John Marsh: Why Education Is Not an Economic Panacea-insights for development?

John Marsh just published an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on 'Why Education is not an Economic Panacea'. The article is long and a bit confusing to read. It is based on the author's experience in an education project for poor members of the community:

The idea was simple. Faculty from the University of Illinois would offer night classes in their areas of expertise [...] for anyone in the community who was between the ages of 18 and 45 and lived at 150 percent of the poverty level of income or lower. [...] Students who completed the nine-month course would receive six hours of college credit, which they could then transfer to other institutions of higher learning. Everything would be free: tuition, books, even child care at a nearby community center. We named it after a similar program in Chicago, the Odyssey Project.

In short, the programme was based on the well-known dicussion that 

education pays, and pays more than ever. If so, it must seem as if the best way to get ahead is to get an education. Unsurprisingly, then, nothing dominates our thinking about poverty and economic inequality so much as the belief that education (or lack of it) causes these problems, and thus that education (and more of it) will fix them.

But in the end, Marsh reflects more critically on the project and its aims, not uncommen in development, that he may have learned more from/about 'the poor' than 'the poor' from him and the program:

My association with the Odyssey Project also gave me a better, though by no means thorough, understanding of the lives of the poor and low-income people who struggle to make ends meet, who struggle to be in two places at once. People who are one crisis away—a job loss, an illness, a missed rent check—from having their lives upended, and people for whom more often than not that crisis comes. People of stunning intelligence, and people completely unprepared to benefit from whatever educational opportunities they might encounter. More than anything, though, my association with the Odyssey Project taught me that programs like it are neither necessary nor sufficient responses to the problems of poverty and economic inequality in the United States.

Education is one of the most favourite topics in international development and by and large programs are based on similar premises about education as the major way 'to escape poverty'. Whether celebrities like Madonna or development-celebrities like Greg Mortenson get involved, schools, education (especially for girls) and the power of learning are almost at the core of their engagment. Maybe one of the reasons is that most aid workers have been socialised with these premises in their (OECD) home countries-but that is only a side-note. Similar to Marsh, we may have to question our aspirational assumptions more carefully and ask whether, say, basic literary or mathematical skills are the developing country-equivalent of an American bachelor's degree. I fully understand the transformative power of the exemplary woman who is enabled to engage in the local market and can sell her produce and make extra income, but that does not make questions about rural poverty in that country disappear. As with many aspects of development, this is also based on an inherently capitalistic assumption about 'the entrepreneur' in a context where people may be 'one crisis away from having their lives upended'. 

In the end, although his article may not be the greatest read, it raises uneasy questions for development.
Unfortunately, Marsh' book is relatively expensive and not (yet?) available as ebook, but I would like to read his full story, especially keeping the implications for development in mind.


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