Simon M. Fass Transaction Books, $34.95 cloth Rutgers--The State Univ. 20.00 paper New Brunswick, NJ 08903

Notes by Bob Corbett

Certainly the most extraordinary finding of Fass' study concerns education. He claims that 70% of all the children at least began school, though less than 22% would finish the first 6 years. The quality of school is appalling, and Fass asserts that only about 35% of the children learn anything of lasting value, including learning to even basically read or write.

But, this poses a grave question. Why do the poor who struggle for survival, send their children to school at all? Schools cost money. The students must have uniforms, pay some tuition, purchase books and supplies, and be taken out of the work force while they are in school. In line with Fass' guiding hypothesis, there must be an economic explanation behind why the families of his study would make such a grave economic sacrifice to send children to school.

He rejects the argument that schools pay off in future earnings for the poor. Perhaps this is so for the elite, but the quality of education which is offered to the poor is such that no serious economic gains can be gotten through education. Fass believes he may have found an explanation by noting a startling co-relation between having gone to school and having migrated from the country. Thus, Fass hypothesizes, perhaps families risk the money for school in hopes that they can send a child abroad, who can then send money back to the family. Some success in school does seem to be a feature of those who succeed in emigrating. But, when Fass examines this hypothesis in terms of rational economic behavior he rejects it as the central explanation, arguing that one might get the same chances for success by purchasing lottery tickets.

The answer, he argues, is that school has little to do with education. Rather, school itself IS an economic activity. Since the mid-70s most schools serving the poor have feeding programs connected with school. Thus the child not only doesn't eat in the home, but occasionally can bring some of the food home. This alone reduces the cost of school to where it is nearly a break-even economic activity. If one conjoins this calculation with the value of child care for the very young--thereby increasing the economic activity of the household's adults--school becomes viable. But there is much more to it than that. Schools not only have feeding programs, but many religious schools have "adoption" programs whereby foreigners "adopt" the educational expense of a child. When a child participates in such a program school is free to the child- -even the uniform and supplies may be donated. In such cases the child becomes a wage earner by going to school. (Since school is free, the child "earns" the food given in the feeding program.) Moreover, many of the schools which have the adoption programs will provide some social services to the families of the adopted children in grave medical or economic emergencies. Thus by going to school the child provides the only social security a family can experience in Haiti.

This is a persuasive and astonishing analysis. It not only explains why poor families would make the incredible sacrifice to send a child to school, but it explains why families persist in keeping children in Haiti's atrocious schools when they learn virtually nothing at all!

The dynamic is astonishing, but in many ways not too different from school in America. On Fass' analysis, Haiti's schools are about economic gain, not about learning. But, American schools are about providing useful economic certificates (degrees, credentials etc.) and not much about education. On either the Haitian account or the analogous account one could make about American schools, one can understand why families find it useful to continue their children in school even though the children demonstrably learn very little in the so-called "learning" activity.


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu