By now, most countries have made elementary education not only an accessible option but a duty. Citizens expect governments to provide free basic schooling, and parents are prohibited from impeding their children’s learning and further academic development. While the first educational institutions date back to ancient times, the educational system as one knows it today only started emerging at the turn of the twentieth century. Over less than two centuries, progress in primary education has contributed to rising global literacy rates; secondary and tertiary education have undergone drastic positive changes as well. Yet, recent data indicate that 258 million children and youth are unschooled, with more than half of them dropping out after primary school (The United Nations). Indeed, accessible education for all is still a work in progress. This essay argues that schooling offers benefits to both individuals and nations on the whole.
The introduction of compulsory education was one of the outcomes of industrialization and the extension of civil liberties in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Back then, many Western countries were undergoing radical shifts toward democracy, which manifested itself through universal suffrage. However, citizens could properly exercise their voting rights only if they could make well-informed, educated decisions. Hence, increasing literacy rates meant improving the quality of the electorate that could stay on top of political events, discern between candidates and initiatives, and forge its own path.
This rationale does not lose its relevance today when many nations are polarized on political issues. Alas, modern governing education bodies and institutions do not always tend to these purposes. In her essay The Essentials of a Good Education, Ravitch criticizes the current US education that, according to the author, took a wrong turn after the introduction of No Child Left Behind (106). In particular, the author finds it unfortunate that test-based performance measures made schools “cut back on every subject that was not tested” (Ravitch 106). As a result, education serves “secondary purposes”: it turns Americans into objects and “human assets” that will play a strictly assigned role in society (Ravitch 108). In contrast, Ravitch wants the education system to see humans as subjects – ones that can think critically and fend for themselves. Following this argument, it is safe to assume that education gives more autonomy to citizens.
Ravitch’s sentiment is similar to the ideas that Malcolm X expressed in his essay Learning to Read. In it, the political activist argues that it was reading that woke him up to the reality of race and ethnicity in the world and the longstanding power imbalance. For example, Malcolm X learned about colonialism and Europocentrism that dominated political and philosophical thought. At the same time, books made him realize that there were Black empires and that “the history of the Negro” could not be “covered in one paragraph” as many history books do (Malcolm X 4). It would not be a reach to say that reading substantiated Malcolm X’s political position and fueled his fight for justice. Therefore, one may infer that education helps a person come into contact with their self-identity, puts them in a broader context, and inspires them to make a change.
One curious detail from Malcolm X’s essay is the fact he started reading voraciously during his incarceration. Indeed, many prisoners dedicate their time behind bars to self-education. Sometimes they receive support in their endeavors: for instance, the Obama administration introduced the Second Chance Pell Pilot program that offered college-level courses to inmates (Bender). The rationale for such programs becomes clear when one glances at pessimistic statistics. Forty-six percent of incarcerated Americans do not have a high school diploma; those who are least educated are the most likely to become rearrested (Bender). There is evidence that education reduces recidivism and helps inmates adapt to life out of prison (Bender). To generalize, schooling may be a way out for the underserved and underprivileged and a vehicle for social integration.
Both Malcolm X and Alexie emphasize the role that education plays in shaping one’s identity and finding one’s own voice. In his essay, The Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me, Alexie reflects on his childhood. An Indigenous person, the author grew up on a reservation, which made him conscious of how different he was from his classmates. In his narration, one may find a parallel to Malcolm X’s experiences. Both Malcolm X and Alexie are people of color, and their race gave rise to many stereotypes and prejudice about their intellectual ability and aptitude. For example, Alexie states explicitly that Indian children “were expected to be stupid” (Alexie 4). His classmates did not hide their contempt and fought him whenever he tried to answer in class. However, reading boosted both authors’ confidence, provided them with a meaningful pastime, and even determined their life paths.
Indeed, choosing what one wants to do with their life depends on the amount of information at one’s disposal. Alexie says that if it were not for books, he would not probably become a writer himself. The joy of reading became the joy of writing – something that people do not associate with Indians. In a way, self-education allowed Alexie to beat all odds and rise above his difficult life circumstances. To sum up, education broadens one’s horizons and gives one the freedom to navigate life how they see fit.
Today, it is a commonly held belief that education is a fundamental resource benefitting both individuals and societies. Yet, millions of children around the globe are still out of school or do not continue past elementary grades. Illiteracy creates a heavy burden for nations and obstacles for individuals. A nation that is not educated cannot exercise its rights and enjoy its freedoms. The voting institution is supported by a knowledgeable electorate that forges its own path through discernment. It is education that allows a person to look at life from a different angle and put things in perspective. As a result, critical thinking emerges and liberates a person from stereotypes, prejudice, and determinism of their life circumstances.
Alexie, Sherman.“The Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me.” The Most Wonderful Books: Writers on Discovering the Pleasures of Reading, edited by Michael Dorris and Emilie Buchwald, Milkweed Editions, 1997, pp. 3-6.
Bender, Kathleen. “Education Opportunities in Prison Are Key to Reducing Crime.” Center for American Progress, 2018, Web.
Ravitch, Diane. “Essential of a Good Education”. Rereading America: Cultural Contexts for Critical Thinking and Writing, edited by Gary Colombo et al., Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 10th ed., 2015, pp. 104-112.
The United Nations. Out-of-School Children and Youth. 2018, Web.
X, Malcolm. “Learning to Read.” 50 Essays: A Portable Anthology, edited Samuel Cohen, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011, pp. 257-266.