Metta Spencer

Education and Democracy

for Encyclopedia of Democracy (1996)

By Metta Spencer

University of Toronto

There is a connection between societies' educational levels and their ability to maintain democratic systems of government. The present article will consider this association in a three-part analysis: (a) by observing three cases in which the two factors developed together; (b) by appraising the possible causal relations among socioeconomic well-being, education, and democracy; and (b) by considering the future of education and its probable impact on democracy.

Democracy and Education in Athens, America, and the Third World

The linkage between democracy and education could be shown by examining a variety of different examples, but we shall consider only three cases here: the emergence of democracy in Athens, the United States, and today in the Third World.

The first known democratic society emerged in Athens between the sixth and fourth centuries before Christ. (To be accurate, we should call it only a 'partial' democracy, since women and slaves were not part of the body politic, but even so, it was an extraordinary step forward for humankind.) Sir Karl Popper has noted that this cultural innovation began soon after a book market began to flourish in the Athenian Agora, each volume having been copied by literate slaves on papyrus imported from Egypt. The oral poetry of Homer was edited and published for the first time, with such success that new books began to be written specifically to be published. According to Popper, this made Homer "the bible of Athens -- it made him the first instrument of education, the first primer, the first spelling book, the first novel. And it made the Athenians literate, [which] was highly significant for the establishment of the Athenian democratic revolution..."[1]

Much later, modern democracy would take shape in the United States, and this innovation too occurred in a society which, except for the black population, had unusually high levels of education. White literacy was already higher in the colonies than in Europe by the time of the American Revolution; 90 percent of the bridegrooms of the day were able to sign the marriage register, as compared to 60 percent in Britain and 50 percent in France and Germany.[2]

Of course, the level of literacy varied from one place to another, and the variations among the colonies are themselves revealing, for they correlate with extent of slavery, the chief obstacle to the full development of democracy in America. The Northern states were far better educated than the Southern states and also more committed to economic freedom and political equality.

The divisiveness of the slavery issue was prefigured in politics during the nation's first few decades. Thomas Jefferson anticipated a democracy in where the bulwark would be property-ownership by small independent yeoman farmers. (And indeed, modern researchers do find small-holding systems of land tenure to be conducive to democracy, while large estates tend to support authoritarian regimes.[3])

However, while promoting the extension of suffrage to non-property owning whites, Jefferson's party preferred to withhold it from blacks and Indians. They also opposed government involvement in education: a policy that would prove unexpectedly antithetical to democracy. Blacks were almost all illiterate, for in the slave states everyone, even a master, was forbidden to teach a slave how to read or write. Slaves known to have the ability to read or write were sold, segregated from other slaves, whipped, or branded.[4]

But not only blacks were deprived of learning. Liberal education was confined to the planter elite. In 1837 in Virginia, only 23 percent of applicants for marriage licenses could sign their names. Free public schools were not established in Georgia until 1877. As the Civil War approached, the Southern states were even losing ground in literacy. Whereas only one person per 400 in New England could not write on the eve of the Civil War, the figure was one in 12 for the slave-owning states.[5] Before the Civil War, public opinion about white supremacy was connected to education in the South.[6] Wealthy slave owners tended to be more open to abolitionist demands than the burgeoning uneducated white class. The southern power base rested on illiterate voters -- Democrats who actively opposed the spread of public education, which the Whigs championed in the North.

The two historical cases that we have examined so far, Athens and the pre-Civil War United States, suggest our main thesis: that a democratic society is usually an educated society. That generalization also holds up today if we compare contemporary societies.

Many Third World societies have attempted to establish and maintain democratic regimes since World War II, but not all of them have succeeded. Much seems to depend on the socio-economic accomplishments of the new regimes. A stable democracy seems to require both education and economic development. The ten developing countries with populations over one million that have maintained continuous democracies since 1965 have reduced their infant mortality by a median 3.25 percent per year until the late 1980s, as compared with a median annual reduction of 2.3 percent among ten of the most prominent continuous dictatorships over the same period.[7] These democracies have survived, despite the relative poverty of their societies, because they have managed to improve the quality of life for their citizens.

Success is relative, of course. Democratic India is a success when contrasted to, say, Niger and Sierra Leone, where only about 15 percent of the adults were literate in the mid-1980s. India's literacy was 43 percent, much higher than its own level of 15 percent when it won independence.

