How far up the ladder of needs do we put education?
Psychologist Abraham Maslow came up with this diagram to help us think about our innate needs as humans. One book I read this weekend got me thinking about where education fits into this hierarchy: Jon Krakauer’s Three Cups of Deceit, a short expose (a Byliner) that alleges that Greg Mortenson–acclaimed school-builder and humanitarian of Three Cups of Tea fame–fabricated his narratives and mismanaged his non-profit’s finances.
It was a captivating read (an affirmation of Byliner’s motto: “Great writers. Great stories. Readable in a single sitting.”) that also had me thinking hard about the whole Mortenson scandal. Based on the evidence provided by Krakauer and others, it seems beyond probable that Mortenson said and did things that betrayed those who’ve entrusted him with the task of building schools in Central Asia as an avenue towards peace and justice.
But, the (in)accuracy of his statements and the apparent breach of his fiduciary duty aside, Mortenson still symbolizes something like the idea of the universality of education. There is just something about his endeavor–no matter how fabricated from fantasy, or how poorly managed, it is–that appeals to readers of his books. My reaction was very similar to the Christian Science Monitor‘s Marjorie Kehe’s–one of utter disbelief, but one that also tried to make sense of the unfortunate situation. (Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times, on the other hand, gave Mortenson the benefit of the doubt.)
As I was reading Krakauer’s work, one quote got me thinking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as well as how lucky we are in America:
“That’s what they wanted more than anything else in the world–a road. Second, they wanted some kind of health clinic. Third, as kind of an afterthought, they wanted a school.” Their rationale for ranking clinics above schools, Callahan explains, was the appalling infant mortality rate in the Pamir. As one Kyrgyz elder told him, “If 50 percent of the children die before age five, who is there to educate?” (location 2118)
This is a revealing quote. The Kyrgyz people value education immensely, but are realistic enough to know that there are some other more basic needs for humans. We Americans, on the other hand, have those needs (those roads and that health care–albeit imperfect).
So where does education fit in the hierarchy? The plight of those in Kyrgyzstan prove that there are certain physiological needs that trump any others. Though I often talk about education as empowerment, is it really intertwined with the need for “self-actualization”?
I happen to believe that education is so basic a need that it falls within the second tier as a “safety” need. In other words, once the first-tier physiological needs are met, we must educate.