Victor Hugo’s famous quote: “He who opens a school door, closes a prison” optimistically implies that an educated man who has honest means to support himself and his family will not fall into a life of crime. While education was a way out of destitution in Hugo’s 19th century society, does it guarantee producing law-abiding citizens in the 21st century? Let’s take a closer look at the relationship between education and crime, the nature of crime itself, and how it has evolved over time.
In Hugo’s era, a man who stole a loaf of bread was sentenced to hard labour, an exorbitantly harsh punishment. Why, then, would a man risk his freedom for a loaf of bread? Obviously not to advance his wealth, but rather to quell his hunger or that of his loved ones. It would naturally follow that crime in the pre and early-industrialised societies was motivated by basic human needs. Even if the objects of theft were of monetary value, such as jewellery or silverware, the ultimate motivation was to exchange them for the basic necessities of everyday survival. Back then a chance for education, leading to a profession with steady wages, would’ve ended the need for crime as an act of survival. But crime has many facets. Let’s examine some of the other ways crime manifests itself.
Envy has stimulated crime since time immemorial, when Cain killed his brother Abel. It still drives the urge to harm those who have amassed wealth and success. Is it only the non-educated that are guilty of envy? Hardly. Even some ideologies nurture it. Communism taught the proletariat to hate and envy the bourgeois class and made it morally acceptable for the less fortunate to steal from the rich ‘Robin Hood style’.
Crimes of passion are another sector closely related to envy. A jealous rage can rip apart a love triangle. So can a carefully calculated assassination where greed for the victim’s life insurance money raises the stakes. Greed, one of the seven deadly sins, can inspire crime in multiple ways. It is behind robberies, murders and kidnappings. It motivates those who have very little as well as those who have a lot. Greed for money, or greed for power when one has already acquired all the material wealth imaginable. Greed destroys.
Now that we’ve reviewed some of the common types of crime, it is worth examining whether education influences it. If Hugo’s quote were still valid, crime should be inversely correlated to education. There is no perfect way to measure education as even a university degree does not automatically translate to wisdom, let alone to a moral compass. But for the sake of argument, let literacy rate be the measure of education and Crime Index the measure of crime. According to mid-2018 statistics, Venezuela scored the highest Crime Index of 82.38 out of 100 and Japan the lowest: 12.69. However, there isn’t much of a difference between these two countries’ literacy rates: Venezuela at 95%; Japan at 99%. So, if literacy rates cannot explain the difference in crime rates of these two countries, what can?
An obvious difference is their standard of living. Japan has nearly six times higher GDP than Venezuela. Poverty would thus seem to be driving crime, very much as in Hugo’s time. However, a mere elementary education that teaches children to read and write does not remove the burden of destitution. Interestingly, Luxembourg, the richest country in the world by GDP (nearly three times that of Japan) has a relatively high Crime Index of 30.56. Therefore, crime seems to find its way into people’s lives, regardless of their diplomas and bank balances. Perhaps the only true correlation is between the size of crime and the means of the criminal. While a petty criminal robs the cash register of a late-night convenience store, a career criminal or crime syndicate plans an elaborate heist. Ironically, the emergence of some technologies has given rise to crime. May I suggest that computer science education has produced a new subset of criminals, namely hackers and other cyber criminals? Or that the banking and finance industry have given birth to fraud and other white-collar crimes? But the most horrendous crimes, in my opinion, are those committed against children by those in positions of power, whether religious, political or otherwise. The recent exposé of pedo-criminals is yet another sign that crime does not discriminate. Crime is not a condition of just the poor and desperate.
It is indeed heart-breaking that religious or political authorities can also indoctrinate young people with little or nothing to lose into terrorism by brainwashing them into sacrificing their own lives to kill others. But it is even more disturbing to note that not all terrorists are desperate. A chilling reminder of that was the 2007 car bombings in London where the terrorists turned out to be doctors. The fact that professionals sworn by the Hippocratic oath to ‘do no harm’, who have dedicated their own lives to saving lives of others, can be recruited into terrorism, seems beyond comprehension.
In view of the above, do we dare to conclude that the potential for crime is latent in all human beings? Is it like a mutated gene that can stay inactive forever, yet be awakened by the right conditions to cause a disease? I would like to disagree. I choose to believe that all human beings are inherently good and that crime is rather like a microorganism that attacks from the outside and infects people. It is up to each and every individual’s immune system to stop it from spreading and causing a disease. If indeed crime is a disease, can it be treated like one?
