Big BRICs, Weak Foundations: The Beginning of Public Elementary Education in Brazil, Russia, India, and China, 1880-1930

by Latika Chaudhary, Aldo Musacchio, Steven Nafziger & Se Yan

Overview — In deducing why some nations are more developed than others, it makes sense to look at their educational systems. While comparative studies on the subject focus either on developed nations or on differences between developed and developing economies, this paper hones in four of the largest developing nations at the turn of the twentieth century: Brazil, Russia, India, and China (BRIC). Research was conducted by Aldo Musacchio of Harvard Business School, Laktika Chaundhary of Scripps College, Steven Nafziger of Williams College, and Se Yan of Peking University. Key concepts include:

  • BRIC comprised half of the world's population in 1900, but only 14, 21, 9, and 4 percent of school-age children in Brazil, Russia, India, and China, respectively, were enrolled in primary school, compared with more than 75 percent in Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
  • In BRIC, decentralized political structures and lack of accountability led to situations in which public resources were funneled to educate the elites. Meanwhile, poor communities had to rely on insufficient private contributions to fund their schools.
  • However, in many areas, the elites supported the expansion of mass education, either because they wanted to produce skilled labor for their companies or because they perceived political benefits from an educated population.
  • Their results explain why it has been so hard for BRIC countries to catch up with the education levels developed countries in the twentieth century. While the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom had two hundred years to get to their current levels of education, BRIC countries had a late start. Additionally, the paper highlights the importance of having centralized education balancing education deficiencies in distant localities or in provinces in which elites that are not interested in educating the masses capture the government.

Author Abstract

Our paper provides a comparative perspective on the development of public primary education in four of the largest developing economies circa 1910: Brazil, Russia, India, and China (BRIC). These four countries encompassed more than 50 percent of the world's population in 1910, but remarkably few of their citizens attended any school by the early twentieth-century. We present new, comparable data on school inputs and outputs for BRIC drawn from contemporary surveys and government documents. Recent studies emphasize the importance of political decentralization and relatively broad political voice for the early spread of public primary education in developed economies. We identify the former and the lack of the latter to be important in the context of BRIC, but we also outline how other factors such as factor endowments, colonialism, serfdom, and, especially, the characteristics of the political and economic elite help explain the low achievement levels of these four countries and the incredible amount of heterogeneity within each of them.

Paper Information