More Schools Mean Fewer Women
David Berreby is the author of "Us and Them: The Science of Identity." He has written about human behavior and other science topics for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Slate, Smithsonian, The New Republic, Nature, Discover, Vogue and many other publications. He has been a Visiting Scholar at the University of Paris, a Science Writing Fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory, a resident at Yaddo, and in 2006 was awarded the Erving Goffman Award for Outstanding Scholarship for the first edition of "Us and Them." David can be found on Twitter at @davidberreby and reached by email at david [at] davidberreby [dot] com.
It's a truth universally acknowledged around the world that education is good. The higher a people's schooling, goes the mantra, the better its economic progress, political prospects and gender equality. Everywhere in the world, for example, education for women correlates with a drop in fertility. That's why the old centrally-planned "population control" programs of the 1960s gave way to efforts that emphasize schools for girls and economic opportunity for all women. In 2002, for example, even Zero Population Growth changed its name to "Population Connection,'' and today its website proclaims the 21st-century approach: "Sustainable population, minus the control. Empowering women will naturally restore balance.''
The benefits of education sound almost too good to be true. And, in fact, it seems they are: One thing that also rises with education levels worldwide is the propensity to abort female embryos or kill female babies. Where a typical human population generally has 103-106 boy babies born for every 100 girls, in parts of China and India, The Economist recently reported the male/female ratio has reached 120/100. And the intensity of this "war on baby girls" increases with an area's educational accomplishment: In China and India, the higher a province's literacy level, the more skewed is its sex ratio. Richard Sproat at Language Log, appalled by these statistics, collected numbers for the rest of the world, as he explains here. He found a strong correlation globally between literacy and a dearth of female births.
As Sproat says, it's unlikely all those schools are directly teaching people to get sonograms and abort girls. But education is a proxy for prosperity, greater access to information, and a desire to control one's circumstances. In many people's progressive fantasies, all that is associated with the shedding of benighted ideas. In reality, money, information and self-assertion are leading people to snuff out future girls.
They have perfectly rational reasons to do so at the individual level, where, for example, Chinese society favors males and more than 60 percent of the population has no chance to legally bear more than one child. But the effect on society is unquestionably destabilizing: Societies with a surplus of unattached young men tend to violence and turmoil. Three Chinese provinces now have male/female baby ratios of 130/100; fourteen others are at 120/100 or above. A new report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences says the imbalance is growing with education and economic expansion.
It seems education, like democracy, just gives people the tools to assert themselves. It doesn't make them good, or wise.
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