Tom Friedman's column today about how we can build more schools and defeat terrorism is one of those things that sounds right but probably isn't. Leave aside the fact that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab -- by Friedman's own admission, the only reason he is in Yemen right now -- is a graduate of University College London and the product of a superb secondary education before that. Alan B. Krueger and others have shown that the causal relationship between education and terrorism is weak. Very well-educated men and women can fall under the sway of extremist ideologies and go on to do evil things -- like blow up airliners and buy Coldplay albums.
This is no reason not to build schools. Building schools is a lovely thing, and as the great Greg Mortenson pointed out to me in Kabul once, when you teach little girls to read, you teach entire villages to read. (Because the girls teach their mothers.) And female literacy then leads to a healthy drop in birth rates and less poverty. That's all wonderful. Education transforms societies. But education only has a place in counterinsurgency -- most naturally a subfield of stabilization operations -- if you can prove that a lack of schools is a driver of conflict. And as far as counter-terrorism is concerned, well, the idea that more schools will lead to a drop in terrorism remains one of those things that sounds good when discussed at dinner parties but has yet to be proven and is, if we are to trust our research thus far, most likely false.
[All that having been said, allow me to stress once again that building schools in underdeveloped societies is something we should all support. Maybe not for reasons of counter-terrorism or counterinsurgency but for more altruistic reasons. So everyone buy Greg Mortenson's new book to help the cause, okay?]