Does Education Enable Active Citizenship and Vibrant Democracy? Part I

There could be different theoretical reasons for the positive impact of education on good governance. One could be the potential role of the middle class in strengthening democracy and governance, and the role that education plays in the creation of such a class.

Edu for citizenship Part 1 1024x683

Does education strengthen citizenship and democracy? This is the question addressed in this review essay. There are multiple channels through which education impacts/​shapes citizenship and democracy. There could be a role for education in creating awareness of the rights of every individual. There could also be a political economy role, whereby, the spread of education facilitates the creation of a class in society that demands and works towards the strengthening of democratic institutions. The available evidence on these possible impacts of education are discussed in this essay.

Education enhances civic participation and political involvement

It is clear from the context of the developed world that education enhances political participation, including voting. Using data from General Social Survey, Di Pasquale and Glaeser (1999)1 have noted a positive relationship between education and voting. According to them, college graduates are 27 percent more likely than high-school dropouts to vote in local elections and 29 percent more likely to help solve local problems. Such a relationship is found to exist in membership of other groups too. Glaeser and Sacerdote (2001)2 found a positive relationship between education and 15 out of 16 forms of group memberships (barring trade-union membership). This was found to be true in other countries too using the data from the World Value Survey. Such a relationship was seen even with regard to church attendance in the USA. According to this study, 50 percent of American college graduates say that they attend church more than several times per year’ whereas the corresponding figure for high-school graduates is only 36 percent. Hence, this relationship may indicate that education facilitates participation in social forums of different kinds.

There are studies that have hypothesized, or shown empirically, the high correlation between education and democracy across countries. A review can be seen in Glaeser et al (2007)3 Almond and Verba (1963)4 saw education as a major determinant of civic culture’ and participation in democratic politics. Barro and Lee (2001)5 could see in a study of 91 countries, a higher correlation coefficient between the years of schooling and an index of polity indicating that schooling leads to democracy (and there was no evidence that democracy leads to schooling.) There are arguments of similar nature in different disciplines of social science (for example, Brady, Verba, and Schlozman, 1995;6 and Kamens, 19887). However, there are also studies such as Acemoglu et al (2005)8 which see no connection between education and democracy after controlling for the fixed effects of countries arising from geography or culture.

Milligan et al (2004)9 note that several studies have documented the association between schooling and civic participation, though the direction of a causal relationship is yet to be established. They have used compulsory schooling laws as an instrumental variable to confirm the causal relationship. Their effort was to see whether extra schooling (induced through compulsory schooling laws) had a positive impact on the political involvement in the USA and UK. They saw that the higher level of educational attainment was related positively to several measures of political interest and involvement, in both these countries. The relationship between education and voting was found to be strong in the USA, but not in the UK. However, the results in the UK became somewhat similar when registration rules are controlled.

Why should there be a connection between education and civic participation? Glaeser et al (2007)10 have analysed this problem theoretically. They have a specific characterization of democracy and dictatorship; the former has a wide potential base of support but offers weak incentives to its defenders. However, dictatorship provides stronger incentives to a narrower base. In this context, schooling teaches people to interact with others and raises the benefits of civic participation, including voting. According to them, education raises the benefits of civic engagement. Or it raises the participation in support of a broad-based régime (democracy) relative to that in support of a narrow-based régime (dictatorship). Based on this view, education may encourage successful democratic revolutions against dictatorships. One can use this framework to argue that even if such a democratic revolution does not take place, the dictator states may become more responsive to the rights or concerns of the wider public as the majority gets the benefit of education.

Will the increased civic and political participation of educated people lead to support for democracy or dictatorship is an interesting issue, as noted in Glaeser et al (2007). They have noted the participation of students in several pro-democratic movements throughout history.11 However, students had also participated in anti-Semitic riots in Bavaria in 1819 and supported Mussolini and Hitler. These and the fact that there was support for communist leaders, like Che Guevara in Latin America, may lead to a conclusion that though educated people participate in political and collective action, it may not always be for (sustaining) democracy. Educated leaders of the communist parties have established dictatorial states in different parts of the world. However, in all these cases where the engagement of the educated has led to some form of dictatorship, there is an element of social’ or mass dictatorship’. Hence, these were against the states captured by the elites or minorities who were perceived as the enemies’ of the society at large. In fact, as argued by Santhakumar (2014)12, certain transformations like the capture of the state by the underclass should be seen as part of the long-run deepening of democracy, even though some of these have led to a dictatorship of underclass parties. In that way, the participation of the educated in these movements has to be seen as a resistance to a certain real or perceived concentration of power/​wealth in the hands of the entrenched sections of the society.

