2010 May 23 Sunday
Home Libraries Speed Child Learning

Is a big home library as good as having educated parents for a child's intellectual development?

RENO, Nev. Whether rich or poor, residents of the United States or China, illiterate or college graduates, parents who have books in the home increase the level of education their children will attain, according to a 20-year study led by Mariah Evans, University of Nevada, Reno associate professor of sociology and resource economics.

For years, educators have thought the strongest predictor of attaining high levels of education was having parents who were highly educated. But, strikingly, this massive study showed that the difference between being raised in a bookless home compared to being raised in a home with a 500-book library has as great an effect on the level of education a child will attain as having parents who are barely literate (3 years of education) compared to having parents who have a university education (15 or 16 years of education). Both factors, having a 500-book library or having university-educated parents, propel a child 3.2 years further in education, on average.

If I could change my own childhood via a time machine visit I'd send myself a very high quality pile of books. I was an obsessive reader. But in retrospect the books I had to read were far from ideal.

I doubt that a 500 book library would provide as big of a benefit as college educated parents if the books were added into households of parents who do not normally read. The 500 book libraries are really indicators of smarter and more curious parents - even if the parents didn't achieve high levels of education themselves. I bet the kids growing up in houses with big libraries were smarter on average and inherited that smarts from their parents. Until social science research starts controlling for genetic factors research such as that reported above won't tell us the real causes of observed differences.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2010 May 23 10:28 PM  Education

A.Prole said at May 24, 2010 12:21 AM:

Of course, modern technology has changed all that.
A humble lap-top computer (for non-fiction readers at least), has more power than a Library of Congress stack of books.

Chris said at May 24, 2010 2:38 AM:

ParaPundit, I'm curious to know what might be the, say, top five books you'd send yourself.

HappyAcres said at May 24, 2010 6:29 AM:

You say books are likely only an indication of educated parents -- educated parents being the key.

I'd go further and say education is likely only an indication of intelligent parents -- intelligent parents being the key.

But then, there's nothing we can realistically fix.

David said at May 24, 2010 10:12 AM:

Studies like this that controlled by the parents' SAT/ASVAB/wordsum/other proxy measure for IQ would be pretty useful. Any chance something like that exists?

sg said at May 24, 2010 11:09 AM:

Smart kids, 500+ books in the house, educated parents, higher social status etc. all have a common cause: smart parents.

How obvious is that? Why do we pay for studies to tell us what we already know?

sg said at May 24, 2010 11:17 AM:

"But then, there's nothing we can realistically fix."

Sure there is. Pay poor women not to get pregnant. They get $1000 every 3 months for a negative pregnancy test. With a $5000 bonus for 5 consecutive years without a kid.

Voluntary and humane.

That is chump change compared to the cost of the supporting and attempting to educate the kid and later incarcerating him and paying insurance premiums/claims for the damage he would do.

gcochran said at May 24, 2010 5:32 PM:

Since I have something like 5,000 books around the house, should have boosted my kids by 32 years of education. Assuming linearity.

Randall Parker said at May 24, 2010 6:26 PM:

HappyAcres, I said:

The 500 book libraries are really indicators of smarter and more curious parents


We can improve on your formula: Pay them a big check for getting their tubes tied and moderate sized checks for getting depo provera. We can't count on people with very high discount rates to plan ahead to get a reward 3 months from now. Sex feels so good now. We've got to offer the reward before they have sex.


Interesting question. I'd want to send back a number of intellectual messages. Here's a first crack at it. I would want to revise this list upon consideration of books I've forgotten about.

- Charles Darwin, The Origin Of Species. Develop a realistic view of human nature and our origins.
- Charles MacKay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Develop a realistic view of markets and the masses.
- Adam Smith, Wealth Of Nations. Start thinking about economics.
- Edward Gibbons, The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire. Psychologically prepare for America's peak and decline.
- William H. McNeill, Rise Of The West.

This list needs further revision. The problem is that I couldn't suggest something to my 10 year old self that hadn't been published yet. So I find myself looking for titles that already existed and that cuts out lots of recommendations. I would want to find good titles for introduction to physics, bio, and engineering that were older classics. Not sure which ones would be good.

Old Bruin EE said at May 24, 2010 11:13 PM:

>>>>I would want to find good titles for introduction to physics, bio, and engineering that were older classics. Not sure which ones would be good.

For introductory physics: University Physics, Sears & Zemansky

For introductory biology:Don't know if it's a classic but I like Biology by Helena Curtis

For engineering, you have to be a little more specific. In Electrical engineering, the classic texts were for Circuit Theory, Desoer & Kuh; for electronics,Millman.

Chris said at May 25, 2010 12:43 AM:

Thanks, Randall. Haven't read any of those myself yet.

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