Yet even within India there are great disparities among provinces, and much can be discovered by comparing them. A particularly successful province is Kerala. It has enacted a vast expansion of schooling. Some 91 percent of its population can read, and female literacy is 87 percent, as compared to only 29 percent in the rest of India.

Kerala is democratic. Though the Communist Party has been the strongest political force there since 1957, it has remained free of the political violence that has swept much of the rest of India. Its leftist and centrist parties share power in shifting coalitions of tolerant, pluralistic democracy. Without industrializing, Kerala has developed land reform and public health. Infant mortality is only 20 per 1,000 births, while in India as a whole it is 69. Kerala's life expectancy is 70, as compared to 55 for India as a whole. Women in Kerala have, on the average, two children, while four is the norm in the rest of India. Again, the predicted association is found between democracy and education.

Still, inferences from a handful of individual cases such as Athens, America, and India can be misleading. We should instead compare the trends systematically in a number of different societies. An ideal subject for investigation is the remarkable trend toward democracy that has been going on around the world since the 1970s. During the 1970s and 1980s, about thirty nations became democratic. Numerous others followed during the early 1990s, including formerly socialist states.

Here too, democracy was preceded by an expansion of education. It is probably no coincidence that, about twenty years before, beginning in around 1950, an extraordinary expansion of schooling had begun around the world that continued for about four decades. During that period, the rate of primary school enrollment in the less developed countries increased from less than 40 percent of the appropriate ages to well over 80 percent in 1990. Secondary school enrollment increased from 5 percent to 40 percent. By 1990 in the developed countries, literacy for the entire population approached 100 percent, while in the less developed countries, over 60 percent were literate. Unfortunately, this world-wide trend has slowed or stopped in the early 1990s, probably in response to flagging economic development in the 1980s, a result of the global debt crisis. This decline may signal negative political changes as well -- possibly the reversion of some new democracies to authoritarian rule.

Comparative research on the development and maintenance of stable democratic nation states has consistently shown a positive association with socioeconomic development.[8] A nation becomes especially conducive to democracy when its poverty diminishes.[9] That association is especially strong when socio-economic level is measured by composite indicators that take account of income, life expectancy and adult literacy -- in other words, not just the nation's wealth, but its general well-being and competence.

Socioeconomic Well-being, Education, and Democracy: Explaining the Connections

We see then that both the living standards and the educational level of a society influence its prospect for democracy. But which is more influential? Both. In the development process, income and education are like two wings of a bird that work together. People in poverty -- or who are uninformed -- cannot do good work. Economists advise Third World governments to invest in "human capital" -- schooling, improved living standards, health services, and social welfare -- to improve the productivity and competence of their work force. And as citizens become more capable, they tend to participate in voluntary associations and to impose increasing demands on their governments. Such political demands are a sure sign of that the population is becoming democratic.

So consistently are these patterns found that it is fair to consider education as virtually a necessary condition for the emergence and stability of democracy. Education is not, however, a sufficient condition. Some societies with moderately high levels of education and social development have not yet become democratic. Singapore, Libya, Iraq, and China are examples. Even so, only political repression keeps this from happening. When an opportunity for change does arise, democracy sometimes breaks forth quickly: South Africa and the Soviet Union stand as recent examples.

In fact, some observers predicted the democratic reforms in the Soviet Union on the basis of its high levels of education -- levels superior in some respects to those of North America and Western Europe. Moreover, with the coming of computers, faxes, photocopiers, and other decentralized means of communication, the Soviet rulers were confronted with a choice between allowing greater freedom and abandoning the economic opportunities presented by computerization. Everyone could see that, if Soviet citizens were able to use faxes, e-mail, and the other uncensorable means of communication, the state could not keep them from engaging in political discussions with foreigners and being "contaminated" by democratic aspirations. Surprisingly, Mikhail Gorbachev not only permitted openness, he encouraged democracy before the demand for it arose.

Variations in Political Orientations by Educational Level and Curriculum

Members of a democratic society do not all receive the same amount or kind of education. There are political implications of this variation, for different levels of schooling and curricula bring different influences. The general public in a democracy needs at least primary, and preferably secondary, schooling. A democracy also needs a number of leaders. Some of them engage in public debate, informing public opinion; some function as statesmen and diplomats; some make laws and uphold justice in the courts. Such duties ordinarily require higher education, as do those in the managerial and professional sector -- including executives, teachers, technicians, librarians, and scientists.

