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Improving Africa's Education System

Blog Post | Education & Literacy

Improving Africa's Education System

Liberia's education system is both increasingly effective and affordable.

Improving educational standards in Africa

Great strides have been made on many fronts when it comes to global education. In 2000 the average child went to school for 7 years. By 2010 it was over 8 years. Literacy rates have gone up from 76 percent to 81 percent over the same period. Millions of children are in school and learning. But, clearly, more progress is needed. Over 617 million children and adolescents are not achieving minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics. Globally, 330 million children are in school, but they are not learning. Some 263 million children are not in school at all.

Sub-Saharan Africa is particularly deficient when it comes to provision of quality education. But innovative policies are spreading throughout the continent, with dramatic effect. Liberia, for example, is the fourth poorest country in the world and has a literacy rate of less than 50 percent. The majority of children are out of school, with a 43 percent net attendance ratio according to UNICEF, indicating the percentage of those eligible to attend primary school, and who actually do so within that group.

So, rather than settle for incremental improvements, the country is trying to leapfrog forward. A few years ago, a public private partnership between the Ministry of Education and non state operators saw the establishment of seven independent school providers, who are running a small number of state elementary schools. These partners are a mix of non-profit and for-profit outfits.

One of the seven school operators helping Liberia is Bridge. Bridge equips local teachers with quality lesson plans via a digital e-reader device. These are given to every teacher working in a school run by Bridge. Teachers are following the digital lesson guides and systematically working their way through the local Liberian national curriculum. The technology enables Bridge staff in Monrovia to monitor the progress of children’s learning, check student and teacher attendance, and give highly accurate reports of what’s happening in the classroom to the Ministry of Education. Parents and teachers up and down the country have been embracing this new approach and are seeing dramatic changes in the speed, quantity and quality of learning.

A gold standard independent evaluation of the program by the Centre for Global Development and Innovations Poverty Action showed that schools being used to trial the new policies had seen learning improvements of 60 percent in a single academic year. That’s the average across all seven school operators. At Bridge public schools, the study showed, students learnt twice as fast as their peers in neighborhood schools. The focus on learning outcomes rather than access as a success benchmark is a notable shift taking place in the global education eco-system and one that resonates in Liberia.

These schools have experienced such an acceleration in learning that the newly elected government has given the go-ahead for the pilot program to continue into the next academic year with a few modifications. As the education minister Professor Ansu D.Sonii says, it will ensure that “the significant learning gains delivered under the program could be maintained.”

More than that, the Liberian Ministry for Education is already starting to roll-out across the whole education system some of the policies that have been tested successfully in the pilot program, like a longer school day. At present, normal government elementary schools only run until noon. But from next academic year they will continue until 3pm, as in the schools run by the program partners. The pilot program has shown that this extended day really is having a positive impact.

So far these improvements to basic education have cost the Liberian government very little – generally having relied on the commitment of generous donors for financing. For example, Bridge’s work in Liberia has cost the government $0 U.S. dollars over the last two years. The Government has an aspiration of providing quality education to every child for $100 a year by 2020 – currently they spend $50 – although not all providers receive this subsidy.

My view is that this innovative approach, integrating the private sector and others, has enabled the rapid improvement to Liberia’s education system and is both increasingly effective and affordable.

Even in the most remote corner of Liberia, children who are refugees from Ivory Coast are getting the same free, high quality learning as those in the capital Monrovia. Because Bridge gives every teacher an e-reader, they are all able to download the lesson guides and they are all supported by local teacher trainers. The remoteness of the school has no impact of the quality of the teaching or the materials. This is good news for Liberia and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa as it shows that it is possible for governments with very small education budgets to make huge learning gains quickly that directly impact children. The combination of brave new education policies plus high quality support through a PPP approach shows that the tide is against the learning crisis in Liberia.

The public in the USA agrees that this novel approach is a great way to quickly improve education in parts of the world that struggle to run enough quality schools. According to the public survey organization ONE Poll, three-quarters of the American public surveyed believe there should be more education public-private partnerships in developing countries. The same proportion of Americans also agree that Bridge International Academies are good for children. 

The current and previous Liberian governments both deserve high praise for their leadership in working to deliver transformative education opportunities for children using non state actors and innovative policies. Other governments across the continent should take note of Liberia’s success story and such a fast, effective and low-cost way to improve education for children who have the potential to change the world.

Blog Post | Wellbeing

Is This the Best Time to Be Alive?

