James Tooley’s recent book The Beautiful Tree is the best single book on public policy to be published since Charles Murray’s Losing Ground twenty-five years ago. It richly deserves to win the 2010 Sir Antony Fisher Memorial Award from the Atlas Economic Research Foundation for the best policy book of the past two years. The prize of $10,000 goes to the think tank that published the book - namely Washington DC’s Cato Institute - but I heard from that think tank’s great leader Ed Crane that Cato will split the prize money with Professor Tooley.
The book is all about how many poor people in less developed countries are educating their children privately. Huh? Yes that is no typo. It is about rickshaw drivers and washerwomen and peasant farmers who scrape together enough to get inexpensive private education for their kids in many of the world’s worst slums. Private education does not have to be expensive is one of many lessons Tooley teaches us.
It is counterintuitive but it is there, it exists and large numbers of children are getting a far better education than they would at the hands of the state. It is (as one reviewer put it) as if Indiana Jones did education policy as Tooley bravely goes into really quite disgusting and very dangerous neighbourhoods tracking down his private schools.
But this book is not just about education. It is a big,big book with a breathtaking scope and an ability to change the way you view the world, particulary the less developed bits. If every priest in the world were asked to read Tooley then we would hear a lot less twaddle on Sundays.
But hats off too to the IEA because The Beautiful Tree is a direct descendant of Tooley’s earlier monograph The Global Education Industry, which I was very pleased to publish back then. And hats off also to Penguin for publishing the Indian edition of The Beautiful Tree which at Christmas was the number one non-fiction ranked book by The Hindi Times.
I worked closely with the Founder of Atlas namely Sir Antony Fisher and in 1987, a year before he died, he entrusted Atlas to me. He passed on the following summer and his widow Dorian and I created the Fisher Prize to keep his memory alive. Of all the books that have won that prize over the past two decades The Beautiful Tree has to be way up near (or even at) the top of the best of the very best, such is the power of its message, the depth of its research and the elegance of the writing.