Education is one of the most fundamental aspects of a civilized society. The mark of a strong civilization is one that educates its young to be as open-minded and compassionate as possible, one that trains them to understand the past and work towards a better future. Education holds the key to societal progress, which is why when repressive dictators take power, one of the first things they do is strip power from universities and rewrite grade school curriculums. When educated people are given a choice, they always choose the path of light over the path of darkness, the path of inclusivity and tolerance of that of intolerance and fear.
Additionally, given our increasingly high-tech world, education is a prerequisite for a high-powered economy, in which workers are able to take jobs that are mentally and technologically demanding. Because of all this, it is important to fund education at all levels, whether it is kindergarten or graduate school, and to aggressively defend the rights of free speech and free inquiry in universities. These are the only ways to guarantee a fairer, more just world.
One of the most obvious reasons why society should encourage its citizens to become as educated as possible is because education acts as a firewall against regressive ideologies such as nationalism and populism. In every election in a Western country in recent memory where a populist candidate or party played a major role, educated voters invariably rejected them in favor of sober, centrist candidates who acknowledged the reality of our globalist, multicultural world. For example, in the U.S. presidential election, voters with college degrees decisively supported Democrat Hillary Clinton over Republican Donald Trump, with support for Clinton increasing with each level of educational attainment a particular voter had. States that were more highly educated on average, such as Massachusetts and California, showed more support for Clinton than more working-class states like West Virginia or Wisconsin.
Similarly, during the Brexit referendum in the U.K. last year, voters with college degrees overwhelmingly supported remaining part of the European Union. In the recent French presidential elections, educated voters decisively gravitated to centrist, pro-EU candidate Emmanuel Macron, accounting for his landslide victory over far-right nativist Marine Le Pen. When human beings are educated, they inevitably abandon base prejudices and fears such as xenophobia, homophobia, racism and misogyny. While education is no guarantee that a country will be able to resist regressive ideologies all the time—as the victories of Brexit in the U.K. and Trump in the U.S. show—they create an additional hurdle for populists, nativists, and other backwards-looking people when it comes to winning public office and enacting their policies. As a result, we should support education for all citizens on the basis of this alone.
It’s because of education’s ability to help people supersede their innate prejudices that dictators fear it and try to weaken it. For example, recently in Hungary, the government has been working to shut down Central European University, a college that works to inculcate Hungarian youth with the progressive values necessary for a democracy to function.
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has openly stated that he views Central European University as a threat to his regime, because it explicitly arms people against the xenophobic, bigoted policies that his government embraces. For example, Hungary has steadfastly refused to take in suffering Syrian refugees that have been flooding into Europe fleeing war and disease, and in fact built a border wall with the intent of keeping them out. The Hungarian government has been known to abuse migrants within its borders by keeping them in detention camps for indefinite periods of time, and Orban’s government specifically rewrote the country’s constitution in order to strip LGBT Hungarians of their rights and ensure that his party would have a permanent majority. It’s clear why Orban wants to shut down institutions of higher learning like Central European University: the liberal values that come part and parcel with education would teach Hungarians why his government is wrong and immoral. Orban, like all dictators, seeks to keep his people ignorant so that they cannot challenge his authority, which is why all good people everywhere should encourage citizens to pursue as much education as they can handle.
Furthermore, education is becoming mandatory in Western societies due to the high-tech nature of the modern economy. While populists like to romanticize the pre-Internet economy of the United States, which was driven by manufacturing and agriculture, the reality is that those days are gone and they are never coming back. Economic expansion is in fields like finance, computer science and others that require more advanced knowledge than stamping widgets in a factory. This is borne out in the fact that high school dropouts have the highest rates of unemployment in the U.S., with high school graduates doing little better. Even the military, long thought of as a repository for the low-skilled and desperate, requires a certain degree of technical aptitude from its recruits. The reality is that in order to succeed in the economy today, you need to possess some kind of valuable skill. Even menial jobs such as Walmart require that applicants fill out job applications and send their resumes online. The only way to obtain these skills is to obtain education in the form of a college degree of some kind.
America’s inability to keep its people well-educated is a big part of the reason why corporations have become reliant on immigrants in order to fill well-paid, skilled positions. The H1-B visas that are much ballyhooed by immigration restrictionists and xenophobes are a necessary part of hiring at tech companies and other similar entities, because there simply aren’t enough Americans who are trained well-enough to do the jobs. If more Americans were willing to study computer science, programming and other mentally challenging degrees, corporations wouldn’t have to import workers from India and China who are versed in those disciplines. At the same time, China’s insistence on training its workforce with inexpensive math and science education is threatening to make them into the world’s preeminent scientific power. The United States cannot sustain its world dominance and maintain the dollar’s position as the world’s reserve currency unless it severely overhauls its education system. Other countries have seen us at the top for too long and are looking to knock the king off his throne: it’s our job to keep them from doing so.
At the end of the day, education confers so many more benefits beyond mere knowledge and skills. Education fundamentally reshapes a person’s worldview, making them more tolerant, more skeptical, and less willing to fall for populist charlatans and other regressive ideologies that have held back humanity’s progress for so long. Education adds a bulwark against events like the Holocaust from ever happening again. Moreover, education is a prerequisite for success in our technologically advanced world, full of gizmos and mechanics that require more than a high school degree to operate. In short, we must encourage as many people to pursue as much education as they can, through reducing the cost of tuition and increasing the accessibility of certain subject matter. This is the only way that we can shed our past prejudices and advance as a species.
Lendvai, Paul. Hungary: between democracy and authoritarianism. Columbia University Press, 2012.
McDevitt, Michael, and Spiro Kiousis. “Education for Deliberative Democracy: The Long-Term Influence of Kids Voting USA. CIRCLE Working Paper 22.” Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) (2004).
Sorensen, Clark W. “Success and education in South Korea.” Comparative education review 38.1 (1994): 10-35.
Weil, Frederick D. “The variable effects of education on liberal attitudes: A comparative-historical analysis of anti-Semitism using public opinion survey data.” American Sociological Review (1985): 458-474.
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