Overwhelming evidence shows that we are richer, healthier, better fed, better educated, and even more humane than ever before.

Imagine, if you will, the following scenario. It is 1723, and you are invited to dinner in a bucolic New England countryside, unspoiled by the ravages of the Industrial Revolution. There, you encounter a family of English settlers who left the Old World to start a new life in North America. The father, muscles bulging after a vigorous day of work on the farm, sits at the head of the table, reading from the Bible. His beautiful wife, dressed in rustic finery, is putting finishing touches on a pot of hearty stew. The son, a strapping lad of 17, has just returned from an invigorating horse ride, while the daughter, aged 12, is playing with her dolls. Aside from the antiquated gender roles, what’s there not to like?

As an idealized depiction of pre-industrial life, the setting is easily recognizable to anyone familiar with Romantic writing or films such as Gone with the Wind or the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As a description of reality, however, it is rubbish; balderdash; nonsense and humbug. More likely than not, the father is in agonizing and chronic pain from decades of hard labor. His wife’s lungs, destroyed by years of indoor pollution, make her cough blood. Soon, she will be dead. The daughter, the family being too poor to afford a dowry, will spend her life as a spinster, shunned by her peers. And the son, having recently visited a prostitute, is suffering from a mysterious ailment that will make him blind in five years and kill him before he is 30.

For most of human history, life was very difficult for most people. They lacked basic medicines and died relatively young. They had no painkillers, and people with ailments spent much of their lives in agonizing pain. Entire families lived in bug-infested dwellings that offered neither comfort nor privacy. They worked in the fields from sunrise to sunset, yet hunger and famines were common. Transportation was primitive, and most people never traveled beyond their native villages or nearest towns. Ignorance and illiteracy were rife. The “good old days” were, by and large, very bad for the great majority of humankind. Since then, humanity has made enormous progress—especially over the course of the last two centuries.

How much progress?

Life expectancy before the modern era, which is to say, the last 200 years or so, was between ages 25 and 30. Today, the global average is 73 years old. It is 78 in the United States and 85 in Hong Kong.

In the mid-18th century, 40 percent of children died before their 15th birthday in Sweden and 50 percent in Bavaria. That was not unusual. The average child mortality among hunter-gatherers was 49 percent. Today, global child mortality is 4 percent. It is 0.3 percent in the Nordic nations and Japan.

Most of the people who survived into adulthood lived on the equivalent of $2 per day—a permanent state of penury that lasted from the start of the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago until the 1800s. Today, the global average is $35—adjusted for inflation. Put differently, the average inhabitant of the world is 18 times better off.

With rising incomes came a massive reduction in absolute poverty, which fell from 90 percent in the early 19th century to 40 percent in 1980 to less than 10 percent today. As scholars from the Brookings Institution put it, “Poverty reduction of this magnitude is unparalleled in history.”

Along with absolute poverty came hunger. Famines were once common, and the average food consumption in France did not reach 2,000 calories per person per day until the 1820s. Today, the global average is approaching 3,000 calories, and obesity is an increasing problem—even in sub-Saharan Africa.

Almost 90 percent of people worldwide in 1820 were illiterate. Today, over 90 percent of humanity is literate. As late as 1870, the total length of schooling at all levels of education for people between the ages of 24 and 65 was 0.5 years. Today, it is nine years.

These are the basics, but don’t forget other conveniences of modern life, such as antibiotics. President Calvin Coolidge’s son died from an infected blister, which he developed while playing tennis at the White House in 1924. Four years later, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. Or think of air conditioning, the arrival of which increased productivity and, therefore, standards of living in the American South and ensured that New Yorkers didn’t have to sleep on outside staircases during the summer to keep cool.

So far, I have chiefly focused only on material improvements. Technological change, which drives material progress forward, is cumulative. But the unprecedented prosperity that most people enjoy today isn’t the most remarkable aspect of modern life. That must be the gradual improvement in our treatment of one another and of the natural world around us—a fact that’s even more remarkable given that human nature is largely unchanging.

Let’s start with the most obvious. Slavery can be traced back to Sumer, a Middle Eastern civilization that flourished between 4,500 BC and 1,900 BC. Over the succeeding 4,000 years, every civilization at one point or another practiced chattel slavery. Today, it is banned in every country on Earth.

In ancient Greece and many other cultures, women were the property of men. They were deliberately kept confined and ignorant. And while it is true that the status of women ranged widely throughout history, it was only in 1893 New Zealand that women obtained the right to vote. Today, the only place where women have no vote is the Papal Election at the Vatican.

