Educating for democracy

"In education our duty is to... help people cultivate a desire to seek out truth and separate it from lies. This needs open debate, not closure." Interview for the World Forum for Democracy 2016.

Colin Crouch Alex Sakalis
2 October 2016


Marine Le Pen speaking 'in the name of the people' in southern France, September 18, 2016. Claude Paris/Press Association. All rights reserved.

openDemocracy (oD): Many on left and the right who voted for Brexit hoped for a renewal of ‘national sovereignty’. How do you see the space the UK occupies post-Brexit? Will a more substantive European democracy emerge without us? 

Colin Crouch (CC): In a world of complex trading relationships, free capital flows and high levels of inward direct investment, sovereignty can have only an abstract, formal meaning. Some protagonists of the new nationalism - such as Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen - also advocate a retreat from the global economy into individual protectionist nation states. At least they are consistent, if dangerous.

The curious thing about the people who are now leading the UK government’s Brexit strategy is that they believe in both intensified nationalism and intensified economic globalisation. This is a circle that they must square.

Since the eventual outcome of such a contradictory strategy is impossible to foresee, at present one can have no idea what place the UK will occupy in the future. The withdrawal of the UK would remove a major barrier to further advances in European democracy, but British politicians have not been the only ones hanging onto their own little spheres of autonomy and inhibiting moves to strengthen the European parliament and other elements of European democracy. 

oD: Given the inadequacy of formal politics in our post-democracies, how important is campaigning for political change in social movements? Has this kind of politics become more meaningful than representative democracy?

CC: Campaigning through social movements can never replace representative democracy, as it lacks the formal equality that is fundamental to the legitimacy of elections and the formation of governments through them.

It does however enrich political life, because it sustains citizens’ participation in politics the whole time and not just at periodic election times. Also, it must be remembered that wealthy and powerful groups lobby and work alongside governments and elected politicians the whole time, producing extreme inequalities in political capacity. Social movements help challenge this - though the inequalities always remain.

oD: You have said that Europe’s Europhobic and racist parties, while contributing procedurally to democracy, are characterised by a xenophobia not at all friendly to it. What are the dangers over the next few years? How can cities/ subjects/ alienated peoples best fight back? Or even prepare to do so?

CC: A fundamental issue that democracy always has to solve is how to express the will of the majority without hurting minorities. To do this democracy has to incorporate inclusiveness and tolerance. In the advanced democracies we gradually learned how to do this.

The newly emerging right-wing populist parties and movements are turning us back from that; and if they take power, there is the risk (familiar to us from the 1920s and 1930s) that intolerance of minorities extends to their political opponents.

Populists always claim to speak for the ‘real’ people, implying that the rest of us are not real. That is dangerous. They appeal to alienated people – as well as to many whose hostility to foreigners is based on self-satisfaction rather than alienation - because they enable them to be part of a wider ‘we’, ganging up together against immigrants, refugees, ethnic minorities and other small groups. The alternative lies in the articulation of social policies that tackle the true causes of alienation, but this can only take us so far.

An important element in the appeal of xenophobic movements is fear of Islamic terrorism. Social policies can do nothing about that – as we can see in the fact that the Scandinavian countries, which have the most generous social policies in the world, are also experiencing a major increase in xenophobia. Terrorism is something quite exogenous to the comfort zones of our normal political debate, and has to be confronted separately. 

Curiosity and a capacity for critical thinking can be gradually squeezed out of the population. That certainly threatens democracy.

oD: Alarms about “ugly de facto coalitions of Islamists and the hard Left campaigning on UK university campuses”, (e.g. in the recently-published The Battle for British Islam by Sara Khan) and related calls for the curbing of freedom of speech in universities, have led to bitter debates in places like Oxford University, where Ken Macdonald, Warden of Wadham College, has outlined the chilling impact for universities as havens for intellectual exchange. Can you say more about how terrorism must be confronted, and how, if at all you think this should impact on education?

CC: There is something very sinister about curbing freedom of speech. What starts as a ban on things almost universally regarded as undesirable sooner or later becomes a precedent for choosing far more controversial targets.

Bans on free speech also imply that one has no arguments to offer that might contend with the offending speech, a confession of weakness that only helps the other side.

There is an important exception when it comes to speech designed to stir up violent action based on hate, and we have existing, general, laws for that, which can and should be used against Islamic extremists instead of specific bans.

In education our duty is to encourage respect for truth and help people cultivate a desire to seek out truth and separate it from lies. This needs open debate, not closure.

oD: Stefan Collini has written in the LRB that the following ideas of university education are under attack, or being hollowed out, more generally: “the idea that the university is a partly protected space in which the search for deeper and wider understanding takes precedence over all more immediate goals; the belief that, in addition to preparing the young for future employment, the aim of developing analytical and creative human capacities is a worthwhile social purpose; the conviction that the existence of centres of disinterested inquiry and the transmission of a cultural and intellectual inheritance are self-evident public goods; and so on….”.