Every organised civilization has had its ‘treatment plan’ to deal with crime. Today’s judicial systems of the western nations are still largely based on the Jewish ‘eye for an eye’ tradition. The Islamic world, in turn, enforces Sharia law, albeit to varying degrees. Common to both traditions is the concept of punishment. Severity varies not only between the justice systems but also within them; country by country, case by case. Is punishment a cure for the disease called crime? Does it treat the cause or just supress the symptoms for the duration the perpetrator is incarcerated? The study of criminology looks at recidivism, a term defined as ‘the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend’. If indeed a prison sentence served as rehabilitation, there should be no recidivism. However, that is not the case. Research has shown that in the United States, for example, 10% of released prisoners are back in jail within six months and 45% within five years of release. Reconviction rates are even higher. Reconviction may not lead the perpetrator back in prison but it is an indicator that the person has not been reformed into a law-abiding citizen. In the UK, 46% of former inmates are convicted of another crime within one year and a whopping 78% within nine years.
While we occasionally hear inspirational stories of complete transformations of former convicts, who since serving their time have dedicated their lives to serving others, as a whole the prison system has failed to solve crime. Crime is like cancer that, even when cured, leaves behind a fear of recurrence in another part of the body. It doesn’t help that the society tends to stigmatise former inmates, making the ever so important reintegration into the outside world much harder. When a former convict is denied job opportunities and the means for an honest living, the survival instinct kicks in. The temptation to make quick and easy cash through crime may prove irresistible even for a person with the best of intentions to change.
Perhaps the ones who have to change are those who live by the law. We could become more tolerant and supportive of those who have fallen off the wagon. Judging people only based on what they are now, not what they were before or what they may become, is a good place to start. There is no school that can teach us to be kinder and more forgiving. The knowledge is already within us. All we have to do is listen to our own hearts. Wouldn’t it be something if the love we radiate created a world where crime had no reason to exist?
 Crime Index statistics from Numbeo (https://www.numbeo.com/crime/rankings_by_country.jsp?title=2018-mid)
 Literacy rate statistics (updated 14 September 2018) from worldatlas (https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/the-highest-literacy-rates-in-the-world.html)
 GDP statistics for 2017 from Knoema Corporation (https://knoema.com/atlas/maps/GDP-per-capita)
 From an article: A Systematic Review of Criminal Recidivism Rates Worldwide: Current Difficulties and Recommendations for Best Practice by Seena Fazel and Achim Wolf (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4472929/)
A very interesting article by Paula indeed! Very well written and documented, raising at the same time a very crucial issue. Personally I believe that if we enhance Hugo’s opinion to today’s intellectual level, thus extending literacy to culture, we may see the wanted results. Paula has proven that education alone does not lead to a crime free society. However, if we add culture to the equation – and what I mean by that is to give proper upbringing to children from the pre-school age – we may see a real difference.
Undoubtedly, Paula provided excellent support and argumentation for her positioning throughout this essay. Criminals, like life is evolving, similarly they are advancing their skills, which nowadays requires that they must absolutely be educated with masters and many times even PhDs in order to be able to unleash effectively their ruthless attacks. Although education is a must to improve the lives of people in any society, it is clearly not enough to deter crime, especially in today’s modern world. Family upbringing and in general the surrounding environment of an individual would play a big role in creating morally abiding citizens by cultivating important sensitivities in any person. Thus such parameters should also be taken into account as part of the complex pursue of a crime free society. But, would this be enough?
”One man‘s terrorist is another man‘s hero.”
What constitutes a crime? Murder is crime in all societies but even so political leaders kill – or order killings – with impunity either to consolidate their position or “in the interest of national security.” Social norms declare certain actions as crime that in other societies are considered normal behavior. Open homosexuality and “wrong” political opinions or religious practices are examples in case.
Stalin is claimed to have said: “To kill one it is murder, to kill one million it is statistic.” Cynical, yes, but think of how mass murderers sentenced by the International Court of Justice are hailed by their own people. Or recall Franklin D Roosevelt’s quip about Nicaraguan dictator Somoza: “But he is our bastard.” One justice for “our” another for “them.”
Education may help erase superstition that causes old women to be burned as witches – which still happens – but it does not soften strong religious or political opinions that are nurtured by fear of the unknown or fear of one’s society changing. Fear that is the motor behind political and religious excesses alike.
Tax evasion is a crime that hurts the society’s most vulnerable when governments lack resources to improve their conditions. But if we look at who the biggest tax cheaters are – revealed by leaks to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and similar organizations – we find it is the well-off and best educated people. Their education has provided them means and opportunities to commit economic crimes, and their greed has overruled objections.
Do we need more tolerance? Certainly in many cases, but what about the rights of the victim? If I kill somebody, should the society just shake a finger at me and say: “Naughty boy, you must not do that again.” There has to be limits to tolerance or the society will crumble.
In summary, I agree with Paula that education is no silver bullet in achieving a crime-free society – the utopian society.