The level of one's education influences one's political habits. For example, while higher education often fosters social criticism and change, primary schooling historically was designed for the opposite purpose: to indoctrinate and instill conformity -- habits of mind better suited for authoritarian societies than for free ones.[10]

But even conventional primary schooling has a generally progressive influence and, indeed, the first few years of schooling may have the largest impact of all. Literacy and numeracy are skills that multiply the opportunities for acquiring more information independently. Even a few years of schooling are empowering and stimulate a modern mentality. They do not turn ordinary people into philosophers, scientists, economists, or statesmen, but they do turn them into voters and consumers who, for the rest of their lives, can read information "broadcast" on leaflets, newsletters, and the labels of boxes. That is a true breakthrough.

Such achievements do not, however, go far enough in promoting critical thinking or egalitarian participation. Some democratic philosophers, such as John Dewey, have therefore tried to develop more democratic ways of teaching elementary school. Dewey advised teaching literacy and numeracy through cooperative group activities, for he insisted that "democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience." [11] Likewise, literacy instructors teaching adults in the Third World have developed innovative, democratic methods of instruction. For example, Paolo Freire, who taught adult Brazilians, used articles about landlords or trade unions as reading primers, to show his students how words empower their reasoning and thus allow their entry into public discourse and civic action.

But blue-collar workers with primary schooling do not usually participate fully in public discourse. Mass secondary schooling is also necessary in industrial and post-industrial economies, with their complex divisions of labor and changing technologies. With secondary education, people more frequently read newspapers, magazines, and books, thus creating a market for published materials and jobs for intellectuals.

Higher education goes further, conferring a wide range of new aptitudes and differentiated specializations. There are often noticeable differences, for example, between people who are educated in technical specialties and "intellectuals," including students and professors in the liberal arts and social sciences.

As Joseph Schumpeter described them, intellectuals are educated people who have no "direct responsibility for practical affairs." There have probably been intellectuals in the West for a thousand years -- in church monasteries, for example -- but they were kept well in hand, and were hardly in a position to spread critical ideas. Schumpeter notes that there were also noble "patrons" who supported scholarly work and whom it would be unwise to offend. According to him, capitalism liberated intellectuals by enabling them to earn a living by publishing for an anonymous collective patron -- all those who bought their publications. (Few analysts today would agree that it was capitalism that brought this about, but rather mass education and the printing press.) In any case, Schumpeter rightly notes that, since readers became so numerous, intellectuals (e.g. Voltaire) no longer had to fear being cut off for expressing critical views.[12] This pluralism of sponsors enhanced the freedom of intellectuals and hence also the variety of views available to the populace -- surely a change that favored democracy.

Noam Chomsky (himself an intellectual par excellence) has declared, "Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world, at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression."[13] And in the exercise of that freedom, intellectuals expand its boundaries. According to S. M. Lipset and Asoke Basu, Western "intellectuals have been disposed to question the very source of authority." [14]

Russell Jacoby holds that intellectuals are a declining species in the United States (though not in Britain) because, instead of writing for the educated public through the medium of "little magazines," as previous intellectuals used to do, the educated post-World War II generation was able to find jobs as professors. The price of this was that they were obliged to write narrow articles for their academic peers and publish them in arcane professional journals instead of participating in public debate for the wider citizenry.[15]

Science, unlike the humanities and social sciences, does not necessarily politicize its practitioners, but it is nevertheless consequential for their democratic orientation. As Anatol Rapoport has suggested,

At least one value is implicitly inherent in the nature of scientific activity itself; namely, a devotion to truth, without which scientific activity would be meaningless. Once this is admitted, much more follows. Truth can be effectively pursued only in certain social milieus; for instance, those in which freedom of inquiry is encouraged or at least not inhibited, and those in which no authority is recognized as the final arbiter of truth. One can even say that egalitarian rather than hierarchical forms of social structure ought to be preferred by someone committed to the scientific outlook, since in matters on which science can make judgments, the source of assertions, whether they come from someone high or low in the social hierarchy, should carry no weight. Above all, since science is essentially a cooperative enterprise, freedom of information and communication, which entails also freedom of association unhampered by boundaries imposed by political, religious, ethnic, or other classification of people, ought to be highly prized in the value system generated by the scientific outlook.[16]

