June 12, 1997
Vol. 16, No. 19

current issue
archive / search

    New look at evolution of education

    Personal choices shape change as well as public policy, Craig says Individual behavior has probably made as big a difference in the growth of schooling as have decisions made by public policy makers, contends John Craig, who is exploring how decisions made by parents and their children shaped changes in the educational system of Norway.

    Many countries are undergoing rapid transformations in schooling, and those changes are often studied from the perspective of what governments do for their populations, rather than what individual families seek, Craig said. His research provides a new way of looking at evolutions in education: individuals' responses to changes in the global economy.

    Norway provides an excellent example of what can happen to a nation when people are faced with a changing global economy, said Craig, who has been studying the evolution of education in Norway over the past 150 years.

    The evolution began with Norway's need for rapid change in education during the 19th century, as old ways of earning a livelihood became impractical and people began emigrating.

    Norway became part of an expanding Atlantic economy of trade, technological diffusion, foreign investment and international migration. Long an export-oriented country, Norway was buffeted after the middle of the 19th century by fluctuations in the demand for its fish, lumber, wood products and maritime services. Its economy was also undermined by declining prices for such imports as cereals and manufactured goods.

    The resulting uncertainties and dislocations, together with pressure on the land and other resources from rapid population growth, made strategic planning and personal adaptability important. The most significant decisions made in these areas were not made by government leaders, but rather in individual households, Craig said. Young people faced mounting pressures to prepare for a world much different from that in which their parents had been reared.

    "The options that were available for the young people included schooling beyond the limited traditional levels," said Craig, Associate Professor in Education. "But there were other options as well. For many dispossessed sons of farmers, for instance, apprenticing in a trade or as a seaman proved attractive."

    Another option was emigration to North America. Among European countries, Norway was surpassed only by Ireland in its per capita rate of emigration in the period from 1850 to 1925. Norwegians who did not leave the country could also travel to the northern part of their nation, which was still an open frontier at the time, or to the factory towns that sprang up once Norway's hydroelectric potential was tapped.

    "These and other adaptive responses were not mutually exclusive -- for instance, many highly educated engineers joined the trans-Atlantic migration -- but they tended to be negatively associated: if one response was attractive, it reduced the demand for others," he said.

    Emigration from Norway was closely linked to opportunities in the United States and played a key role in the development of demand for expanded educational opportunities within Norway. When jobs were plentiful in the United States, for instance, young people chose to emigrate rather than seek to expand their opportunities at home with more schooling, according to Craig.

    "Alternatively, periods of high unemployment in the United States or formal restrictions on immigration to the United States led to educational expansion in Norway. It is no coincidence that a sustained growth in the demand for secondary and higher education only began in Norway, and many other European countries, when the United States and Canada effectively closed their doors to European immigrants," Craig said.

    Many such patterns can be identified using the abundant quantitative data available for Norway for the entire period of Craig's study, 1840 to 1960. Craig also uses a wide array of supplementary materials, ranging from school registration records and manuscripts available in Norwegian archives to comprehensive biographical directories for various occupations, local histories and genealogies, and the transcriptions from two nationally representative oral history projects launched in the 1970s.

    Of these supplementary sources, perhaps the most valuable are the comprehensive biographical directories published 25 years after graduation for every class of secondary school alumni, he said. When combined with information from school records, such sources permit relating the social origins and primary and secondary schooling of individuals to a wide array of subsequent experiences concerning higher education, occupations, migration, marriage and fertility. The data also help scholars examine the ways in which such linkages evolved over an extended period of time.

    "Norway is a relatively small country, in population if not in size, and the pertinent evidence is unusually rich," Craig said. "Indeed it is because of the manageable scales and the treasure trove of quantitative and ancillary evidence that I selected this country for this study.

    "But there is nothing in the underlying conceptualization or in the general character of the findings that is specific to the chosen setting. That is why the country is so useful as a case study," he said. -- William Harms