A similar story can be told about gays and lesbians. It is a myth that the equality, which gays and lesbians enjoy in the West today, is merely a return to a happy ancient past. The Greeks tolerated (and highly regulated) sexual encounters among men, but lesbianism (women being the property of men) was unacceptable. The same was true about relationships between adult males. In the end, all men were expected to marry and produce children for the military.

Similarly, it is a mistake to create a dichotomy between males and the rest. Most men in history never had political power. The United States was the first country on Earth where most free men could vote in the early 1800s. Prior to that, men formed the backbone of oppressed peasantry, whose job was to feed the aristocrats and die in their wars.

Strange though it may sound, given the Russian barbarism in Ukraine and Hamas’s in Israel, data suggests that humans are more peaceful than they used to be. Five hundred years ago, great powers were at war 100 percent of the time. Every springtime, armies moved, invaded the neighbor’s territory, and fought until wintertime. War was the norm. Today, it is peace. In fact, this year marks 70 years since the last war between great powers. No comparable period of peace exists in the historical record.

Homicides are also down. At the time of Leonardo Da Vinci, some 73 out of every 100,000 Italians could expect to be murdered in their lifetimes. Today, it is less than one. Something similar has happened in Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia, and many other places on Earth.

Human sacrifice, cannibalism, eunuchs, harems, dueling, foot-binding, heretic and witch burning, public torture and executions, infanticide, freak shows and laughing at the insane, as Harvard University’s Steven Pinker has documented, are all gone or linger only in the worst of the planet’s backwaters.

Finally, we are also more mindful of nonhumans. Lowering cats into a fire to make them scream was a popular spectacle in 16th century Paris. Ditto bearbaiting, a blood sport in which a chained bear and one or more dogs were forced to fight. Speaking of dogs, some were used as foot warmers while others were bred to run on a wheel, called a turnspit or dog wheel, to turn the meat in the kitchen. Whaling was also common.

Overwhelming evidence from across the academic disciplines clearly shows that we are richer, live longer, are better fed, and are better educated. Most of all, evidence shows that we are more humane. My point, therefore, is a simple one: this is the best time to be alive.

Blog Post | Tertiary Education

Centers of Progress, Pt. 21: Bologna (Universities)

Introducing the city that pioneered the university model of higher learning.

Today marks the twenty-first installment in a series of articles by HumanProgress.org called Centers of Progress. Where does progress happen? The story of civilization is in many ways the story of the city. It is the city that has helped to create and define the modern world. This bi-weekly column will give a short overview of urban centers that were the sites of pivotal advances in culture, economics, politics, technology, etc.

Our twenty-first Center of Progress is Bologna, home to the first university (as commonly recognized) and the oldest continuously operating university in the world today. The University of Bologna, traditionally said to be founded in the year 1088, was the earliest institution to award degrees and promote higher learning in the manner of a modern college or university.

Today Bologna is the seventh-most populous city in Italy and home to over a million people. The city’s symbol is le Due Torri (the Two Towers), stone structures which may date to 1109 and 1119, respectively. (A scarcity of documentation from that time period means that the exact construction dates remain a bit of a mystery.) Despite sustaining damage from a bombing in 1944, Bologna’s historic city center has remained largely intact and, at 350 acres, is Europe’s second largest stretch of medieval architecture. The major historic squares are dominated not by statues of generals or political figures, but by tombs and memorials to medieval professors. While less popular with tourists than Florence, Venice, or Rome, Bologna has a burgeoning tourist industry. Other prominent local industries include energy, machinery, the refinement and packaging of local agricultural products, fashion, and automotives. The city is the headquarters of both Ducati, a motorcycle company, and Lamborghini, which produces luxury sports cars.

The city has three nicknames. La Rossa (the red) for its stunning medieval architecture, defined by red rooftops and lengthy UNESCO-protected red terracotta porticoes that make it possible to traverse much of the city while remaining in the shade. (Bologna also has a reputation for left-leaning politics, giving that nickname a double meaning.) La Dotta (the learned) for its long tradition of devotion to knowledge and for its many university students, as well as its status as the city that produced the first university. And La Grassa (the fat) as an acknowledgment of the city’s culinary innovations and reputation as one of Italy’s gastronomic capitals.

