And the rest is history, literally. In the United Kingdom mass education spurred by the extension of the vote in 1867 led to sharp declines in fertility and rapid economic growth. Between 1870 and 1930, British fertility dropped from five to two children and real GDP per capita more than doubled.
A century later investments in mass education underwrote the extraordinary development of countries like Sri Lanka and Costa Rica, and the State of Kerala in India. Caldwell argues that the dramatic improvements in health achieved by these countries were the result of a more educated public able to take advantage of new health information, products, and services.
But what about the countries still struggling to catch up in the development stakes – those at the bottom of the Human Development Index, all in Sub-Saharan Africa?* If Caldwell is right, they should be prioritizing the new global goals for universal literacy and secondary school attendance – Sustainable Development Goal 4 – above others and investing heavily in mass education.
What kinds of policies and programs should countries pursuing mass education have?
They should consider:
(a) publicly committing to 100% secondary school enrollment and literacy for all boys and girls irrespective of household income;
(b) legislating mandatory secondary school attendance with penalties for non-compliance;
(c) increasing government education spending per capita to the highest levels achieved by peer nations;
(d) rewarding the bottom 40% of households for secondary school attendance and literacy gains through the tax and/or transfer systems;
(e) ensuring that children from the bottom 40% of households have access to the same quality of education as their higher income peers;
(f) ensuring that children from the bottom 40% of households have access to the same information about educational and career opportunities as their higher income peers; and
(g) achieving 100% internet access for all secondary school students.
More than 40 years ago, Jack Caldwell predicted that the nature of the global society of the future would depend on the timing and pace of future fertility declines. Given the link between fertility decline and mass education he could just as easily have said that our future depends on how quickly our species is able to educate every one of its children to the same basic level.
Caldwell could not have foreseen the storm clouds of climate change and environmental degradation gathering on the horizon rendering his vision even more vital. But nor could he have foreseen the revolutions in technology and women’s empowerment that would put wind in the sails of the movement for mass education. The end result? There has never been greater urgency nor a better opportunity to harness education as “the single most potent force for human progress.”
*The ten countries scoring the lowest on the Human Development Index (2020) are Eritrea, Mozambique, Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone, Mali, Burundi, South Sudan, Chad, Central African Republic, and Niger.
Updated September 2021