The spread of education had coincided with popular uprisings against the elite rulers in different parts of the world. This was visible if we understand the history of England, the Netherlands, France, Germany or Italy. The role of the urban middle class (which included the beneficiaries of education) in supporting democratization has been noted in countries like Argentina, Brazil, the Philippines, Taiwan, Korea, Spain, Peru, and Ecuador in the late 1970s and the 1980s.13 However, a counter-example in this regard in the contemporary world is that of China. There is an argument that the democratization of South Korea and Taiwan after 1987 was closely linked to the growth of the middle class there. Such a trend is yet to be seen in China. The members of the middle class in China are the beneficiaries of the current political régime and hence, they have an interest in supporting it. It is pointed out that Chinese people like their counterparts in Malaysia and Singapore have a higher tolerance for authoritarian regimes.14 The middle class in China may fear that a movement towards democracy could lead to political chaos upsetting their financial success.15 For them, democratization may take state power to the lower strata of society and peasants (who are less educated)16 and such groups may have a decisive role in political decision-making. However, this does not mean that there are sections of the middle class who are not affected by the status quo. These may include different categories of human-rights activists.

Situation in India

The early studies on Indian elections saw a correlation (based on aggregated data) between development variables, such as literacy and electoral turnout (for a review, see Kondo, 2007)17. However, a review of such aggregate studies over time would inform that the explanatory power of education has decreased gradually with time. This may imply that people with limited literacy have also started participating actively in elections. The direct impact of literacy and education on voting behaviour can be seen from those studies which have used the data of individuals. Sirsikar (1973)18 showed from a survey in the Pune constituency that the higher educated persons have lower faith in democracy. However, such higher educated people have a higher capacity to discriminate between political parties. Sirsikar could also see that in households with lower levels of education, family heads determined the voting behaviour of other members. Though women tend to follow male heads, education seems to encourage the former to take an independent view (Shukla, 198819). Eldersveld and Ahmed (1975)20 provided interesting results based on national data. They found education an important variable for the development of political perceptions. More educated were more interested in supporting multi-party democracy. Data on opinion polls reviewed in Kindo (2007) also note that education is linked to higher levels of political awareness. However, Chibber (1991)21 has seen that caste is the most salient factor in determining voter preference in India. This too may indicate the acceleration of the electoral participation of people at large (and not only the educated ones, and there may not be more than 20 percent of people in India in the late eighties who can be called educated then). Yadav (2004)22 demonstrated that the level of education is not significant in explaining voter-party differences.

The weak relationship between education and political participation in India could be due to the fact that education was limited to a minority. Nearly 50 percent of students of school-going age did not complete schooling in 2014. Such a skewed distribution of education may have implications on political behaviour. Education was limited to the elites at the beginning of the country’s democratic life, and these people may have participated in elite-controlled politics. However, their enthusiasm may have declined as the less-educated started participating in politics mainly through identity-based (caste-based) social/​political mobilizations. The role of education in middle-class-driven politics, visible in the developed world discussed in the previous paragraphs, may yet evolve in a significant manner in most parts of India.

Education promotes better governance and social vigilance

Does the spread of education or the creation of an educated class lead to a situation where the rulers are compelled to enhance transparency, improve governance and reduce corruption? There could be different theoretical reasons for the positive impact of education on good governance. One could be the potential role of the middle class in strengthening democracy and governance, and the role that education plays in the creation of such a class. It has been argued by a long stream of scholars that the middle-class has an incentive to work towards better governance.23 Political scientists and sociologists have argued that a strong middle class is necessary to deepen and sustain democracy (Lipset, 1959; Kenny, 201124; Van de Walle, 201225). This class demands greater representation in, and accountability from, governments. Marxists may see a leadership role (to be) played by the educated sections in mobilizing the working class. The expectation is that the concessions received by the middle-class are extended to the poor gradually and that is the route through which the lower classes get a higher stake in governance.

