking rebellious imaginative leaps that throw out old conventional wisdom,’ Mr. Isaacson said. ‘Einstein thought that the freest society with the most rebellious thinking would be the most creative. If we are going to have any advantage over China, it is because we nurture rebellious, imaginative free thinkers, rather than try to control expression.'”

When Friedman says that China needs an Einstein, many, if not most, of us immediately conjure up the image of a Chinese man, probably dressed in a white lab coat. With education freeing up millions of female minds, including in China, the next Einstein could very easily be a woman. For those of us who mentally pictured a male scientist, perhaps we have a little cultural adjustment to make ourselves.

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