Bologna’s contributions to global food culture are significant. The city lends its name to Bolognese sauce, a meat-based pasta sauce popular in Italian cuisine that dates to at least the 18th century. Its variations are served in Italian restaurants around the world. But the city is perhaps most famous in the English-speaking world as the origin of the processed lunch meat known as Bologna sausage—with Bologna corrupted into the pronunciation baloney rather than ba-loan-ya—or simply called baloney. (Either spelling is acceptable for the food).

Baloney is a variation of Bologna’s mortadella sausage, which may have originated as long ago as the 14th century. Both mortadella and baloney are made of ground-up heat-cured pork. Italian immigrants to the United States popularized baloney in the early 20th century. An inexpensive product made from scraps of leftover pork, baloney has also come to mean “nonsense.” That is ironic given that, far from encouraging nonsense, the city of Bologna spearheaded humanity’s search for truth through higher education.

Bologna enjoys a prime location amid broad fertile lowlands next to the Reno River – to this day one of Italy’s leading agricultural regions. It is thus unsurprising that Bologna was first inhabited as early as the 9th century BC.

The city’s desirable location meant it was frequently conquered by outsiders. The original Etruscan city of Felsina (as Bologna was then called), fell to the Gauls by the 4th century BC. A Celtic people, they called the settlement Bona, meaning “fortress.” In 196 BC, Bona became a Roman outpost bearing the Latinized name Bononia, from which Bologna is derived. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Bologna was repeatedly sacked and variously occupied by invading Visigoths, Huns, Goths, and Lombards. The city was then conquered by the Franks, led by King Charlemagne, in the 8th century. Hungarians sacked the city in the 10th century.

By the 11th century, Bologna sought to escape feudal rule and become a free commune, with the motto Libertas (“freedom”). Exactly when Bologna made the transition is unknown, but the oldest surviving constitution of the city dates to 1123. However, the city did not remain independent for long, as various warring noblemen of the Italian medieval and Renaissance periods vied for control of the city.

While limited medieval records make dates uncertain and the precise order of events unclear, at some point during the 11th century Bologna became the center of a revived interest in higher education, particularly the study of law. Lay students from across Europe flocked to Bologna to study law under a renowned jurist known as Pepo, an expert on Justinian the Great’s compilations of Roman law.

Upon their arrival, foreign students were faced with discriminatory city laws. Bologna allowed collective punishment, the charging of any foreigner with the crimes and debts of their compatriots. The city could, in other words, seize a Frenchman’s property to pay another Frenchman’s debt, and punish a Hungarian for a crime committed by a different Hungarian. Because Italy was not yet a unified political entity, many groups who are today Italian, such as Sicilians, counted as foreign nationals and were also subject to collective punishment in Bologna.

Bologna’s growing body of foreign students decided to try to change the laws concerning collective punishment that made living in the city perilous for non-natives. They formed a guild, a kind of mutual aid society, known as the universitates scholarium. The guild hired legal scholars to give organized instruction to the students, and the latter successfully petitioned the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I (1122–1190) to aid their cause. Frederick I issued a charter officially recognizing the University of Bologna. Known as the authentica habita, the charter granted protection to Bologna’s foreign scholars from collective punishment and gave them the right of “freedom of movement and travel for the purposes of study.” The word universitas, which meant guild in late Latin, was coined to describe the organization and gave us the modern sense of the word university.

Like today’s universities, the University of Bologna developed separate departments for different fields of study, such as theology, law, medicine, and philosophy. And, like today’s universities, the University of Bologna set degree requirements and awarded bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. By pioneering the university model of instruction, the University of Bologna helped humanity to make progress in many areas—but especially legal studies. Pepo is often said to be the first university’s first legal instructor.

Pepo was soon far surpassed by his student Irnerius (c. 1050–after 1125), who also went on to teach at the University of Bologna. He was originally a student of rhetoric and didactics. His wealthy patroness, one of Italy’s most powerful nobles at the time, Matilda of Tuscany (c. 1046–1115), convinced him to switch fields and study jurisprudence. Nicknamed lucerna juris (“lantern of the law”), Irnerius’s scholarship is credited with creating much of the Medieval Roman Law tradition. His glosses on the ancient Roman law code helped to move medieval law, which was sometimes disordered and contradictory, in the direction of becoming more systematic and rational like the ancient Roman legal system. Irnerius’s most famous students – Bulgaro, Martino, Ugo, and Jacopo – came to be called the Four Doctors of Bologna. Each allegedly had a different approach to legal philosophy.

