This past weekend, the world was startled by images, caught in real time, of a Hong Kong in crisis. Police, protected by armor and gas masks, pushed forward into the throngs of students and pro-democracy supporters, through a choking fog of tear gas. Protesters, in large part students and other young people, stood firm with hands raised — clutching cellphones, umbrellas (to protect from smoke and debris overhead) and cameras.
Students have played key roles in the various movements over the past century to check the power of abusive or unresponsive governments. Numerous scholars have detailed the decisive actions taken by students in different parts of the world. Over the past few years, we have seen students take the lead in protests against authoritarian regimes, be it in Tunisia, Egypt or, indeed, China.
Educational philosophers like John Dewey and Jurgen Habermas linked the provision of education across wide swaths of the population to the development of the values necessary to support democratic society. Dewey believed that students learned from their experiences; they could properly assess preferences based on their interests and develop, through repeated interactions, tolerance for the preferences of others. Habermas argued that the university had as much a responsibility to inculcate the cultural values of society as it did to provide students with the tools necessary for their careers. In addition, college students gained a “political consciousness,” aware of the outside world and their effect upon it.
If students, imbued with this political consciousness, played important roles in social movements that challenged institutions and authorities, what effect might this mean for the authoritarian regimes that go to great lengths to provide education to their citizens? In our piece from the October issue of the British Journal of Political Science, we find that the increased enrollment of students at the primary and university levels produces a greater chance that an authoritarian regime will transition to democracy. Put another way — the more students that are educated under an authoritarian regime, the more likely it is that the regime will transition to democracy.
If it is the case that educated citizens living in these authoritarian systems agitate for regime change, one may ask: Why would a dictator ever provide more education to his citizens when this investment could lead to his eventual overthrow? Tunisia proves an effective illustration of this conundrum. Habib Borguiba, who took control of Tunisia after its independence from France in 1957, embarked on a program of liberal economic reforms to spur investment and instill a common, secular, Tunisian identity. These efforts led to a dramatic rise in the literacy rate and educational attainment, and a World Bank report from 2001 notes the widespread distribution of education to more people across the country.
As much as these reforms were successes of political will, they were also the seeds sewn for future unrest. Education to produce critical and productive workers is successful inasmuch as there are jobs for them upon graduation. Fairer provision of schooling to both men and women, as well as expansive connections to foreign cultures through the forces of globalization, instills post-modern values but also arms even more of the population with the tools and evidence to articulate high expectations for government.
It was, in part, this confluence of factors that undermined the authoritarian regime of Borguiba’s successor, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, in 2011. Indeed, in our study, we find the authoritarian regimes that make efforts to provide education, equally, to men and women and permit those connections to the outside world see their chances of transitioning to democracy rapidly increase. We also find that economic conditions, to no one’s surprise, have an effect on these chances, too; authoritarian countries are largely immune to the democratizing pressures of education — so long as the economy is healthy. When the economy takes a downturn, a sign that opportunities for graduates have fallen, the number of enrolled students is a strong predictor of the fall of the authoritarian regime and a movement to democracy.
Much is left unsaid by our analysis. What kinds of pedagogies do these regimes endorse? What strategies do educational administrators and government officials take to encourage, or limit, the democratizing effects of schools? In addition, we cannot yet paint an optimistic picture of democratic consolidation. We only offer an explanation for the emergence of democratic movements in authoritarian systems where leaders have provided education to wide swaths of the populace.
In the meantime, we need only look to present-day Tunisia and its Arab Spring contemporaries for evidence of the unpredictability of social movements; the provision of schooling to a large percentage of the population is no guarantee that democracy will take hold in a given country. Education can, however, provide the values, preferences, knowledge, and solutions to collective action that are essential to grassroots demands for a more open, transparent system.