If You Want to Reduce Partner Violence or Teenage Pregnancy, Then Teach Algebra and History?

There is little doubt that highly educated men are less likely than poorly educated men to perpetrate violence against their partners,[1] and that highly educated women are less likely than poorly educated women to get pregnant in their teens.[2] But what is going on here – which way does causality run? Certainly, an educated man is likely to earn more than one less educated. More money means less stress, and since stress is a harbinger of partner violence, it is plausible that education leads to less violence through this mediating (intervening) variable. Alternatively, the kind of person who acquires education may be the sort of person who is less innately pre-disposed to violence than a person who does not acquire education. A person who seeks out education may have greater mental resources, such that a wider range of responses are available to him – and hence he is less likely to lash out. But could it be that education per se increases moral rectitude, even when the education is not targeted at moral behaviour? One can devise a theory for such an effect. Algebra, history and other ‘academic’ subjects exercise the capacity for abstract thought. Could the capacity spill over from the topic of instruction to influence behaviour more generally? Compassion, for example, is abstract – it requires the ability to imagine what another person is feeling. Teaching abstract academic subjects may spill over in to heightened sensitivity to the suffering of others. This hypothesis could be tested neurophysiologically – highly educated persons, on average, may manifest greater specific responses on functional neuro-imaging than those of similar IQ, but lower educational attainment, when confronted with a compassion-arousing event. The brain, after all, is a learning machine that is permanently altered by education. This might explain why sex education has a rather small effect on teenage pregnancy, but being educated is associated with a large effect. It is sometimes said that education refers to what is left when all the facts have been forgotten, or to quote BF Skinner more accurately, “Education is what survives when what has been learnt has been forgotten”?

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director


  1. Abramsky T, Watts CH, Garcia-Moreno C, et al. What factors are associated with recent intimate partner violence? findings from the WHO multi-country study on women’s health and domestic violence. BMC Public Health. 2011; 11: 109.
  2. Girma S & Paton D. Is education the best contraception: The case of teenage pregnancy in England? Soc Sci Med. 2015; 131: 1-9.

3 thoughts on “If You Want to Reduce Partner Violence or Teenage Pregnancy, Then Teach Algebra and History?”

  1. You seem to be concentrating on the effect that education may have on the man’s behaviour, but maybe women married to educated men are more likely to be educated themselves? Perhaps if they get slapped, they leave. More educated women are likely to have greater capacity/self-efficacy/resources to make a choice to leave a man than less educated women.

    (By the way- I wanted to look more closely at the evidence that more educated men are less likely to perpetrate IPV- to see if there was adjustment for confounders etc. But the reference given says “Our analysis confirms that completing secondary education has a protective effect on IPV risk, whereas primary education alone fails to confer similar benefits [27]. Studies in the USA and South Africa, for example, find an inverted U-shaped relationship between IPV and education, whereby protection from IPV is seen at the lowest and highest educational levels [28, 29]. Results suggesting increased protection when both women and their partners complete secondary education, and those pointing towards increased IPV risk where there is disparity in educational attainment, confirm the importance of promoting equal access to education for boys and girls, as recommended by target 4 of the Gender Equality Goal of the Millennium Development Goals.”)

  2. “There is little doubt that highly educated men are less likely than poorly educated men to perpetrate violence against their partners”. I’m not quite sure what are the implications of stating this. ‘Highly educated’ in Reference 1 relates merely to secondary school education. The social norms and socioeconomic situations of people living in settings where there is no secondary education may be more relevant to the issue (ie the absence of poverty rather than the presence of ‘highly educated men’) and women’s ability to leave (family and economic pressure). Domestic violence and child abuse are no respecters of class even if there is ‘an association’. Maybe we should hold those highly educated men who DO abuse to a higher standard (after all they have more autonomy/ choices/ economic advantages) – I’m thinking especially of doctors/ priests/ teachers/ university lecturers/ sports coaches/ MPs/ celebrities? Higher punishments for the more powerful and educated men?

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