In the most optimistic view of the world, education is meant to be transformative, changing the fortunes of individuals and their families, and spreading by example to the peers of the educated. While this view accords with the policy rhetoric around education, and with much anecdotal evidence, rigorous evidence is hard to come by especially in developing countries: the decision to open a school or enrol a child is rarely random and so, even if we did observe individuals over a long period of time, it is hard to be convinced that the differences in fortunes did really arise from education and not something else.
Leonard Wantchekon and coauthors’ paper on education in colonial Benin changes that. It asks a big question – what was the causal effect of the introduction of schools in colonial Benin in the early 1900s on the first children enrolled, their descendants, their neighbours and their extended families?
Perhaps the most impressive part of the empirical exercise is the innovativeness and richness of the data collection. The authors identify a set of schools which were the first `Western’ schools in the area and identify reasonable other comparison villages in the same area (arguing persuasively based on historical records that the school placement was exogenous). Within the villages, they identify the first two cohorts of children in these schools and all their cohort members in the `treated’ villages. This second part is hard (there were no census records or European-style parish registers to be looking back to) and so they create a record of the cohort members by interviewing current village residents about their grandparents and extended families. They argue, based on historical record that elites did not want their children to go to Western schools when they were first introduced, that student selection was either happenstance or random. Having asked a big question, the authors created a dataset going back a hundred years to answer it.
Figure 2: treatment and control groups
The effects are staggeringly large. Those children who were educated in the first cohorts had much better income outcomes and living standards and were overwhelmingly likely to work outside agriculture. As importantly, they were much more likely to be politically active – to join and campaign for political parties or to stand for elections. In this cohort at least, education does lead to empowerment. These effects persist – children of these initially treated individuals continue to get more education and have higher living standards.
If the paper had ended there, these results could have been a source for at least some disappointment: a random shock (being enrolled in a school that just opened) to one generation permanently privileges individuals and their descendants. The rhetoric around education is often about diffusion, the externalities that accrue to peers and to communities. And it is in those areas, that Wantchekon and co-authors provide some of their most interesting findings: a generation later, the gaps between the children of the initially-educated and the initially-uneducated individuals in the villages where a school was opened seemed to have dramatically reduced with the descendants of the uneducated “catching up, and catching up fast, especially in terms of income and social networks.” They document also diffusion through the extended family network with the nieces and nephews of the initially-educated benefiting as much as the children. Taken together, results in this paper seem to suggest quite strongly that being educated early on had large effects on the future outcomes of these individuals and their children, and eventually on their extended families and neighbours; education also brought a greater voice and political participation. This accords with even the most optimistic claims about the effects of education.
Wantchekon and coauthors do a great job of documenting the causal effects on the specific individuals and families who benefited from being early recipients of education. The implications for the returns to education under different circumstances — say a different country or a different time, perhaps one where the levels of education were not quite so low — are not clear. These initially treated individuals benefited perhaps by being `early-birds’, valued greatly because their skills were so rare and provided a great mark of distinction, and maybe such results are an upper-bound of what returns to education might be in most contexts today. And that is without engaging with the issues about the quality of education imparted in schools. Still, for this one cohort at a historically opportune moment, education did indeed prove transformative – that is an immensely valuable result in its own right.
Leonard Wantchekon delivered the Keynote Address at the CSAE 2014 Conference titled Education and Human Capital Externalities: Evidence from Colonial Benin.