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The value of education has become a cliche. But few people seem to realize that school-based education can often prove a liability. Consider the views of Ram Mohan, a young farmer from the Indian state of Rajasthan, who refused to go to school. “My father wanted me to go,” he said, “but I didn’t. My elder brother has studied up to high-school level. He hasn’t had a job for the last three years. He sits all day long brooding or filling out forms. No one even offers him a cup of tea. His wife has left him and gone back to her parents. But I am working in the field. When I come back, my mother quickly makes tea for me. I am respected. Why should I go to school? I know enough to be able to read the expiry date on the pesticides. I know how to read the election manifesto of the political parties. I know how to vote. I do not want education.”

There are millions like Mohan’s brother around the world. Once “educated,” they develop a disdain toward their hereditary professions or traditional callings. And the global economy fails to provide them with the jobs for which they have been trained.

Formal education acquires its value from technological change. A child can acquire most of the practical knowledge he will need throughout his life from his parents. This hereditary education stands him in good stead most of the time, but fails in periods of technological change. If his father had been a farmer who irrigated with a bullock wheel, Mohan would not have learned how to operate the electric well at home. School-based education could add to his productivity in this case. But if his father had been irrigating with an electric well himself, school education would have added little to his son’s productivity.

When Suzuki began to produce new-generation cars in India with thermostat radiators and power windows, no mechanics were available to repair the new models. In the mid-’80s, Suzuki ran special courses for training mechanics. Not any more. Boys of 10 now learn how to do the repairs by working as apprentices. They make excellent mechanics — often without school education. All a boy needs is literacy, which he can get by going to classes in the evening while working during the day.

If we were to compare two fields — one belonging to an educated farmer and the other to an uneducated one — almost invariably the yield of the educated farmer’s field would be no better. I can vouch for this from my personal experience. The reason is that the uneducated farmer has acquired all the skills needed for purchase, production and sales from his parents to the same degree as the educated one. Neither of them “needs” a school education to produce basmati rice or silk cocoons.

It is almost the same story with vocational education. A vocation is best taught by one who practices it. And who will practice it better than one’s own parents? School-based vocational training is justified only when some new technology is being introduced. Once that is done, “on-site” training is adequate.

This is not to denigrate all education. There indeed are many jobs that require intensive school-based education. But a country needs only so many bankers, software engineers and the like. The rest of its youth need practical training with their elders so that they can learn the tricks of surviving in the informal sectors that dominate most developing countries.

In fact, the hype about school education springs not from concern for individual children’s welfare, but from the self-interest of the education mafia in developing countries. A primary school teacher in India draws a salary of 7,000 rupees per month while the educated clerk in a private company gets only Rs 1,000. It is these government teachers who make a killing in the name of promoting education.

This is the lesson we should learn from countries like Sri Lanka and Costa Rica, which boast of their high levels of education but have poor growth rates. It is time for the developing countries not to squander their scarce resources in promoting universal school education. The money should be spent instead in promoting literacy. Let a farmer from India spend a month in the villages of Indonesia. He would learn more from that experience than from 10 years in school.

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