In democracies, it seems to me the problems with politics and politicians is that they are forced to pander to the ignorant masses based on fear tactics, false promises, and oversimplification of complex issues in order to get their votes.

My assumption is that as education quality decreases, democracy quality also decreases.

Is there a correlation between education quality and democracy quality?

  • 1
    This is an interesting thought, but Politics is not the right place for it.
    – RedSonja
    Jul 29, 2020 at 5:14
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    @pkr298 - is it OK if I change your question to something among the correlation between democracy index and education index at the country level? This should be way less opinioned since numbers exist to backup the answers.
    – Alexei
    Jul 29, 2020 at 17:32
  • @Alexei sure go for it
    – pkr
    Jul 29, 2020 at 17:33
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    Beware of confounders that affect both democracy and education. E.g. a war in the country can cause both the political system to fail (-> whatever it was before, it's not a functional democracy once failed) and discrupt the educational system. Aug 1, 2020 at 11:42

4 Answers 4


The correlation probably exists, but the causation is reversed.

“Illiteracy does not impede the practice of democracy, as witnessed by the success of democracy in India despite the high illiteracy rate. One doesn't need a university diploma to realize that the ruler is oppressive and corrupt. On the other hand, to eradicate illiteracy requires that we elect a fair and efficient political regime.” ― Alaa Al Aswany,

When he was writing this, illiteracy in India was much higher than it is today, and China had comparable rates to India. To counter this you only need look at China, where illiteracy has been (effectively) eradicated, the government of China may be efficient, but few see it as "fair".

Nevertheless, in general, successful democracies will have more higher quality education, but the does not mean that higher levels of education are required for a successful democracy, but instead, that efficient and fair democracies will tend to place a higher value on education, and spend the money, time and resources that are needed to make it happen.

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    "Few" of who see it as fair? And what exactly is your definition of "fair"? I'm pretty sure many Chinese themselves see it as fair and that's quite a big amount of "few". Jul 30, 2020 at 16:46

Aristotle made a distinction between democracy and polity that has been obscured over time. Both are technically 'rule by citizens', but a 'polity' implied rule by virtuous citizens — citizens who are informed, reasonable, and dedicated to the community above their own individual interests — while a 'democracy' implied rule by the ignorant and intemperate masses. Aristotle thought the first was the best form of government, if achievable, while the second was the worst, needless to say. But during the Enlightenment (16th-17th century) philosophical thinkers came to the conclusion that all men had the capacity for reason, given the opportunity, and so the two terms blended together: democracy came to mean a polity-of-all, not a decadent of rule by the ignorant.

Of course, the key phrase there is 'given the opportunity'. Aristotle's era was constrained by the fact that it was primarily an agricultural society, in which the majority of the population was illiterate, and too preoccupied with essential labor to gain the acumen needed for 'virtuous' decision making. Enlightenment thinkers held that booming literacy rates and the distribution of printed media would correct that essential imbalance, creating a much broader base of reasoned thought. This idea was picked up in the 19th and early 20th centuries in pushes for publication education — e.g., John Dewey's "Democracy and Education", which held out the idea of using education to create proper democratic citizens — and that theme is still prevalent, at least in Liberal Arts curricula. Education has broadly been seen as a means for giving citizens the opportunity to become virtuous citizens in Aristotle's sense.

However, the last 40 years or so have shown that this solution is not without flaws. First, the term 'education' covers a wide range of activities, not all of which are suited to the production of better citizens. Primary and secondary public education (as a number of social scientists pointed out in the last century) has de-evolved to training children into basic skills they need for work as an industrial labor force: how to take instruction and memorize simple facts without complaint; mastering the basic intellectual and communication skills needed to work within an organization. likewise, higher education has increasingly pigeon-holed students into technical proficiencies and professional structures, creating graduates who are extremely skilled within their field, but whose skills do not translate to any subject outside that narrow frame of reference. If we think about Hannah Arendt's tripartite distinction between labor, work, and action, Aristotle's democracy was plagued by those who were trapped in labor (the ceaseless expenditure of effort to produce the ongoing necessities of mere life), but modern Liberal democracy is plagued by those who are trapped in work (the ceaseless expenditure of effort to produce concrete goods for social exchange and consumption). Both modes prevent people from rising to the level of action, where all political interaction takes place. The mode of action demands expendable free time that can be applied to thought and discussion, and the development of reasoning skills that transcend the technical skills of mere production.

