Culture and the Persistence of Inequality
This book is about the causes of educational inequality and why it persists over time. The focus of the book is a specific inequality in a particular place: the Muslim-Christian education gap in Africa. Compared to Christians, Muslims across sub-Saharan Africa have fewer years of education, are less likely to be literate, and their children are less likely to be in school. The magnitudes of these education gaps are often staggering. In Kenya, nearly 60 percent of Muslim adults have no formal schooling, compared to only 11 percent of Christians. In Nigeria, Christians have five more years of formal education than Muslims. In Cameroon, 90 percent of Christian children aged 8 to 12 are in school, compared to 70 percent of Muslim children. These yawning gaps have persisted and sometimes grown even in Africa’s most vibrant economies and stable democracies, often decades after the removal of school fees.
I argue that the origins of this education gap lie in the association between formal education and Christianity, and in low educational investments in Muslim areas during the colonial period. I show that the Muslim-Christian education gap remains pronounced in predominantly Muslim areas despite increased investment in education, and develop a cultural theory for the persistence of educational inequality. Quantitative and qualitative evidence from the case of Malawi suggests that the historical association of formal education with Christianity led to the development of distinct social norms about schooling across religious communities. These norms evolved and persisted alongside institutional change. Today, while Muslims in both Muslim minority and majority areas have similar expectations about the economic returns to schooling, there are differences in expectations about the social returns to schooling. I argue that beliefs about the social returns to schooling explain the divergence in schooling outcomes among Muslims in Muslim minority and majority areas. A cultural theory of educational inequality implies distinct policy responses from the predominant theories that have guided national and international education policymaking.
- My Q&A with Pew Research Center on the Muslim-Christian education gap