I will keep this brief.

I recently had a discussion with my Chinese friends. Their argument against implementing more democratic elements in China was the large fraction - in their eyes - uneducated population.

This is not supposed to be a question about China and democracy, rather it is aimed at raising the question, how much "education" is needed first, to have a more or less well functioning democracy.

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    I'm afraid this is a matter of opinion. Some may argue that no single country have yet reached a functioning democracy stage. Some might argue that on the contrary, that's the democracy that brings the education, not the other way around. Jun 10, 2016 at 7:29
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    I'll vote to leave this open for now, because this is an issue that many political theorists argue about, but as the question sits there is no answer: it's pure opinion. If you are interested in a slightly different, but related way, you could ask something like "What are some generally applicable arguments about the role of education in a functioning democracy?" Jun 10, 2016 at 17:16
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    Leaving aside all other complexities, one can argue that "education" by itself is something rather meaningless as a term. Does a PhD in English Literature or Master of performing Arts know anything even remotely relevant as a result of their education to help in decision making in today's world, compared to someone who ran a business? Does the fact that they chose such a useless specialty mean they don't have enough common sense to be trusted with voting decisions? Does the fact that most intelligentsia leaned towards cheerleading the worst dictators of 20th century disqualify educated people?
    – user4012
    Jun 11, 2016 at 17:05
  • This reminds me of the quote "When Iranians learn to behave like Swedes, I will behave like the King of Sweden." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohammad_Reza_Pahlavi
    – Golden Cuy
    Dec 12, 2016 at 12:08

2 Answers 2


We do know that beyond question literacy is correlated to the rise of democracy and constitutional republics in America-- Google answers:

"Education historian Lawrence A. Cremin, who has written several books about American education, has concluded that literacy rates among American whites were as high or higher than in provincial England, and significantly above those in Ireland.

'At a time when estimates of adult male literacy in England ran from 48 percent in the rural western midlands to 74 percent in the towns . . . adult male literacy in the American colonies seems to have run from 70 percent to virtually 100 percent . . . .' (See Traditions of American Education, NY: Basic Books, 1977, and American Education: The Colonial Experience, NY: Harper & Row, 1970.)" http://members.aol.com/EndTheWall/literacy.htm

That rate of about 20% illiteracy continued until the 1870s or so and began shrinking even further to 3% by 1940, according to History of Illiteracy in America.

So that appears to be the floor level of the education requirements. Is simple literacy the only requirement? It is well known that the Founding Fathers were not simply literate, but erudite intellectuals, and this was fairly common among the ruling class and those that were actually allowed to vote at the time.

I don't think the floor is higher than basic literacy however. I put literacy as the floor because of the pioneering work that James Surowiecki has conducted on the power of groups to make far superior decisions than experts, and gives additional reasons for some of the natural advantages of Democracy and some of their staying power comparitively.

If you put together a big enough and diverse group of people and ask them to make decisions affecting matters of general interest that group’s decisions will, over time, be intellectually superior to the isolated individual, no matter how smart or well-informed he is. James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds

James March is Jack Steele Parker professor emeritus at Stanford University and the Stanford Graduate School of Education, best known for his research on organizations, behavioral theory and organizational decision making. Wiki Professor March found something very similar:

The development of knowledge may depend on maintaining an influx of the naïve and the ignorant and … competitive victory does not go reliably go to the properly educated.

  • The stats do a good job of addressing the "how much education" question. Everything after "History of Illiteracy in America" seems irrelevant though. Dec 12, 2016 at 14:19
  • @indigochild it puts the idea that one has to be super educated to have a democracy to the test and finds it wanting. The question is hard, you have to establish a floor and a ceiling.
    – user9790
    Dec 12, 2016 at 14:23
  • Look at Philip's related question above on the question. It's a common view point, and one that is very wrong.
    – user9790
    Dec 12, 2016 at 14:48

Education is the core of democracy It is the biggest problem of western nations at the moment, that we have so large groups of people, who don't care about politics but still claim their right to vote.

Set it up as a thought experiment, you are sick and there are 2 doctors and 3 of your friends that you know, have never done anything relevant in medicine. Would you see the votes of your friends as useful? Would you even follow their vote if they vote together against the opinion of the doctors, simply because they are more?

Democracy gives the right to vote but this right should come with the duty to be informed, otherwise it is doomed to fail.

Since it seemed, like I didn't make it obvious enough: We never had the state of "enough education" or where close to it, so there is no way to define a certain point of "enough".

Also we probably won't ever be able to define it, because if we try to get closer to this point, we will always find new variables to define.

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    I'm sorry, but this doesn't answer the question "how much education is needed first, to have a more or less well functioning democracy".
    – Philipp
    Dec 12, 2016 at 12:15
  • I was pretty sure that I made it already obvious, that you need as much education as possible, and more than we have, which also means, that because we never where actually at a state where we had enough, we can't really say how much "enough" is.
    – Etaila
    Dec 12, 2016 at 13:21

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