More Education = Less Terrorism? Studying the Complex Relationship Between Terrorism and Education

In the aftermath of terrorist attacks, education is often advocated as an antidote to terrorism, the idea primarily being that education may make individuals less vulnerable to the false promises of extremist ideologies. For instance, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington DC on September 11, 2001, Eli Wiesel – the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize laureate – argued:

在恐怖袭击的余波中,教育经常被提出来作为疗治恐怖主义的解药。基本的想法是,教育可以增强个人对于极端主义意识形态虚假承诺的免疫力。比如说,在2001年纽约和华盛顿特区的911恐袭发生之后,Eli Wiesel(1986年诺贝尔和平奖得主)声称:

What is it that seduces some young people to terrorism? It simplifies things. The fanatic has no questions, only answers. Education is the way to eliminate terrorism.


While intuitive, the academic evidence on the terrorism-education nexus tends to be more pessimistic. On the national level, education is usually found to share little relationship with terrorism. What is more, on the individual level, there is evidence that the more educated are more likely to become terrorists.


For instance, education may fuel terrorism by raising the probability of terrorist success (i.e., the “productivity of terrorists”) through the use of high-capacity (i.e., well-educated) operatives. Indeed, due to the positive effect of individual human capital endowment on terrorist success, terrorist organizations tend to be particularly interested in selecting more educated members.


In our new study, we provide a framework to better understand the apparently complex interaction between terrorism and education, trying to reconcile the popular narrative that education may remedy terrorism with the prevalent academic viewpoint that education – if anything – is associated with more terrorism.


We argue that there is some truth to both the optimistic and pessimistic views regarding the terrorism-education nexus. The ultimate effect of education on terrorism is linked to country-specific circumstances which moderate whether the pacifying or inflammatory effects of education on terrorism prevail.


Education always increases the individual and society-wide prospect of socioeconomic and political participation as well as individual productivity and intellectual capacity (where the latter may further magnify individual expectations about one’s politico-economic position in society). That is, education always creates “great expectations.”


Sound country-specific conditions help these expectations to materialize, thus reducing incentives for terrorism. For instance, more educated individuals unsurprisingly expect higher wages; however, higher wages are only likely to materialize when country-specific conditions are sound (e.g. as the economy grows, as labor market competition due to demographic pressures is limited, or as corruption and nepotism do not strongly distort labor market outcomes).


By contrast, when country-specific conditions are poor (e.g. slow economic growth, strong labor market competition, and distortions due to youth bulges and corrupt institutions), the same “great expectations” are likely to end in frustration, consequently facilitating recruitment to terrorist violence.


Under such circumstances, education may actually facilitate mobilization by amplifying feelings of frustration and disenfranchisement that arise from unaddressed socioeconomic and politico-economic grievances and unrealized socioeconomic and political participation. This is because education is expected to make it easier for individuals to recognize injustice and discrimination, leading to the uncomfortable – but plausible – situation where more education facilitates radicalization.


What is more, the highly-educated may find “careers” in terrorism particularly attractive. When country-specific conditions are poor, the rewards offered by terrorist organizations to skilled operatives (wages, political influence, but also martyrdom) may be closer to the especially high expectations of the educated about personal income and political influence than anything the regular labor market can offer.


We test our theoretical framework on a sample of 133 countries for the 1984-2007 period. Our findings can be summarized as follows:


  • A “naïve” statistical model for the complete sample of 133 countries, we find that education – in line with the narrative of the academic literature – tends to correlate positively, albeit only weakly, with terrorism.
  • 一个针对133个国家的完整样本的“幼稚”统计模型中,我们发现教育——与学术文献的描述一致——与恐怖主义趋向于正相关,尽管仅仅是弱相关性。
  • To account for country-specific conditions we identify two groups of countries that differ strongly with respect to their economic, politico-institutional, and demographic conditions. Conditions in the first group are markedly poorer, exhibiting a weaker rule of law, poorer protection of human and property rights, slower economic growth, but higher levels of corruption, population growth, and inflation.
  • 为了阐明特定国家状况,我们区别出经济、政治制度和人口条件完全不同的两组国家。第一组的状况明显较差,表现出较差的法治环境、人权和财产权利保护不力、经济增长缓慢、而且腐败问题更严重、人口增长过快、通货膨胀严重。
  • For the group of poorly developed countries (often located in Latin America, Asia, or Sub-Saharan Africa), we find that variables reflecting lower education (primary education, literacy rate) are associated with more terrorism, while higher education (university enrollment) does not play a role.
  • 在发展状态较差的这组国家(普遍位于拉丁美洲、亚洲或者撒哈拉以南非洲)中,我们发现反映初等教育水平的参数(小学教育、识字率)与滋生更多恐怖主义相关联,而高等教育水平(大学入学率)则并没有什么影响。
  • For the group of countries in which conditions are more favorable, we find no positive association between lower education and terrorism. Instead, we find a negative (terrorism-reducing) and statistically significant effect of higher education (university enrollment) on domestic terrorism.
  • 对于另外一组情况更好的国家,我们发现初等教育和恐怖主义之间没有什么正相关。相反,我们发现高等教育(大学入学率)对于国内恐怖主义的影响为负(即会减少恐怖主义),且这种效应在统计上很显著。 In sum, our empirical analysis thus provides support for our theoretical framework, where the eventual effect of education on terrorism depends on the presence of further moderating conditions. We argue that our theoretical framework not only explains the Middle Eastern experience of terrorism by rather well-educated terrorists, but also explains the recent series of popular uprisings of the Arab Spring, which similarly seem to have been fueled by advances in education and a lack of economic and political participation.


Similarly, historical events in the West – such as the revolutionary waves in Western Europe in the 18th and 19th century – where educational advances, when coupled with poor structural conditions, promoted instability are in line with our theoretical framework.


Our study indicates that the linkage between terrorism and education is likely to depend on country-specific (macroeconomic, institutional, etc.) conditions. We invite future research to analyze further which country-specific conditions matter the most to the mechanics of the nexus. Also, studying the role of education content, gender disparities in education, and education inequality may prove helpful to furthering our understanding.


From a policy perspective, our findings indicate that education produces “great expectations” and may result in “hard times” (terrorism) when those expectations are not met. This suggests that a sole strengthening of education in less developed countries may not help in the war on terror and may even prove – at times – counterproductive.


Rather, the promotion of education should be accompanied by domestic and international efforts to ameliorate poor socioeconomic, politico-institutional, and demographic conditions to make it possible for the promise of education to actually materialize.


翻译:Luis Rightcon(@Rightcon)


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