Populism, Education and Elites

by George Hatjoullis

In my blog Who are the Elite? I identified education, and specifically, qualifications, as the modern elite quality. The Financial Times has published an in-house study that identifies education as the single most important factor in differentiating populist voters. The interesting thing is that education emerges as a factor across different national elections. It is the one universal factor. Populism is popular with the uneducated. The issue of interest is why this should be the case.

It is not simply a matter of intelligence. Uneducated people are not necessarily unintelligent nor indeed are educated people necessarily more intelligent. Education systems around the world impose a standard developmental path on all children which normally ends in adulthood. They judge all children based on this path and only allow progression if the path is navigated successfully at each stage, and at a standardised speed. It takes exceptional perseverance to progress if one does not move at the standardised speed. This model still prevails even though there is now mounting evidence that individual variation from this standardised path is far greater than would justify such standardisation. The educated are those that are genetically and socially conditioned to  progress along this standardised path or sufficiently wealthy (willing to take on debt) and/or stubborn to persevere. A lot of talent is lost through this standardisation and a lot mediocrity makes it down the path.

Education should develop the ability to learn, to problem solve , and to grasp and appreciate ideas. One does not need to follow a path at any particular speed to achieve this nor should education cease in early adulthood. It should be a lifetime experience. Nor does education limit the types of ideas to which one might be attracted. The alt-right, fake news jockeys are not uneducated. It thus strikes me as odd that these analysis of variance studies should find education to be such an important variable. Of course, they do not. It is not education that they are picking up but qualifications.

As a former academic I find the idea that qualifications are an effective proxy for education quite amusing. I know many well qualified people who do not fit my definition of educated and quite a few unqualified people that have great wisdom. So let us be clear what these studies are identifying; less qualified people are more attracted to populists. Now this starts to make sense.

Qualifications are an important social marker in all societies. They confer greater economic and social security on the holders of qualifications. The result is that holders have a greater sense of security and self-confidence. They are less fearful of the unusual and new and are as likely to view these as an opportunity as a threat. Those that hold no qualifications are less secure and less self-confident. They are fearful of the new and different and more likely to view them as a threat. They are genuinely less secure because that is how our society works. This insecurity feeds ugly emotions and bad feelings. They are thus very susceptible to someone suggesting that the sense of insecurity is not their fault for failing to progress along the arbitrary education path. They are very keen to blame someone else, such as an immigrant. It will make them feel better about themselves ( see Populism and Liberalism: a psychodynamic perspective). It does not help that immigrants (largely I suspect through motivation) typically progress along the standardised education path much more successfully than indigenous groups.

The solution lies in education and specifically the standardised nature. It also lies in the failure to separate education and training. A well-educated person may not be specifically trained for anything. A well-trained person may be brilliant functionally and yet poorly educated. Training needs to meet the needs of the economy whilst education needs to meet the needs of society. The two overlap but keeping them as distinct conceptual categories serves a purpose. Everybody should be educated and everybody should be trained to do something. Education should be a lifetime process perhaps with continuous development qualifications. Training and retraining should go hand in hand and the better educated the population the easier it is to retrain. Education assists intellectual plasticity. It also assists in emotional stability.