However, there could be some interesting differences in the role of the middle-class in contemporary developing societies. First, one can see not only the middle-class but the poor and other vulnerable groups (like lower caste groups, working-class, marginalized ethnic groups) playing an important role in the deepening of democracy. The emergence of middle- or lower-caste political movements and their capturing of power in Indian states are examples. The competition between the elite-controlled and anti-elite political formations or that between different anti-elite movements may lead to the strengthening of democracy. Hence, education’ per se, may not be that important in the emergence of anti-elite assertions or the development of competitive democracy. Anti-elite assertions need not lead to a more transparent or less corrupt state, as evident from states, like UP or Bihar, which have witnessed the emergence of anti-elite movements and their competition to capture power. However, the deepening of a democracy (anti-elite assertion and the emergence of competitive politics) could lead to a higher level of distribution of public resources to the poor. This seems to have a positive impact on human development, as evident from the experience of Kerala and Tamil Nadu (and other states like Andhra Pradesh, later).26

The middle-class could be playing a role in improving governance and reducing corruption. One argument in support of this is that the monopoly in economic activities arising out of the collusion between the political class and the richer sections (or capitalists) could become costly for the middle-class, given their endowments and disadvantages. The arrival of such a class to a significant political position may lead to increased pressure to improve governance. Such a class came to exist through the spread of education (Santhakumar, 2014). The anti-elite movements and associated competition in politics could be leading to higher investments and other support (like mid-day meal programs) for education, and this may lead gradually to the emergence of a significant share of the population as middle class. This, in India, first occurred in Kerala, where there was an anti-elite capture of the state and real competition in politics. This was followed in Tamil Nadu.

What is the empirical evidence of the proposition that the middle-class impacts governance? There is general evidence linking institutional performance and the (substantial) presence of educated people in the country. This is true for the degree of democracy, political freedom, respect for property rights, absence of corruption, or efficiency in the provision of public services.27 Though income (or affluence) and education are important in this regard, Wolfinger and Rosenstone (1980) have shown empirically that education is more important than income as a determinant of political participation.

Another paper28 provides systematic evidence that educated citizens improve governance by complaining more. This was based on individual-level survey data from the World Justice Project. This increase in complaints could be enhancing the cost of misconduct of the officials that leads to improvements in governance. This has a positive impact on reducing corruption by controlling the political system and because of the presence of free media.

There are studies linking better governance and strength of the middle-class within the developed world which have a substantial share of the population coming under this category (Chong and Gradstein, 2007;29 Solt, 200830). There are studies on the role of the middle class in developing countries too. One such study31 conducted in Kenya based on the Afrobarometer survey data reveals that the middle-class is more likely to support the opposition and hold pro-democratic attitudes. Though this is the general picture there, it was noted that class continues to intersect with ethnicity, and this may impact political choices. The role of ethnicity undermining the pro-democracy forces in Africa has been noted by a number of scholars (Mati, 201932; Lonsdale, 1992;33 Mueller, 200834). In a similar vein, the political choices made by the middle-class in India could be mediated by caste.

Is there any evidence that the middle-class in developing countries comprises those who have benefited from education? Banerjee and Duflo (2007)35 use household surveys from 13 developing countries to describe consumption choices, investments for education and health, employment patterns and other features of the middle class. They note that an average middle-class person is not an entrepreneur. Such persons are less likely to be self-employed in agriculture. The more likely feature of a middle-class person is that he/​she holds a steady job. They also have fewer, healthier, and better-educated children. Their per-child spending on education is higher. Hence, there is some connection between education and the middle class. Probably all these people, who are defined as the economic middle class, need not have features of a politically active middle-class.

