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Enlightenment Now: 3 ways education has improved

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Enlightenment Now: 3 ways education has improved

I recently read Steven Pinker’s latest book: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.  Pinker does a phenomenal job of showcasing just how far humanity has come in myriad ways.  It’s well worth a read. Here’s the upshot: We live in the safest, wealthiest, and smartest time in the history of our planet.  The world is better in almost every way: wealth distribution, health outcomes, social spending, wars, crime, racism, democracy, you name it.  (Here’s a nice summary of the book if you’re interested, complete with the data to back up these claims.) What I really want to write about today is how education has improved.  But first, a couple of quick examples that show just how far our civilization has come.  

  • Life expectancy: In the year 1800, the world’s life expectancy was 29 years (it was only 35 in the US if you’re wondering).  By 2015, life expectancy had risen to 70 worldwide.
  • Extreme poverty: Believe it or not, but in 1820, 89% of the world lived in extreme poverty.  By 2015, that percentage had dropped to 10% worldwide.

Pinker goes on and on with many more examples.  Needless to say, we should all feel lucky to be alive here and now.  There simply has never been a better time than now, despite what your nostalgia for the ’60s or ’80s might be telling you. The same can be said for education.  The common narrative is that our system of education, both here in the US and worldwide, is on the decline.  Well, it turns out that’s not what the facts say. Here are 3 ways that education has improved dramatically.

  1. Literacy – In the year 1500, rates of literacy were minuscule, roughly 10% of the world.  By 1825, that rate had ticked up to… 11%. As of 2016, over 80% of the world is literate. That’s amazing.
  2. Basic Education – this is a measure of formal schooling.  Believe it or not, only 22% of the world received some kind of formal education in 1870.  In the US, that rate was much higher, but still only 80%. By 2010, over 75% of the world was educated formally; it’s nearly 100% in the US.
  3. IQ Gains – And we’re getting smarter.  The average person in the world would score nearly 30 points higher on an IQ test today than they would in 1909 (that’s incredible!).  Despite the narrative about diminishing US standing on test scores compared to the rest of the world, the TIMMS and NAEP assessments show that US students are getting smarter too (insofar as tests like those can actually measure intelligence).

Doomsday narratives are arresting and get people’s attention.  But when it comes to education, doomsday is quite far from the truth.  We’re actually doing amazingly well. That isn’t to say that it’s time to kick our feet up and celebrate.  All of those gains listed above came from hard work and ingenuity. There’s work left to do, to be sure.  But for just a moment, feel free to zoom out and recognize just how far we’ve come.

Like these ideas? To learn classroom engagement strategies that make the most immediate impact, we recommend checking out our program, "Fostering Student Engagement."

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Peter Grostic

Author Since: November 19, 2021

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