Second, the modern era has brought on a flood of information, without generally increasing the capacity of individual citizens to filter and process that information. People confronted with such a wall of noise will often retreat from it, either throwing up their hands and abandoning the political world, or clinging to pre-given beliefs and prejudices with stubborn resistance. Much of the modern partisan divide in the US can be traced back to those who have closed the door on all information they disagree with, merely to defend against the raging discordant onslaught of contrary opinion.

The push for 'Liberal Arts' education that began back in the '60s and '70s tried to work on these flaws in the Liberal Democracy model, both by increasing students' exposure to topics outside their immediate technical needs and by developing reasoning skills capable of parsing a greater influx of contradictory information. However, Liberal Arts curricula have historically been opposed by many political actors, who worry that a thoughtful, reasoning electorate will diminish their control over political outcomes. It's a difficult and ongoing problem, where proper education stands as both a boon and a threat to established political power structures.


I managed to use democracy index data and education index data to compute the Pearson Correlation for the countries that have data in both indexes.

The results look like this:

Peason correlation graph between the democracy index and education index

Y - democracy index score
X - education index 2013 ranking

The site interprets this as a week correlation, although roughly speaking a trend is visible (the points are not exactly scattered).

Note: the points without a Y value have meaningless values for one of the indexes.

An interesting case seems to Europe which seems to have a high correlation between democracy and education:

Correlation between education and democracy in Europe

The following countries were considered and the outliers are Belarus and Russia.

Europe countries

  • 2
    What is the x axis and what is the y axis in this graph?
    – Philipp
    Jul 30, 2020 at 15:09
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    Having recreated the graph, the x axis is "education quality" and the "y" axis is quality of democracy. (in contrast to what Alexei says) The notable "lump" to the bottom right represents "relatively wealthy oligarcies" such as Russian, and some oil rich states that have high levels of education, but little democracy. "Wealth" is confounding third variable here.
    – James K
    Jul 31, 2020 at 19:48
  • The correlation in the chart looks fairly strong actually, are you sure whatever tool you used to interpret the data correctly filtered out the nodata values?
    – zinfandel
    Aug 2, 2020 at 20:13
  • @zinfandel - you are right. I have reused socscistatistics to compute the P-value for Europe and it says: "The P-Value is .000208. The result is significant at p < .05.". However, when calculating the Pearson Correlation, it says: "The value of R is 0.5541. This is a moderate positive correlation, which means there is a tendency for high X variable scores go with high Y variable scores (and vice versa)."
    – Alexei
    Aug 3, 2020 at 4:05

International Development Economist Daron Acemoglu (Well respected and author of why nations fail) has gathered a lot of studies that showed correlation between high level of education and Democracy, and has rebuked them back in 1993. As his says, since then, that had been the conventional wisdom:

Hence existing inferences may be potentially driven by omitted factors influencing both education and democracy in the long run. A causal link between education and democracy suggests that we should also see a relationship between changes in education and changes in democracy. In other words, we should ask whether a given country (with its other characteristics held constant) is more likely to become more democratic as its population becomes more educated. We show that the answer to this question is no.

Note that studies going back to this initial view keep coming out, as well as the inverse causation meaning democracy causes education, which intuitively also makes a lot of sense.

Interestingly, some work shows that foreign education acquired in democratic countries tend to promote democracy back in their home country, except nothing like toppling a corrupt government.

That's a long way to tell you it seems to have not been settled, at least in the academic world. I would change your working assumption for something like: Dictatorship is more likely to develop when education level is low (just because the downward trend doesnt seem to be pre-requisite for it)

As I was writing that I don't recall a dictatorship created in highly educated country I found this Steven Zipperstein review of a book from Amos Elon’s A History of Jews in Germany:

This all occurred in what was, or at least seemed by the late 19th century to be, Europe's most cultivated, certainly its best-educated country. Germany had the world's finest elementary school system, the highest literacy rate and the best universities; by 1913 more books were published annually in Germany than in any country in the world. Its technical skill, its industry, its relentless business savvy (a trait, interestingly, commonly associated at the time with both Germans and Jews) marked it off as among modernity's singular successes.

With another bit mentioning how Hitler leveraged the hell out of the formal education system to introduce his race-based propaganda in the education.

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