Does the middle class have an impact on governance in India? There are not many systematic studies in this regard. However, there is anecdotal evidence from specific Indian states as given in Santhakumar (2014). It notes the emergence of an anti-elite movement and immediate transition to a strongly competitive democracy which have led to the spread of education and the creation of a middle-class in Kerala, much before the other Indian states. There are indications that this middle-class influences electoral outcomes and governance in Kerala. The middle class or their issues, like infrastructure and corruption, have an important role in determining electoral outcomes in Delhi. However, the situation in other parts of India is different. Though there has been a substantial growth of the middle class in India as a whole, after the nineties, their share in the entire population may not be more than 10 – 15 percent. Moreover, they are spread all over the country and in certain cases concentrated in cities that have hinterlands populated mostly by the poor and vulnerable sections of the society. The emergence of 10 – 15 percent of the national population as the middle-class all over India would mean that corruption could become an important issue in national discourse (especially in the English-speaking media) but is yet to become a serious issue to vote out politicians in many parts of India.


  1. DiPasquale, D. and Glaeser, E. (1999). Incentives and social capital: are home owners better citizens?’, Journal of Urban Economics, vol. 45 (2), pp. 354 – 84.

  2. Glaeser, E. and Sacerdote, B. 2001. Education and religion, National Bureau of Economic Research, Harvard Institute of Economic Research. Paper no 1913.

  3. Glaeser, E.L., Ponzetto, G.A.M. & Shleifer, A. Why does democracy need education? J Econ Growth 12, 77 – 99 (2007).

  4. Almond, G., & Verba, S. (1989, 1st ed. 1963). The civic culture: Political attitudes and democracy in five nations. London: Sage Publications.

  5. Barro R., Lee J.-W. (2001). International data on educational attainment: Updates and implications. Oxford Economic Papers, 53, 541 – 563

  6. Brady H., Verba S., Schlozman K.L. (1995). Beyond SES: A resource model of political participation. American Political Science Review, 89, 271 – 294

  7. Kamens D. (1988). Education and democracy: A comparative institutional analysis. Sociology of Education, 61, 114 – 127

  8. Acemoglu D., Johnson S., Robinson J., Yared P. (2005). From education to democracy. American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings, 95, 44 – 49

  9. Milligan K., Moretti E., Oreopoulous P. (2004). Does education improve citizenship? Evidence from the US and the UK. Journal of Public Economics, 88, 1667 – 1695

  10. EL Glaeser, GAM Ponzetto, and A. Shleifer (2007) Why does democracy need education? Jl Econ Growth.12:77 – 99

  11. These included those against the authority at Oxford, Bologna, and Paris even in the Middle Ages, the support that Martin Luther gained from students in Wittenberg and other German universities, the participation of students in liberal movements and revolutions in Europe in the middle of the 19th century; student demonstrations which played a role in the overthrow of Peron in Argentina in 1955, the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, the downfall of Perez Jimenez in Venezuela in 1958, the resignation of the Kishi government in Japan in 1960, the resistance to Diem in Vietnam in 1963, the anti-Sukarno movement in Indonesia and the toppling of the Rhee government in Korea in 1966, the Prague Spring in 1968, and the downfall of Ayub Khan in Pakistan in 1969, the Tiananmen student uprising of 1989 in China and so on.

  12. Santhakumar, V. (2014) The Roots of Ill Governance and Corruption, Sage, New Delhi

  13. Huntington, S P. The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991)

  14. He Li, Middle Class: Friends or Foes to Chinas New Leadership”, Journal of Chinese Political Science, 08/2003, 1; Jie Chen, Attitudes towards Democracy and the Political Behaviour of Chinas Middle Class‟, in: China’s Emerging Middle Class: Beyond Economic Transformation, loc. cit., n. 2; Richard McGregor, The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, London, 2011266.

  15. Jonathan Unger, China’s Conservative Middle Class”, Far Eastern Economic Review, April 2006, 28. 34 | Cf. He, n. 31, 90 et sqq. 35 | Cf. Bruce J. Dickson, China’s Cooperative Capitalists: The Business End of the Middle Class”, in: China’s Emerging Middle Class: Beyond Economic Transformation, loc. cit., n. 2, 297. 36 | Cf. David S. G. Goodman, The New Rich in China.

  16. Min Tang, Dwayne Woods, Jujun Zhao, The Attitudes of the Chinese Middle Class towards Democracy”, Journal of Chinese Political Science, 200884

  17. Kondo, Norio (2007) Election Studies in India, Institute of Developing Economies: Discussion Paper no. 98

  18. Sirsikar, V. M. (1973). Sovereigns without Crowns – A Behavioural Analysis of the Indian Electoral Process, Bombay: Popular Prakashan.

