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Is Education the Silver Bullet for Economic Success?

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Murky definitions and understandings of education dominate Western discourse, often leading to ambitious and untenable foreign policy. The recent death of Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore, is just one example. Yew is recognized for bringing economic success to a land previously stricken by poverty, a deficiency of natural resources, and other problems facing post-colonial nations. However, the boost came at the cost of democracy and even effective representative democracy. Yew's new semi-authoritarian state imposed mass education in English on an otherwise heterogeneous populace and called for a mixed free-welfare state economy. His work defies the operative dichotomies of the West. His people were educated, but not wholly free; able to vote, but not to rule the government as they wished. As a recent Wall Street Journal article says,

“Despite his British schooling and fluency in English, he never accepted the idea that Western liberal democracy was the only suitable political model for Singapore, or even that Western political principles were universal, much less superior.”

What should we make of the relationship between our liberal ideas and the economic “success” of states?

We emphasize the importance of educating people in order to end illiberal or otherwise unacceptable practices. Famous figures like Malala Yousafzai call for the democratization of “developing” societies in order to fight corruption, unjust traditions, and economic stagnation. It is assumed that liberal values, distilled through education, will bring economic and social success. We even attribute our failures in Iraq and Afghanistan to the unfinished task of educating their people.

But “education” is a nebulous term. On the one hand, it implies Western, liberal values: free speech, freedom of the press, respect for property rights. On the other, it often denotes training engineers, scientists, and other highly-trained professionals who specialize in facts, fields, and figures. We assume that combining these two definitions of education results in effective self-rule.

However, the problem is significantly more complex. Many leaders are highly educated (in both senses of the word), but returned to their countries with views that are heterodox by Western standards. Lee Kuan Yew, Pol Pot, and Vladimir Lenin (in very different ways) reflect this tension. The simplistic view that education somehow paves an easy road to democracy, and thereby to success, is not corroborated by history itself. Each society functions in its own way based on its own customs. To assume the universal and eternal validity of liberal democracy (and the educative system underlying it) is to assume wrongly. Lee’s Singapore may have succeeded (in an economic and political sense) as a hybrid of East and West while many African “democracies” continue to stagnate. Post-Soviet nations remain mired in the corruption of their pasts, despite their outwardly democratic appearances and relatively effective education systems. Meanwhile, China’s economy booms as a mixture of unbridled capitalism and strict state control (its horrific human rights record notwithstanding).

Education, then, is not the answer, because it means different things in different places. Exporting STEM to the world alongside American flags and copies of the Constitution is no guarantee of effective foreign governance. Nation-building is an exercise particular to place and time and cannot be dominated by simplistic notions of enlightenment and intellectual elevation. The crowd may have the benefit of enlightened Roman governance and still elect to free Barabbas instead of Christ. Democracy cannot become an end in itself; it can only be a means to a good kind of governance that allows people to flourish.

No government is perfect, but if good human beings are the fruit of good governance, we should pursue that end and stop deifying the means.

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