Rapoport's reasoning seemingly suggests that any kind of career in research, not only that of scientists, stimulates a commitment to honesty and freedom. And in general it is true that academics of every specialty prize academic freedom -- the opportunity to pursue ideas without fear of reprisal or political repression. Faculty members in universities and colleges tend to be somewhat liberal and left-of-center -- at least relative to the electorate. Their views do not fluctuate sharply from one decade to another, as those of students sometimes do. During the radical period of the sixties, the professoriate was sharply divided as to whether to tolerate campus demonstrations that disrupted classes.[17] A few years later the student population had become more conservative, whereas their professors, still in the same classrooms, held much the same array of values as before.

Although different generations of students differ politically, there are some consistent tendencies. Students in liberal arts programs of study tend to be more politically engaged than students in technical fields such as engineering or dentistry. Such differences can also be found in their professors, with social scientists generally revealing somewhat more liberal socio-economic views than, say, students and professors of business.[18] Resident students in elite liberal arts colleges are profoundly influenced by their experience and adopt values that last a lifetime. A study of Bennington College students has followed the graduates for 50 years, demonstrating that their attitudes have remained remarkably stable.[19]

Education takes place in many settings other than the classroom. Adults continue learning throughout their lifetime -- on the job, through personal reading and discussions, and perhaps most of all, through the mass media. But the press can deceive and propagandize instead of liberating. Indeed, it is debatable whether existing, commercially-controlled television, radio, films, videos, and newspapers are more an asset than a liability to the political culture of Western societies. Insofar as they provide pluralistic types of information, democracy benefits. However, there has been a trend toward centralizing news coverage -- such as single TV programs that are watched simultaneously in virtually every society on earth, influencing public opinion and setting the agenda for politicians everywhere. Centralization cannot be a positive force in sustaining democracy, especially when the reporters are susceptible to "news management" by politicians.[20] Thus numerous studies of the world press during the Persian Gulf War show, yet again, a replacement of journalistic independence with reportage based on information given out by military leaders.

Education of the Future

Nevertheless, there is hope. New technologies may yield a truly decentralized information system, in which individuals may learn from each other, independently managing their own exchange of information. This is already taking place through the Internet and other independent systems of communication. Unlike existing mass media, the so-called "information highway" will be decentralized and accessible to secondary students and graduates around the world. The expansion of such means of communication is certain to enhance the autonomy of the learner and democratize education. If this kind of education becomes widespread, a further expansion of democracy will follow. It is both an advantage and a disadvantage of electronic bulletin boards that they lack much editorial control or fact-checking. For example, during the wars in the former Yugoslavia, information was often presented that consisted of lies intentionally introduced to discredit the other side. Readers could not know whether they were reading disinformation or truth.[21]

On the other hand, the content of formal education is becoming increasingly standardized -- a trend reflecting the globalization of world culture and the international economy. This standardization of curriculum contrasts sharply to the individualized, self-directed learning via computer networks, but it is not necessarily a bad thing. Despite the extreme division of labor within industrial society, the curricula of both primary and secondary schools are remarkably undifferentiated, even when compared around the globe. Most nations are converging in developing similar systems of comprehensive secondary schools. Students who are enrolled in the vocational program are no longer very distinguishable from the other students, and are often able to switch from one track to another.[22] Only the languages of instruction differ, and in addition to their mother tongue, many students are learning one of the "world" languages: mainly English, Spanish, French, or occasionally Russian. This uniformity of instructional material can be explained functionally: existing and future jobs require familiarity with a shared vocabulary and body of knowledge. But there will be political effects: When the vast majority of the world's population shares an extensive body of basic knowledge and techniques, the basis will exist for general equality and global democracy.


