Knowledge is power – this insight is at least four centuries old, formulated by philosopher Francis Bacon during the Enlightenment. His statement has lost nothing in terms of relevance and significance: Knowledge is power, and education is the fundamental precondition for political development, democracy and social justice. That can be seen each day in world affairs, but perhaps most poignantly in recent history through the Arab Spring that began in Tunisia with the Jasmine Revolution about a year and a half ago.
From marginalization to lionization
It was the educated and the middle class that set protests in motion – particularly the younger among them: 20-35 year-olds, often students or academics, who felt deceived by the regime and slighted in opportunities. From Rabat to Riad they were the ones that fought – doctors, engineers, journalists – for more freedom, more participation, fair access to the labor market and, in particular, for access to uncensored perspectives.
Their fight is far from over. The first step is securing a foundation for the protestors’ goals by way of democratic institutions and voting.
Education empowers, and education promotes greater participation. These are facts that Arabic rulers perhaps underestimated. Without the decisive expansion of school and university systems in Arabic countries in the last 20 years, the democratic movement would likely never have come about.
The Human Development Report shows just how much educational access improved over this period, and it led to visible success. Tunisia’s former president, Ben Ali, was also a reformer in education. Under his regime, a growing number of people were able to earn good degrees. But after graduating, they scarcely had anything to show for it: no jobs, no opportunity, no participation. In Tunisia, everything had already been distributed in advance to the same clans and players. Unemployment in Tunisia at the time was at 40 percent. Dictators like Ben Ali would probably not have invested in education so heavily had they understood the emancipatory effect it can have.
A fundamental human right
There is no development without education. The world community has long since recognized this fact and developed clear political demands and consciousness on the subject as well. The second Millennium Development Goal specified by the United Nations says that all human beings should have access to a basic education. There has been progress, although it has been slow and heavily variable by region. The percentage of children who attend schools increased from 1999 to 2009 by seven percent, to a total of 89 percent.
Recently, the tempo of progress has slowed. In Africa and Asia, the second Millennium Development Goal will not be reached in many regions by 2015. In developing regions, just 87 of every 100 children complete a primary education. And in many poor countries, every four out of 10 children stop attending school before finishing the elementary grades.
Children in rural areas and in conflict regions have even fewer opportunities to become educated, while girls around the world continue to face disadvantages in education. There is still much to do.
No development without education
But two of Asia’s fastest growing economies, India and China, show that education has clear economic advantages. A third example: In the 1950s, South Korea was in worse condition than many African countries are today. Investments in equal education access for men and women, together with better health care and access to shelter, have contributed to a decrease in infant mortality rates and to an economic boom.
The lightning-fast development of the Chinese economy suggests that there has been a real hunger for education, and nearly every Chinese person under the age of 25 sees education as a key issue. It defines young people’s lives.
However, China is also an example that there are still regimes which promote more education without aiming to offer more freedom. Models of this sort will function only as long as a majority supports them.
Education means participation
In the long run, no illegitimate regime will be able to withstand the power of a well-educated majority. Once such a populace is in place, it opens up the possibility of greater participation and democratic change. Russia offers one example, and at least in provisional ways, China and states in the Arabic World do as well.
Countries like Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and North Korea present a much more difficult challenge. As long as the majority of citizens live in poverty and are surrounded by state propaganda, as long as this majority lacks education and the ability compare independent information, and as long people cannot network and engage in open exchanges with each other, the dictators and autocrats can feel secure. That’s reason enough to join the fight for recognizing education as a basic human right.● DW
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