A century ago the average person was illiterate. Advances in education since then have wrought drastic changes the world over.
When most people discuss education, they talk about reforming it. At the primary level, people want to save failing schools (the current debates around the Common Core State Standards comes to mind). At the higher education level, many worry that Americans are becoming overeducated—that the bachelor’s degree is the new high school diploma; some have even argued that too much education stifles creativity. Yet these discussions don’t situate education in its broader context: if we recall that just about 100 years ago the average person was illiterate, we may think of education differently.
Because of education about 80 percent of the world’s population can now read and write a short essay about their lives. Beyond primary education, approximately 20% of the world’s youth enrolls in higher education. In the early 20
Because of education about 80 percent of the world’s population can now read and write a short essay about their lives. Beyond primary education, approximately 20% of the world’s youth enrolls in higher education. In the early 20th century we thought nothing of a student dropping out of high school; in many ways it was the norm. But by the end of the century (infamously marked through the 1983 government report A Nation at Risk) the idea of dropping out of high school was tantamount to failure. Education has changed the concept of youth, adulthood, and the life course.
In the 1960s and 1970s, several scholars started writing about an impending crisis; they warned that mass education at all levels (primarily through university) would lead to an overeducated population. These scholars warned that providing access to higher education en masse would lead to whole societies of overeducated and underemployed citizens and, ultimately, social unrest. However, rather than overeducation, we see that economies and labor markets change to adapt to the changes in education levels and skills.