Some two hundred and fifty years ago Edmund Burke offered a view of government that became the basis for much of modern conservative thought. Though Burke vigorously opposed tyranny, he was also skeptical of democracy. He favored a kind of benign oligarchy, in which government is led by an innately superior group of individuals who sagely represent the interests of the nation. The rest of the citizenry, “common” people, do not have, in Burke’s mind, the ability to govern or even to select their governors. As he looked around at eighteenth century England, Burke no doubt saw validation of this civic vision.
In the England of Burke’s day, basic literacy skills eluded the vast number of people. Most of those who comprised the ruling class at the time thought this was a good thing. The British MP, Davies Giddy, for example advocated for continued illiteracy of the poor. To educate this class of people, Giddy admonished Parliament, would teach them “to despise their lot in life”. With access to books and troubling ideas the poor might no longer be “contented servants”. They might even, heaven forbid, become “insolent to their superiors.”*
Of course, the English did eventually educate their poor. And with the increase in education, the idea of shutting the lower classes out of the electoral process was abandoned.
A similar association between the development of democracy and the rise in educational achievement occurred in the United States. Not only did electoral representation increase with a rise in national literacy, but economic opportunity likewise improved. That is, until very recently. In the 1990’s the nation saw a curious reversal in what had previously been a steady increase in college graduation rates. Not only was there an absolute drop in the percentage of young people graduating from college, but there was also a decline relative to other developed nations.
In 2008 The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education tied the declining college graduation rates to affordability. The cost of college went up, and, because of a decline in wealth, the ability of people to pay for college went down. So today, high school graduates are often faced with a severe choice: incur onerous debt or forgo college completely.
Given the nation’s relative decline in educational achievement, one might expect a kind of call to arms in the U.S, a marshaling of national will to regain educational ascendancy. However, exactly the opposite has occurred. Increasingly, one hears the Burkean notion that maybe not everyone is suited for college. It is suggested that college be reserved for the select few who are endowed by nature with superior ability.
Where would this lead? If a rise in education correlates with a rise in democratic participation, what would a decline in education signify? On what path would the citizenry be led with this line of thinking? Toward the oligarchic stratification of the eighteenth century?
There’s a saying that goes something like this: junk in, junk out. Apply that line of reasoning to any electorate. If a nation fails to educate its young, then it fails to give its citizens the tools with which to govern themselves. And this shortfall easily becomes the death knell of democracy. The wily few, those with wit and ambition, with guile and style, will hoodwink the rest of us and we will be too dull to see through their artful speech and practiced legerdemain.