Joyce Meng's Blog

Democracy and Education

I read an interesting editorial in the NYT on the relationship between education and democracy, written by Professor Glaeser, an economics professor at Harvard University. In interpreting the statistical evidence, Professor Glaeser argues that education has a causal effect on democracy – in short, no countries with very low levels of education manage to be democratic over the long term, and almost every country with a high level of education has remained a stable democracy. In particular, the article presents an interesting graph that visually shows a 77% correlation between education levels in 1960 and the subsequent 40-year average of the Polity IV democracy index.

Having investigated the economics of education last year, I find that econometric analysis of the impacts of education on democracy have generally reached mixed conclusions – although researchers have devised many different methods to control for endogeniety, in reality, with broad political indexes and very general measures of human capital (years of schooling is hardly a proxy for quality of education) and so many different potential institutional factors embedded in the residuals that are correlated with education , it’s very hard to attribute causality. Although in this specific data set, one can make a convincing argument that causality doesn’t run the other way (hard to imagine high democracy scores in the future causing education in the past), it may be highly likely that some underlying factor – such as improvement in governance or institutions, economic growth, greater openness to trade, fall of the Soviet Union, globalization of ideas, larger inflows of aid, etc. – may be driving both the increase in education and democracy. And of course, many country-specific factors remain. For example, India is generally considered to be a stable and functioning democracy, though the level of average education remains astonishingly low. I haven’t yet read the actual paper written by Professor Glaeser, but when I get around to it, I will post some more detailed insights.

Regardless of concerns of estimation bias, the more interesting debate centers upon the philosophical contribution of education to democracy. Professor Glaeser writes, “Education teaches skills, like reading and writing, that enable people to work collaboratively. At younger grades, teachers spend a lot of time teaching children how to get along. In the United States, education is strongly linked to civic engagement and membership in social groups. The ability to work together enables the defense of democracy.”

Indeed, education is essential in creating a highly engaged populace – perhaps that’s one of the fundamental reasons that dictators, upon assuming power, attempt to suppress intellectuals and academic institutions. By controlling ideas and intellectual exploration, a tyrannical government can exert better control. Informed citizens knowledgeable about their rights are less likely to tolerate abuses by the government; education provides the tools to mobilize a collective effort to defeat abusive regimes.

The counterargument is that although education is in itself value neutral to democracy; for example, an oppressive government can potentially use education as a tool to spread propaganda and cultivate obedience. Alas, the education vs. indoctrination debate has reached critical new heights with the rapid growth of madrasas in the Middle East and their impact on perpetuating fundamentalism and extremism. On this subject, I read an interesting CATO policy brief about the relationship between education and indoctrination in the Muslim World. Granted, this paper isn’t as interested in the philosophical ramifications, but rather, highly critical of US trade policies that have only further shackled the population in poverty, leaving families to resort to free madrasas rather than fee-paying schools to educate their children.

The relationship between democracy and education is of particular relevance to our Peace School campaign at Givology. After a decade of civil war in the early 1980s and unrest in the 1990s, Uganda has emerged as a relatively stable country with growth averaging about 7.8% since 2000, despite the disadvantage of being a landlocked. (As a side note, I highly recommend Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion, definitely a very short book worth reading about various “development traps” and proposals to circumvent them.) Despite the progress, however, many challenges still remain in light of significant population growth, HIV & AIDS and public health concerns, market access, uneven rural and urban development, among other concerns.

Notably, the Ugandan government has demonstrated substantial commitment to education, starting with the initiation of universal primary education in 1997. In comparison to 2 million students enrolled in 1986, more than 7.2 million students were enrolled in 2007, with enrollment of rates of 91.4% for girls and 95.3% for boys. Regardless, many challenges remain – particularly since despite free education, fees are often still levied by individual school along with other out-of-pocket expenses for books and uniforms, quality of education is not uniform (public vs. private, rural vs. urban), and currently only 40% of primary school graduates go on to complete secondary education, which many argue, has much greater overall returns.

Certainly, the introduction of universal primary education coincided with the policy agenda of a reformist government, but I do believe that education itself has played a central role in promoting and sustaining democracy and government accountability. Education informs people of their rights and gives them a mechanism for self-expression and a sense of greater self worth to challenge existing institutions.

Alas, the age-old adage: the strong may beat the weak, but the smart defeat the strong.


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