Increasing the quality and quantity of education in poor countries is critical and absolutely necessary to their development, but let’s not lose sight of how disruptive a free and generous education can be. Education changes cultures, economies, and governments, and for nations entering that transition period the way must be prepared.
I am going to consider the case of Guinea in West Africa where I have some experience having lived there for two years from 1998 to 2000. At the time, Guinea had recently implemented universal education for grades 1 through 6. Prior to that point, it was parents choice whether to send their children to school (most boys were sent, as families could afford it). School was free, but money for uniforms, pens, and notebooks felt like tuition fees for a nation of mostly farmers and herders. Still, the enrollment in primary education increased substantially, drastically increasing the percentage of children (especially girls) who could communicate fundamentally in French, the national language.
Imagine sitting in a classroom in the tropics with no lights or air conditioning. For about 6 hours each day for six days per week (usually only 4 hours on Fridays and Wednesdays), you listen to lectures and copy notes to your notebook for later study. In science class, you learn about biology that you know a lot about from practice in your parents fields, and also about the physics of automobiles (that you occasionally ride in) and airplanes (that you probably never will). You learn to solve the same algebraic equations as students everywhere in the world so at your age. You learn about economics and history and the lives of people in other nations that almost all have much more than you see around you in your daily life. Your textbooks show similar pictures as textbooks do in all nations. You are not at all ignorant of how life looks in other countries.
Parents and students listen to administrators discuss events at the school and distribute awards to high performing individuals.
The importance placed on education is evidenced by the number of men present at this meeting. But, several will pull their daughters out of secondary school grades to be married. Their education suffers from uneven quality and a lack of attention when help is needed to master a problem area, as too many students make it difficult for the teachers. Those students who stay in face difficult national exams in 6th grade, 10th grade, 12th grade, and in the year of “Terminale” that follows. If you cannot pass the exam after 3 tries you are out. A 12th grade class in one school in 1999 included 8 students, while the 7th grade class included almost 80 students, evidence of severe attrition.
And for what? Jobs outside of agriculture or trading in imported manufactured goods are limited. So many know things could be better, even though they are not in their country. I met more than one individual who could speak 4 languages, had skills in agricultural and construction trades, were literate and quick with numbers, yet struggled to pay for the necessities for their children. They and even high school age children were knowledgeable about the state of the world, politics in the West, and the comparative lack of resources in their own homeland. They seemed to hold endless streams of entrepreneurial ideas and a willingness to take risks when those risks held the promise of a better life for them and their families.
These are the educated in the developing world; knowledgeable, aware, and skilled in many things. They are seeking advantage and improvement in their lives, yet face difficult challenges in realizing any of their dreams. Education is making them ready, but education cannot by itself allow them to transform their world into what they want it to be.