By the end of the twelfth century, the University of Bologna had the uncontested title of Europe’s premier center for higher learning, particularly legal studies, drawing an ever-larger crowd of elite international students from across the continent. The Englishman Thomas Becket (c. 1120–1170), a famed Archbishop of Canterbury who sought to preserve the independence of the Church from the State, and who is now revered as a martyr-saint in both the Catholic and Anglican Church, studied law at the University of Bologna in his youth. The Florentines Dante Alighieri (c. 1265–1321) and Francesco Petrarca (1304–1374) also both studied at the University of Bologna. Other famous alumni include four former popes. Yet another renowned alumnus was the Dutchman Erasmus of Rotterdam (1469–1536), an early champion of religious toleration and peace, and arguably a hero of progress.

From the twelfth to the fifteenth century, the university had between three and five thousand students. Today, the university has over eighty-six thousand students.

The University of Bologna is also commonly said to be the first university to award a degree to a woman and allow one to teach at the university level. According to tradition, in 1237, a noblewoman named Bettisia Gozzadini (1209–1261) graduated after studying philosophy and law and began lecturing on jurisprudence in 1239.

Whether Gozzadini actually graduated from Bologna became a point of contention in the 1700s. The writer Alessandro Machiavelli (1693–1766) sought to provide evidence (possibly faked) of Gozzadini’s achievement in order to support the Bolognese Countess Maria Vittoria Delfini Dosi’s request to be granted a law degree. Despite Machiavelli’s efforts, the countess’s request was ultimately denied. Male scholars who opposed the idea of granting women degrees sought to dismiss Gozzadini as a popular legend. Scant records from the medieval period make the truth hard to discern.

That said, the University of Bologna employed the first female salaried university professor, the physicist Laura Bassi (1711–1778). She is credited with popularizing Newtonian mechanics in Italy. She was also the first woman to earn a doctoral degree in science and only the second woman to receive any doctoral degree. Bassi’s doctorate was also from the University of Bologna.

Bologna boasts many achievements in realms as diverse as architecture and gastronomy. But creating the world’s first university has been Bologna’s defining contribution to human progress. Universities have helped to promote scholarship, innovation, and higher learning ever since. By promoting the study of the law, in particular, Bologna helped humanity in its pursuit of an improved system of justice.

The translated university motto reads, “Saint Peter is everywhere the father of the law; Bologna is its mother.” The university’s full name is Alma Mater Studiorum Università di Bologna, or “the Nourishing Mother of Studies University of Bologna.” From that name, we get the term alma mater, popularly used by university graduates throughout the world to refer to whatever university they attended. But the mother of all universities is Bologna. For birthing the modern university system, medieval Bologna is rightly our twenty-first Center of Progress.

Blog Post | Primary Education

How Access to Education Will Carry on Booming

The total global average length of schooling in 1870 was only 0.5 years, by 2010 that figure stood at 8.5 years.

Years of schooling, global population weighted average increases.

One of the real markers of our progress in recent decades is the increased length of formal schooling and the amount of time people are spending in educational settings. That was not always so. Throughout human history, most people were illiterate and oblivious to everything except for their immediate surroundings.

Not everyone is naturally academic, but most people think that the acquisition of knowledge is preferable to a life of total ignorance – as witnessed by the great lengths that typical parents go to in order to ensure quality education for their kids. Thankfully, formal schooling is increasingly available and obtainable throughout the world.

Informal learning is, of course, as old as humanity. Before the advent of writing, however, all of the information that people needed to act in the world was passed down the generations orally. It was only 5,500 years ago that first forms of writing emerged. Early texts tended to deal with codification of laws, keeping of accounts and writing down history.

By and large, schooling was limited to a small sliver of urban-dwelling, freeborn men, and included imperial administrators, tax collectors and merchants. Peasants, who constituted between 80 and 90 per cent of the world’s population until the Industrial Revolution, were almost always too poor to pay for schooling. In any case, low agricultural productivity meant that everyone, including peasants’ children, had to work the land in order to produce enough food to survive.

By the time of classical antiquity, schools were firmly established in Greece, Rome, India and China. While schooling changed a great deal over the last 2,500 years, education was generally short in duration and restricted to a small number of subjects, including reading, writing, arithmetic, theology, law, astronomy, metaphysics, ethics and medical science.