  19. Shukla, DM (1988). Political Socialization and Women Voters: A Case Study of Kodarma Constituency, New Delhi: Janaki Prakashan

  20. Shukla, DM (1988). Political Socialization and Women Voters: A Case Study of Kodarma Constituency, New Delhi: Janaki Prakashan

  21. Chhibber, P. K. and J. R. Petrocik (1990). Social Cleavages, Elections and the Indian Party System in Sission, Richard and Ramashray Roy (eds.), Diversity and Dominance in Indian Politics, Volume 1, Changing Bases of Congress Support, Delhi: Sage.

  22. Yadav, Yogendra (2004). The Elusive Mandate of 2004”, Economic and Political Weekly, December 18.

  23. It started with Aristotle. The following quote of Aristotle given in a number of references could be an indication in this regard. In all states, there are three sections of the community – the very well off, the very badly-off, and those in between. Seeing therefore that it is agreed that moderation and a middle position are best, it is clear that in the matter of possessions to own a middling amount is best of all. This condition is most obedient to reason, and following reason is just what is difficult both for the exceedingly rich, handsome, strong, and well-born, and for the opposite, the extremely poor, the weak, and the downtrodden. Aristotle, Politics (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1962), pp.171 – 173; A well-known modern proponent of a similar idea is Harrington Moore. According to him, a vigorous and independent class of town dwellers has been an indispensable element in the growth of parliamentary democracy. No bourgeois, no democracy” Barrington Moore, Jr., Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modem World (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966), p. 418.

  24. Kenny, C. (2011). Where is the virtue in the middle class? (Unpublished paper). Washington, DC: Center for Global Development.

  25. Van de Walle, N. (2012). Barrington Moore in the Tropics: Democracy and the African middle class. (Paper prepared for presentation at the American Political Science Association Annual Meeting in New Orleans, LA).

  26. See Prabhu (2001) for a comparison of Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra in this regard. K. Seeta Prabhu, (2001) Economic Reform and Social Sector Development. A Study of Two Indian States. (Strategies for Human Development in India – Volume 3) Sage Publications, New Delhi/​Thousand Oaks/​London. Santhakumar (2014) gives an overall picture.

  27. Some of these studies include Barro, R. 1999. Determinants of Democracy,” Journal of Political Economy 107(S6):158 – 183; La Porta, R., F. Lopez-de-Silanes, A. Shleifer, and R. Vishny. 1999. The Quality of Government,” Journal of Law, Economics and Organization 15(1): 222 – 279; Svensson, J. 2005. Eight Questions about Corruption,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 19(3): 19- 42; Treisman, D. 2000. The Causes of Corruption: a Cross-National Study,” Journal of Public Economics 76(3): 399 – 457.

  28. Botero, J. Ponce, A. and Shleifer, A. (2012) Education and the Quality of Government, NBER Working Paper No. 18119

  29. Chong A, Gradstein M. (2007) Inequality and institutions. The Review of Economics and Statistics, 89(3):454 – 465.

  30. Solt F. (2019) Measuring Income Inequality across Countries and Over Time: The Standardized World Income Inequality Database. SWIID Version 8.0

  31. Madland, D. (2011) Growth and the Middle Class, David Madland; Democracy, 2012

  32. Mati J.M. (2019) Ethnicity and Politics in Kenya. In: Ratuva S. (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Ethnicity. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore

  33. Lonsdale J (1994) Moral ethnicity and political tribalism. In: Kaarsholm P, Hultin J (eds) Inventions and boundaries: historical and anthropological approaches to the study of ethnicity and nationalism. Roskilde University, Roskilde, pp 131 – 150

  34. Mueller SD (2008) The political economy of Kenya’s crisis. J East Afr Stud 2(2):185 – 210

  35. Mueller SD (2008) The political economy of Kenya’s crisis. J East Afr Stud 2(2):185 – 210


V Santhakumar, Professor, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru

This article is published in two parts. Go to Part II.

Read Part II