Is he right - and if so, how detrimental is this to our democracies ?

CC: I think Collini has hit the nail right on the head. The first victim of the instrumentalising of higher education is the advancement of truly original knowledge.

If the only questions that scientists (I am using that word in the European sense) can address are those to which firms and governments know they want answers, they will never be able to probe truly new exciting questions. This is not necessarily a problem for democracy; it just means that you get societies and eventually economies that are rather dull and do not advance. However, democracy does become threatened when the process Collini describes goes beyond just hindering radical innovation and extends to the hindrance of research and teaching that challenge the interests of the politically and economically powerful.

This is already starting to happen in pharmaceuticals, where research is heavily dependent on corporate funding. More subtly, if students are increasingly pressed to limit their search for knowledge to issues important to them for passing examinations and securing jobs, curiosity and a capacity for critical thinking can be gradually squeezed out of the population. That certainly threatens democracy.

There is clear evidence that the higher the level of a person’s general education, the more likely (s)he is to be open-minded and welcoming towards other cultures.

oD: If it is true, as Peter Kennedy says on openDemocracy, that: “We are now in an economic environment in which OECD growth is set to be relatively low in historical terms for the next five decades and up to half of all jobs are predicted to be automated by 2034” - what should we be educated for? 

CC: We probably have to get used to low growth; not necessarily a bad thing, unless it turns into negative growth. Automation may be a different matter. Until now, automation has released human labour to take on new and often more interesting and innovative tasks. That may well continue; we certainly have no basis for assuming that automation brings doom and gloom.

Back in the 1970s the Dutch economist Jan Tinbergen said that there was a race between technology and education. Technology tended to destroy jobs, but increasing education enabled people to tackle higher value-added tasks. OECD evidence suggests that this process is continuing, and that education is keeping pace with technology. That helps answer the question of what education is for in a society of advanced automation.

But education is also valuable for its own sake. To be able to understand chemical processes, to know how to read a poem, or to know how to apply mathematical techniques – to name just a few out of thousands of things that we can get from education – makes our lives richer and more enjoyable.


Jan Tinbergen, 1982. Wikicommons/Anefo/Croes, R.C. from Dutch National Archive. Some rights reserved.

oD: Do you think there should be one of these in every country?

Proposal for a Standing Commission on Learning for Democracy 

We propose a high-level Commission on Learning for Democracy, led by the Speaker of the House of Commons or another high-profile independent person, to address three questions: 

1. What knowledge and abilities do people need to take part in politics effectively? 

2. What is the current state of political knowledge and ability, and where do people get it? 

3. By what means can political ability and understanding be developed, particularly for those who currently have least confidence and ability to take part in politics 

CC: Yes! 

oD: You describe in your piece on popular development in contemporary politics recently published on openDemocracy, the emergence of a momentous new political cleavage identifiable in many societies in our globalising world: on the one hand “ the revival of exclusionary nationalism” and on the other, an equally deeply held “determined cosmopolitanism” by those who are open to multiculturalism and internationalism. How might a Standing Commission on Learning for Democracy, in the UK or anywhere else, get the best out of these two constituencies and help them to live side by side?

CC: Education can dispel falsity and encourage a search for reliable facts, if such are available.

When this is achieved, major disagreements will still exist, but they should be able to find more common ground of agreed evidence. Beyond that it is difficult to go, as we all have deeply rooted beliefs, held for reasons that go beyond the reach of argument and evidence, though education can make us examine them and ask ourselves why we hold them.

There is clear evidence that the higher the level of a person’s general education, the more likely (s)he is to be open-minded and welcoming towards other cultures. That is all that we ‘determined cosmopolitans’ ask people to do; so perhaps education does not so much enable exclusionary nationalists and cosmopolitans to live side by side as reduce the numbers of the former.

oD: What are hoping to contribute to the World Forum for Democracy 2016, and what do you hope might emerge from the three-day forum in Strasbourg?

CC: I should like to contribute two very different points. First, a warning that the problems of democracy are mainly structural – particularly growing inequality and the difficulty of bringing a globalised economy within the scope of democratic institutions. Education can do little if there are no structural responses to these issues.

Second, to insist that education does have a role in enlarging people’s capacity to make choices and to understand choice in a richer context than voting and making choices in the market.

What do I hope might emerge? A mature and practical assessment of the role that education can play, and some criticism of the hypocrisy of countries that belong to the Council but routinely ignore its principles. 

openDemocracy will be at this year's World Forum for Democracy, exploring the relationship between education and democracy with a citizens’ newsroom. Register here.

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