Degrees of control

Education delivers positive outcomes at micro and macro-level. More education translates into higher earning capacity for individuals, and an educated workforce adds value to the national economy.

But it takes 12-15 years before payoffs and that is several election terms. This is one reason why democracies have problems with education policy. Politicians don’t care about such distant payoffs.

Should president-for-life political syste­ms — dictatorships in other words — invest more in education? After all, re-election is not a consideration. But dictators hate educated subjects. The more educated the citizenry, the more access they have to pernicious ideas like democracy and freedoms.

One-party systems with embedded transition policies where the leadership changes within the party, can create education systems with large, carefully constructed holes. The former Warsaw Pact nations, our northern neighbour, Nazi Germany, were all run by one-party systems. Arguably Iran is, as well.

By educating the populace, a one-party state ensures capacities in science, engineering, health care, etc. But one-party systems also need to block access to liberal ideas and this means gaps. Before the Berlin Wall came down, there were East German professors who had not heard of Erich Maria Remarque. Mikhail Bulgakov and Osip Mandelstam were unknowns in the Soviet Union. So were Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig Von Mises and Milton Friedman.

History is a particularly dangerous discipline for one-party states. The Soviets often spoke about the need for a “reliable past”. A shift in ideological stance means the history textbooks have to be rewritten, retrofitted and re-aligned with changed doctrine. 
There is even a novel about a Chinese historian, who discovers a month has gone missing from the official record due to sloppy rewriting after the Cultural Revolution.

Apart from needing filters, one-party education policy suffers when specific disciplines are overseen by lunatics, or ignoramuses. Stalin’s buddy, Trofim Lysenko destroyed the biosciences in the Soviet Union with madcap ideas. The Nazis burnt Einstein’s books, and persecuted non-Aryan scientists. Some of these “mongrel” scientists went to America and helped make the atom bomb.

The Nazis even made lists of “non-Aryan” plants and flowers, which were not to be cultivated in German gardens.  The study of pseudo-sciences like astrology and numerology, and the refusal to apply scientific methods to traditional medicine systems, also crop up often in one-party states because some strongman has a fetish for these things. This leads to misallocation of resources at the very least.

One way to block access to awkward id­e­­as is to restrict the knowledge and use of m­u­ltiple languages. It is easier to censor on­e lan­guage than to censor many. Hence, one-pa­rty states often try to impose monolingu­alism, usually in the name of national unity.
This is another reason for crippled educational policy. Multiple studies indicate bi-lingual education, or better still, multilingual education, has beneficial effects. Multilingual children are usually more successful adults.

Apart from enabling ease of communication, the knowledge of several languages seems to improve neurological and cognitive control. It has been hypothesised that, when a bilingual person uses language A, her brain instantaneously blocks access to language B to enable comprehension of A. This block is equally instantly removed if a switch to language B is made. As children switch languages in mid-sentence, their brains learn to use these neural pathways more efficiently. (In some cases of autism, the advice is to teach only one language because the brain has difficulty with this seamless block/unblock process).

Another interesting policy factor is that higher education may link to less support for a given party, even in democracies. In the 2018 US mid-term elections, for inst­a­n­ce, the Republican Party received 61 per cent of the votes of non-college-educated wh­ites, and only 45 per cent of the votes of college-educated whites. The Brexit refere­n­dum was also clearly skewed by education — the higher educated tended to vote “remain”.

This “diploma divide” could be one reason for Republicans and for the Boris Johnson government to undermine higher education. There may be similar diploma divides elsewhere. For example, students of three of the top universities in India have been prominent in the protests against central government policy. This could skew the education policy.

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