“He who opens a school door, closes a prison”, said Victor Hugo sometime in the 19th century.
I have always been an admirer of Victor Hugo and his writings, ever since childhood. His novels “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” and “Les Misérables” both fascinated and terrified me. He describes a world of contrasts – of beauty and ugliness, of rich and poor, of health and sickness. A world where the poor and uneducated don’t really stand a chance against the cruelty of the rich and careless.
Luckily for us, quite a few things changed since the 19th century, when Victor Hugo lived, loved and wrote. But his view on education still feels as relevant today as it did almost two centuries ago.
I grew up in the countryside, in a small village in Romania, a country that was under Communist ruling for almost half a century. There wasn’t any internet back in the ‘90s, our television only caught the national TV station and we didn’t even have a landline phone because it was expensive to install one.
Thus, reading became about the only fun thing to do. Being surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of books soon became a way of living. I don’t want to repeat what is probably the number one argument for reading – that it opens new worlds and brings a lot of opportunities. But it does.
If anyone would ask me what my biggest achievement so far has been – I would say without blinking: “learning to read”. This foundation brick is the most important moment that has shifted my entire existence and allowed me to become everything I am today. Reading, learning, discovering opportunities, going to school, participating in all sorts of competitions, moving to a bigger city to continue my education, learning foreign languages, getting scholarships, getting involved in my faculty’s projects, becoming Valedictorian, traveling outside the country, getting my master’s degree, getting a job I love, blogging, networking – these are 29 years in a nutshell.
If there is something I really appreciate about my parents, it is that they understood the importance of education and they did all they could to give my sister and I the chance to become anything we wanted in life, unlike them, who were stuck working on a minimum wage for all their lives.
But not everyone is so lucky – illiteracy is still a big issue in the 21st century. The World Bank shows that the literacy rate of all adults (aged 15 and above) was 86.24% in 2016, which means that now, while you’re able to read this, over one billion people worldwide can’t.
This is where Maslow’s pyramid comes into place – how can someone strive for self-actualization and high esteem when he or she can’t even satisfy the basic physiological and safety needs?
How can someone who goes to sleep starving every night think about education? How can someone who can’t even afford a new pair of shoes browse online for education or job opportunities? How can someone who doesn’t have a roof over their head think about going to a college, a university?
Poverty, ignorance, fear and despair are the roots of all evil – and one moment over the edge can have catastrophic consequences for the rest of one’s life. I was recently reading the novel “Waking Lions” by
Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, where the main character, Dr Eitan Green, an accomplished Israeli neurosurgeon accidentally hits an immigrant from Eritrea and runs from the accident site, leaving the man bleeding to death on the side of the road. After that, the hit-and-run accident brings the blackmailing widow into the life of the neurosurgeon, sparking a triangle of moral dilemmas.
It’s an interesting book, I’m not going to tell you how it ends, but it got me thinking: why do people go to prison anyway? Obviously, because when faced with a dilemma they chose the wrong way out – they steal, lie, cheat, hurt or kill.
A recent report published by Penal Reform International – The Global Prison Trends 2017 report shows adult men represent the majority of prison populations globally, mostly coming from poor and marginalized communities.
But that doesn’t mean women and children don’t make up a significant percentage of imprisoned citizens. Various studies (such as “Initial guidance on the interpretation and implementation of the Nelson Mandela Rules”, 2017 University of Essex or “Prison: Evidence of its use and over-use from around the world” by Institute for Criminal Policy Research and Fair Trials) show female prison population continues to rise on all continents.
“The Global Prison Trends 2017” report confirms that a high number of women worldwide are being imprisoned for minor offences relating to poverty and familial roles (700,000 women and girls held in 219 national prison systems according to 2015 data), while the total number of children – those under 18 years old – in various forms of detention was estimated to be about a million in 2010.
In late 2015, a very comprehensive report by the Special Representative of the UN Secretary‑General on girls in the criminal justice systems shows that the main causes for imprisonment are the unstable family environments, histories of violence and abuse, poverty, failure of school systems, physical and psychological health issues, the use of criminal justice systems as substitutes for weak or non‑existent child protection systems, and discrimination. Besides, in some countries, girls are arrested more often than boys for running away from home, immoral conduct, or association with prostitution – all of these in direct correlation to poverty and lack of education.
Here in Romania there are still major issues caused by poverty – the lack of education means that statistically, many people don’t exist, because their parents didn’t know how to get a birth certificate for their children. So, they can’t go to school and they will never be employable, except undocumented.
Violence, especially domestic violence is still king in the country sides, because the man is the ruler of his household and nobody interferes, even though the neighbors know a tragedy is occurring and the women and children are sometimes beaten to death.
Women become mothers at very young ages, because they never heard of protection, they don’t know what that is and how it’s done, and men still consider them responsible, it’s their fault if they become pregnant.
In the end, I’m not saying that if I had not had the chance to get an education, I would have ended up in prison, but what I am saying is that many of those who are in prison right now would have had a chance at a different, better life if they had been able to go down an educational path.
But I don’t want this to be a monologue – what do you think? Do you agree? Is there a strong and clear correlation between the two?