Alwin, Duane F., Ronald L. Cohen, and Theodore M. Newcomb, Political Attitudes Over the Life span: The Bennington Women After Fifty Years (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991).
Chomsky, Noam. "The Responsibility of Intellectuals," in Theodore Roszak, ed. The Dissdenting Academy, (Penguin 1968).
Diamond, Larry. "Economic Development and Democracy Reconsidered" in Gary Marks and Larry Diamond, eds., Re-Examining Democracy: Essays in Honor of Seymour Martin Lipset (Newbury Park: Sage, 1992).
Guimond, Serge and Douglas L. Palmer, "The Politics of Canadian and Social Scientists: A Comment on Baer and Lambert," Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology Vol. 31:2, May 1994.
Inkeles, Alex and David Horton Smith, Becoming Modern: Individual Change in Six Developing Countries (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974).
Jacoby, Russell. The Last Intellectuals (New York: Basic Books, 1987).
Knightley, Philip, Truth is the First Casualty. (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1975)
Ladd, Everett Carll, Jr. and Seymour Martin Lipset, The Divided Academy (Berkeley: Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, 1975).
Rapoport, Anatol. The Origins of Violence (New York: Paragon House, 1989).
Schumpeter, Joseph A. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (New York: Harper, 1942).
Webber, Thomas L. Deep Like the Rivers: Education in the Slave Quarter Community, 1831-1865 (New York: W.W. Norton,1978).
See also:
Education, civic; Science and democracy; Technology; Jefferson and Jeffersonians democracy; Democratic theory, ancient; Religion, civil; Virtue, civic; Citizenship


[1]Karl R. Popper, "On a Little Known Chapter of Mediterranean History," in Transition to Modernity, ed. by John A. Hall and I.C. Jarvie (Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1992) p. 116.
[2]Michael Mann, "The Emergence of Modern European Nationalism," in Transition To Modernity ed. by John A. Hall and I.C. Jarvie (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992) p. 142. The Swedes' literacy rate was reportedly equal to that of Americans at that time.
[3]Barrington Moore, Jr. Social Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966).
[4]Thomas L. Webber, Deep Like the Rivers: Education in the Slave Quarter Community, 1831-1865 (New York: W.W. Norton,1978) pp. 30-33.
[5]Dumond, Anti-Slavery, pp. 158-65.
[6]Dwight Lowell Dumond, Anti-Slavery: The Crusade for Freedom in America (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961), pp. 73-74.
[7]Larry Diamond, p. 127.
[8]The earliest exploration of that relationship appeared in Seymour Martin Lipset's book, Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1960).For a comprehensive review of the evidence and theoretical explanations of this relationship, see Larry Diamond, "Economic Development and Democracy Reconsidered" in Gary Marks and Larry Diamond, eds., Re-Examining Democracy: Essays in Honor of Seymour Martin Lipset (Newbury Park: Sage, 1992) pp. 93-127.
[9]Larry Diamond, "Economic Development and Democracy Reconsidered," in Marks and Diamond, p. 96.
[10]Adam Curle, "Education, Politics, and Development," in Kalil I. Gezi, ed., Education in Comparative and International Perspectives (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), p. 302.
[11]John Dewey, Democracy and Education, (New York: Macmillan, 1930) p. 101.
[12] Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (New York: Harper, 1942) p. 147.
[13]Noam Chomsky, "The Responsibility of Intellectuals," in Theodore Roszak, ed. The Dissdenting Academy, (Penguin 1968) p. 227.
[14]S. M. Lipset and Asoke Basu, "Intellectual Types and Political Roles," in Lewis A. Coser, ed. Thge Idea of Social Structure: Papers in Honor of Robert K. Merton (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), pp. 439-40.
[15]Russell Jacoby, The Last Intellectuals (New York: Basic Books, 1987).
[16]Anatol Rapoport, The Origins of Violence (New York: Paragon House, 1989) p. 105.
[17]Everett Carll Ladd, Jr. and Seymour Martin Lipset, The Divided Academy (Berkeley: Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, 1975).
[18]For a comparative review of international findings, see Serge Guimond and Douglas L. Palmer, "The Politics of Canadian Social Scientists: A Comment on Baer and Lambert," Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology Vol. 31:2, May 1994, pp. 184-93. Some time ago these differences were reviewed in a much more complete way in Nevitt Sanford, ed., The American College (New York: Wiley, 1962) pp. 866-68.
[19]Duane F. Alwin, Ronald L. Cohen, and Theodore M. Newcomb, Political Attitudes Over the Life Span: The Bennington Women After Fifty Years (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991).
[20]Phillip Knightley, Truth is the First Casualty (New York: Harcourt Brace, Jovanovich, 1975)
[21]Jonathan Wiener, "Static in Cyberspace," in The Nation June 13, 1994, pp. 825-28.
[22]Alex Inkeles and Larry Sirowy, "Convergent and Divergent Trends in National Educational Systems," Social Forces, Vol. 62:2, Dec. 1983, pp. 303-29.