Two ideas, education and democracy, have shaped western culture more than any others. We believe not only that all citizens should be educated to a standard that allows them to think critically and employ verbal and numerical reasoning, but also that these citizens should have the right to elect representatives to govern their country in the interests of the whole population.
The link between these two ideas is, in this writer’s opinion, extremely important. In a way somewhat analogous to the relationship between a grape vine and the wooden frame it grows upon, an educated population provides the structure on which democracy can grow, flourish and flower. If citizens are well educated then a democracy can shaped to represent the views of the people. An individual with a good quality secondary or higher education is unlikely to be easily deceived by the cheap words of dishonest politicians, tricked out of their money by corrupt financial institutions or endure crimes committed against them without seeking justice. Education provides the tools with which any person, regardless of their background can become an active agent in democracy. They can join movements or organizations and protest or endorse political decisions, ultimately allowing them to influence their country, city or hometown.
A democracy without widespread education is surely farcical and absurd. If the average voter is unable to assess the economic, social and moral claims or manifestoes of political parties then politics itself will be reduced to pure showmanship. The best speakers, public relations experts and propaganda producers can buy their way into power by taking advantage of a largely confused or uncritical population. Rather than a society, nations will be reduced to systems of so-called social Darwinism, which those with the most wealth and power control and work primarily in their own interests.
Even worse perhaps, is education without democracy. If warlords, corporate tycoons and almost medieval alliances of powerful families and ideological groups can impose their own view of the world onto the population through biased education, then it is possible for a society to be educated but entirely undemocratic. Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Mao era China are examples of this in the last century. In all these states, education was widespread, but government and administrative positions were open only to those who held a narrow set of views. A culture where the population adheres unquestioningly to a government approved set of views will certainly cause great damage to anyone who chooses to think differently. If individuals are reduced to automatons, incapable of independent decision making, then they easily become complicit in all manner of atrocities. The twentieth century bears a bloodstained testament to this.
In conclusion, a truly fair society or nation cannot function without both good education and strong democracy. Lacking the former, we are plunged into ignorance and can be manipulated by those who would serve only themselves. Lacking the latter, we become well schooled but hopeless people, who despite our intelligence and ability to create change are deprived of the ballot paper on which to voice it.
To close the article, I will leave you with a quote from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Christopher Hedges. Writing in his book Empire of Illusion, Hedges comments :
“We’ve bought into the idea that education is about training and “success”, defined monetarily, rather than learning to think critically and to challenge. We should not forget that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers. A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, which fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death.”