Back to the future: the rebirth of a classical approach to democracy and education in a post-modern society

Education — combined with technologies — seems to have triggered a sea-change in the contract between government and those who are governed.


Back to the future — the title of the blockbuster movie of the eighties captures a paradox of the technological revolution, which, with a magnitude similar to the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century — is transforming our models of production, consumption and the mechanisms through which we develop social contracts and take political decisions.

The paradox is that in order to understand the future, which still escapes most of our cognitive instruments, we need to recover some of the approaches, the categories of a classical past that was similarly based on the intuition that societies are organized around knowledge.

This applies at one and the same time to the required definition of democracy, of education and to the relationship that exists between the two terms.

Here is the argument that we put forward in a recent book[1]:

  1. democracy can be reinterpreted in an interconnected society, as a highly sophisticated, multi-channel information process through which individual preferences and knowledge possessed by individuals (or groups) are aggregated into collective choices;
  2. as such, democracy departs significantly from the concept and the procedures of the representative, western, liberal democracy which appears to be increasingly challenged by populism and its meagre capacity to deliver acceptable levels of wellbeing to most citizens;
  3. education becomes so interlinked to democracy that it is to be seen both as a condition for a functioning democracy and as a key product of a society capable of mobilising its citizens.

If we look at numbers, in fact, we can immediately see a strong correlation between the level of education (which can be approximated by the percentage of people attending schools and the share of public expenditure which Is allocated to education) and the level of democracy (as defined by one of the — rather biased — mainstream indicators like the “economist democracy index”).

Western societies have, of course, more established education and democratic institutions. However, the same strong correlation between the two variables (both in absolute terms and given variation in time) is found, if we analyze developed and developing countries separately. Some of the most recent evidence seems to confirm and probably strengthen what Martin Lipset, argued in 1959:

“Education presumably broadens men’s outlooks, enables them to understand the need for norms of tolerance, restrains them from adhering to extremist and monistic doctrines, and increases their capacities to make rational electoral choices […] if we cannot say that a ‘high level of education is a sufficient condition for democracy, the available evidence does suggest that it comes close to being a necessary condition.’”

Education seems, in fact, increasingly not only necessary for completing a democratic project (and this was the ultimate goal of the establishment of publicly funded, compulsory education as one of the first, fundamental political decisions of many recently founded modern states in the nineteenth century). It also seems increasingly to be a force capable of creating enough demand for citizen involvement to oblige political regimes to accommodate these aspirations if they wish to preserve their own stability.

China and Singapore

The examples of China or Singapore are interesting. Both countries have increased investments in education from primary to tertiary level — more than any western competitor — out of the strong conviction that once they have exhausted their cost advantage, the continuation of their prosperity will depend on the breadth and depth of their human capital. Moreover they have adopted, even copied western standards, especially at university level.

The final results are staggering: both China and Singapore are two of the 3 high performers of PISA (2015) measurement. Similarly, they both accepted and encouraged the mobility of their own students (the so called Chinese “sea turtles”) going to Europe and the USA in order to ensure that they could count on first class workers.

The consequence of more human capital is, however, that they are now both confronting a growing demand from citizens to have a say in public decision-making.

Both regimes deliberately depart from the model of western democracies and they are certainly not considering making power contestable in elections; and yet they are both using multiple channels to keep track of opinions, assessments, dissatisfactions, the needs of individuals and groupings of individuals, so that these perspectives can get incorporated into political decisions.

China’s governance of urban and rural communities is becoming a lodestar for policy makers and scholars alike. Relevant research highlights the unique role of sub-district offices and neighbourhood committees; but more recently it is social media which is controversially allowing a more intense interaction between the government and the citizens. This system generates community mobilization, residents’ involvement and community autonomy, as a lever to keep local government accountable. The downside according to some observers, is that this may allow the Party to systematically spy on everybody and even encourage the Government to develop a rather troubling rating system for each individual[2].

The case of Singapore is also interesting. In 2009 REACH was created (reaching everyone for active citizenry@home), a department under the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI). It is involved in connecting with citizens and gathering feedback on major issues.

It is not democracy; and yet the attempt is to create a (technology enabled) mechanism through which dispersed information is processed towards political decisions.

It is doubtful whether such methods can somehow satisfy the demand for having a say in political decisions; or for obtaining more accountability of politically appointed officials. And yet education — combined with technologies — seems to have triggered a sea-change in the contract between government and those who are governed. This, then, holds true even in Asian countries defined by a rather different idea of democracy, common good, community.

The west has failed miserably to export democracy through the use of force; and yet western education systems have been peacefully imported into many developing countries, creating a tension around democracy and citizenship that has still to be resolved.

In western countries — like Italy or the USA — the relationship between education and democracy has somehow been the opposite. A long trend of deterioration of the public school — with the exception of elite higher education institutions — coupled with a growing unease on the part of the general public with evidence-based information and “experts” has accompanied an involution of democratic institutions. Mainstream political parties have suffered crises so severe as to endanger their survival. The normal mechanisms through which participation happens have become emptied out, less able to channel dispersed opinions and intelligence regarding policies.

Democracy seems, therefore, to have become a dependent variable of education, at the very same time that democracy has become something differentiated from the “one-size-fits-all” western liberal model.

In this context, moreover, it becomes important to acknowledge that even the channels through which people get educated are changing rapidly. Schools are no longer either the main or the most important instrument for accessing information. Instead, when it comes to the information deluge to which people and even very young people are exposed, schools may still be the place where citizens learn how to select relevant and reliable information and to transform it into knowledge.

This opportunity has been missed, however, by most education systems. In fact, while living in a digitalized and connected world, where any type of content and information are just one click away, the number of “functional illiterates” is constantly growing. Just as an example, around 16 per cent, or 5.2 million adults in England, can be described as “functionally illiterate”. The OECD Skills Outlook published in 2013 provided the same worrying picture, reporting that 32 million adults in the US are functionally illiterate.

In conclusion, it seems as if in a context characterized by the crisis of the established model of liberal western democracies, education may become an alternative route to democracy and even promote an evolution of the forms of democracy itself. However, the technological revolution is also changing significantly what we should mean by democracy, challenging its mechanisms, and transforming education. The classical idea of an informed citizenship as a pre-requisite for participation appears to have become more important than the existence of formal mechanisms that may have become empty simulacra of themselves.

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