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They sounded like modern students

April 17, 2011

In a previous post about the morality of  realist thought, I critiqued the notion of the “unity of the Good,” that all morally preferable things within even a Western liberal democratic standpoint inherently go together. One of the truisms of Western thought about modernization and development is that education with secular and so-called modern attitudes will not simply reduce gender inequities, increase economic opportunity, and allow for empowerment and self-actualization, but will either increase political consciousness to foster respect for democratic processes, break down “primitive” affiliations (so that, in the words of our President’s inaugural, “that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve”), and produce peace through the de-legitimization of coercive political behavior.

Look no further than Thomas Friedman’s Wednesday column to see this sort of attitude on display, where an Egyptian woman working a job as a hotel clerk asks the columnist for reassurance about her country’s political transition. She, thinks Friedman, “sounded like a modern person.” It would be unfair to lay the blame for this ridiculous expression solely on Friedman’s shoulders, because in making remarks like this, he follows in a rich tradition of analysts with simplistic ideas of what it means to be modern. The one mechanism almost everyone in the developed world’s political mainstream believes produces idealized Western liberal modernity is education.

However useful education might be for achieving better lives for individuals, it does not follow that it brings with it the other desired features of a “modern” liberal democratic country. Do not take my word for it, though, read this RCT study of girls’ education in Kenya from the NBER (via Marginal Revolution):

Counter to modernization theory, increased human capital did not produce more pro-democratic or
secular attitudes and, if anything, it strengthened ethnic identification. Consistent with the empowerment
view, young women in program schools had fewer arranged marriages and were less likely to accept
domestic violence as legitimate. Moreover, the program increased objective political knowledge, and
reduced both acceptance of political authorities and satisfaction with politics. However, in our Kenyan
context, this rejection of the status quo did not translate into greater perceived political efficacy, community
participation or voting intentions. Instead, the program increased the perceived legitimacy of political
violence. We argue that selection bias may account for the view that education instills greater acceptance
of authority.

Read the whole paper for the research methods used, but really, this should not be a surprise once we take an informed, historical perspective. The idea that ethnic identification should fall because these identities are “tribal” or more “primitive” than secular allegiance to democratic authority is, of course, nonsense – but nonsense you will find repeated on a daily basis in the opinion columns of respected Western newspapers. As the paper points out, the most common levels of ethno-political affiliation in uneducated, rural societies is to one’s kinship group or village. Contrary to cosmopolitan detractors of politicized ethnic identity, the ability to affiliate oneself with groups that, though they are neither relatives nor neighbors, share common language, customs, or ways of life form the “imagined communities” of modern theories of nationalism.

Indeed, Benedict Anderson and other theorists of nationalism would find plenty of corroboration for their theories. For those believing in the role of print capitalism in promoting ethnic affiliation, the increased time educated girls in Kenya spend reading newspapers and decreased attention to the entertainment-oriented radio is utterly predictable. Of course, instead of consuming more critical and analytical political media, students do not become more “modern” in the sense of assuming an entirely civic sense of nationalism and a relatively pacifistic approach to politics.

While increasingly aware of politics, education did not make students feel as if they had more power in their political system, nor were they more likely to participate in the sort of civil society and community political organizations proponents of education advocate for. Instead, more aware of politics and their own inability to overcome its elitism, corruption, and institutional stratification, the  students were more likely to endorse political violence. As the study noted, just as Kenyan women were less tolerant of domestic abuse and gender inequality, they became more tolerant or supportive of political violence to achieve change in what seemed to them a complicated and unforgiving political arena.

Nobody who knows the role of the educated in political revolution should be surprised at these findings. The study is careful not to generalize, but it is reasonable to say it confirms the hypotheses in political history that education of politically-disadvantaged groups without broader change to a country’s political culture and institutions, may well legitimize the violence to overturn them.

None of this is to say that education is a bad thing and that developed countries should stop supporting it abroad. Rather, we should be more humble about what we think our money can accomplish, and honest about how complicated the process of “modernization” actually is. Western countries modernized with no small deal of bloodshed, and the sort of “primitive” or “tribal” ethnic affiliations Westerners critique others for are clearly on display in Western countries. The tumultuous and self-contradicting nature of economic, political, and educational development is clearly on display in America and Europe’s own histories, and policymakers and commentators in those countries should not hold their own foreign policies or their expectations of others to assumptions about modernization that never held true in their own histories.

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