Education is beginning to define democratic voting patterns across the Western world. It would be mistaken to think this is a sign of progress. Rather, it is yet another fault-line along which society can polarize itself.
Take the two biggest political decisions of the year; The EU Referendum and the American Presidential Election. In the former, university graduates were the most likely people to want to remain in the EU – while those with a GCSE or equivalent as their highest qualification were more likely to back Brexit. In the latter, Trump continues to poll far ahead of Clinton among voters who did not go to college, while Clinton still leads by a considerable margin among college graduates.
The possibility that education has become a fundamental divide in democracy, with the educated on one side and the less educated on another is a dismal prospect. The less educated fear they are being governed by intellectual snobs who know nothing of their lives and experiences. The educated fear their fate may be decided by know-nothings who are ignorant of how the world really works.
Examples of this divide can be found across the referendum campaign, the starkest of which was courtesy of Michael Gove, who told Faisal Islam in an interview on Sky News that “the British people have had enough of experts”. Gove insisted that the voters should decide for themselves, on the basis of their own experiences, rather than listening to elite voices that had a vested interest in the outcome.
Those voices came trailing educational qualifications, which had put them in their positions of authority – at the IMF, the Bank of England, the Treasury. Gove was asking voters lacking anything like the same educational qualifications to feel empowered to reject what they were being told. Furthermore, older voters were far more likely to vote leave, which partly helps to explain the education gap, since the rapid expansion of higher education in recent decades means older voters are also much less likely to have attended university.
Much of the shock that followed the Brexit result in educated circles came from the fact that few people had been exposed to arguments that did not match their preferences. Social media enhances this feeling of shock. Friendship groups of like-minded individuals reinforce each other’s worldviews. Facebook’s news feed is designed to deliver information that users are more inclined to “like”.
In England and Wales, many university towns emerged from the referendum as isolated outposts of pro-EU sentiment in a sea of Brexit. Newcastle, York, Nottingham, Norwich, Cambridge, Brighton, Warwick, Exeter, Bristol, Reading, Oxford and Cardiff all voted remain. Amongst my university peers there was consternation following the result. It was accompanied by a barely suppressed feeling that ignorance had won the day.
Yet this feeling is unfounded. The split between the university towns and other parts of the country did not arise because one set of people understood what was truly at stake and the others were just taking a wild guess. Both sides Prior political preferences shape what we think the evidence shows, not the other way round. Even now, no one truly knows what is going to happen. The better-educated cleaved to one set of predictions because these chimed with what they already believed in.
Education is not the same as knowledge. Nor is knowledge the same as knowing which way to vote. Is somebody who chooses to spend their years at an institution of higher learning is more knowledgeable about the world? Maybe or maybe not. Definitely within their rather narrow chosen field, many people tend to focus in both undergraduate degrees and post-graduate research and in order to answer specific but nonetheless important questions. The other person who may only get A-Level’s and then move out of academia to pursue work are also learning many things and becoming educated in something that they never would have pursued through specific studies.
This issue stems from the fact that the educated are better at is sounding like they know what they are talking about, because they have been trained in how to make an argument. Well-informed people are likely to have more elaborate and internally consistent worldviews than inattentive people, but that just reflects the fact that their rationalisations are better rehearsed. Education gives you the ability to tailor your arguments to suit your personal preferences, which is a big asset in the job market. But it does little to help tailor your personal preferences to suit the best arguments.
Not all of the educated are winners in this world, but almost all of the winners are educated. It gives the impression that knowledge has become a proxy for influence. When Gove claimed Britain had become sick of experts, he meant experts who only espoused their particular preference for a libertarian internationalist society. Yet to ensure that the truly correct political decisions are made we need experts who were trained in eliminating their own biases – and whatever a regular university education does, it does not do that.
Daniel Sharp, President