As late as 1870, the total length of schooling at all levels of education for people between the ages of 25 and 64 is estimated to have been only about 0.5 years. In a handful of outliers, such as Switzerland and the United States, it was as high as four years. In France and the United Kingdom, it averaged less than a year. In the world’s underdeveloped regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa and much of Asia, schooling was negligible and would remain so for decades to come.

Things have changed, of course, and human beings throughout the world enjoy more schooling than ever before. To produce the chart above, I have used two datasets compiled by professors Robert Barro from Harvard University and Jong-Wha Lee from Korea University.

The first dataset covered the period between 1870 and 2010, while the second dataset consists of projections between 2015 and 2040. Each dataset contains estimates of educational attainment for the population between the ages of 25 and 64, expressed in terms of years of schooling. The first historical dataset contains the estimated educational attainment in 89 countries and the second projection dataset contains the same data for 146 countries.

The world averages are weighted by population and show the total estimated average years of schooling, as well as the estimates of average years of primary, secondary and tertiary schooling.

As we can see, the total global average length of schooling in 1870 was only 0.5 years. Of that number, primary education accounted for 0.47 years and secondary education for 0.03 years. Tertiary education, while certainly present in Western Europe, North America and part of Asia, was too insignificant to register at a global level. By 2010, Barro and Lee estimate, the global average length of schooling at all levels of education stood at 8.56 years. That year, primary, secondary and tertiary schooling amounted to 4.85 years, 3.23 years and 0.48 years respectively.

By 2040, the four measures of schooling will increase to 10.52 years (total), 5.03 years (primary), 4.69 years (secondary) and 0.8 years (tertiary).

In 2040, a new study in the Lancet estimates, the global life expectancy will reach 74 years for men and 80 years for women. That means that men will spend over 14 percent of their lives in school, while women will spend over 13 percent of their lives in school. Contrast that with 2010. Eight years ago, global life expectancy for men and women was 68.6 years and 72.8 years respectively. That means that men and women spent 12.5 percent and 11.8 percent of their lives learning.

The relationship between education and human development is a complex one. Schooling does not make people freer, just look at Cuba, or electorates wiser, just look at Argentina. But, education increases human capital, which under conditions of relative freedom can contribute to economic growth and development. Moreover, knowledge is itself an inherently a good thing. Of which we could all use a bit more.

This first appeared in CapX. 

Blog Post | Science & Technology

Technological Progress Freed Kids from Hard Labor

Washing machines and tractors freed America's children to receive an education.

New Technologies Decreases Child Labor

It’s summertime and across the United States, children are away from school. The custom of long breaks in the school year dates to when most Americans worked in agriculture and often needed their children’s help on the farm. Of course, most children simply didn’t attend school, instead helping with housework and grueling farm labor year-round. In 1820, for example, primary school enrollment in the United States was just over 40 percent. That percentage rapidly shot upward in the coming decades, reaching 100 percent by 1870. But even then, many children didn’t make it past elementary school. In 1870, U.S. mean years of schooling stood at just 4.28. That number has risen steadily ever since. What changed? Technology, for one thing.

In his book Enlightenment Now, Harvard University professor Steven Pinker recounts how technology helped get boys off the farm and into the classroom. He quotes a tractor advertisement from 1921:

By investing in a Case Tractor and Ground Detour Plow and Harrow outfit now, your boy can get his schooling without interruption, and the Spring work will not suffer by his absence. Keep the boy in school—and let a Case Kerosene Tractor take his place in the field. You’ll never regret either investment.

As more farms adopted efficiency-enhancing agricultural devices like kerosene tractors, more boys attended school instead of working the fields. For girls, the huge time savings brought on by labor-saving household devices played a similar role. As running water, electricity, washing machines, and other modern conveniences spread, time spent on housework plummeted. Pinker’s book also contains a telling chart documenting the change.

Most of the work replaced by those technologies had traditionally fallen to mothers—and to their daughters. The time freed up by innovation enabled more girls to attend school.

Washing machines and tractors have accomplished more than just cleaning clothes and ploughing fields. They also freed America’s children to receive an education.

Today, there are still children kept from school by household labor requirements. The burden disproportionately falls on girls. According to the United Nations, data from 42 countries show that rural girls are more likely to be out of school than rural boys. In rural Sub-Saharan Africa, the U.N. data also shows that girls often spend more time gathering wood and water than boys—time that could be spent in a classroom instead.

Fortunately, access to running water and electricity is rapidly spreading across the globe. As more households gain access to modern technologies, more children will leave behind backbreaking physical labor for school books and studying.

This also appeared in Cato At Liberty.