Educational equality, a survival issue for democracy


The long movement of school massification under way in our country since the 1960s was supposed to increase attachment to democratic values.

To the extent that school education is imbued with the values ​​of equality and tolerance, and conveys the belief in the virtues of science and reason, the fact that a majority of young people today benefit from long schooling – the proportion of high school graduates reached 80% of a generation in 2019 – could a priori only strengthen confidence in democracy.

However, it is clear that, in France and in other comparable countries, this optimistic promise has not been fully kept. If the achievements of science are more widely disseminated, do young people still retain the necessary distance from the fake news which circulates ever faster? Moreover, the generalization of diplomas also has perverse effects. We take a look back at some of these observations that we develop in our latest book , Can school save democracy? (Threshold, 2020).

Beliefs and critical thinking

While a good level of education is supposed to strengthen in young people the spirit of examination and the capacity to resist fake news, to conspiracy, they seem particularly sensitive to certain aberrant theories compared to scientific truths:

  • 31% would tend to agree or strongly agree with the statement that God created man and the earth less than 10,000 years ago (compared to 18% in the general population), or with the statement that “the Earth may be flat” (18% versus 9%);
  • 30% of young people between the ages of 18 and 24 believe that the 2015 attacks on Hyper Kosher and Charlie Hebdo were the result of a conspiracy, compared to 19% of the general population.

Formal education seems relatively powerless, because the level of study introduces few modulations in these declared beliefs.

Among the possible explanations (which obviously do not relate only to the school), it is necessary to invoke the decline of its cultural authority, even though it is massifying. While the school of the Republic benefited from a sort of cultural monopoly, young people now have a new space for socialization, over which the school has no control. It is the world of screens and digital networks that everyone has access to: 83% of 12-17 year olds and 98% of 18-24 year olds own a smartphone.

Since 87% of young people aged 12 to 17 go online every day, in cumulative time over a year, students are much longer in front of their screens than in front of their teachers. The question is not whether screens and networks are a good or a bad thing, one thing is certain: now, we form an opinion and we discover the world outside of school.

Values ​​and effects of diploma

However, schools have not lost all capacity to influence the values ​​of young people, but this is more or less true depending on educational inequalities, which we know are particularly high in our country. In fact, belief in the liberal and social values ​​of democracies remains high only among the winners of the school competition.

The level of education reinforces cultural liberalism: inequalities linked to ethnic origin are deemed unacceptable by 75% of holders of a second university cycle, but by only 54% of holders of the only Brevet des colleges or non-graduates . Likewise, the acceptance of homosexuality increases with the level of education. The same goes for altruism and the desire to engage in social causes, all the more assertive when you graduate.

The counterpart of the effect of the diploma on liberal values ​​is that the less educated more often than others adhere to undemocratic values; they are more favorable to authoritarian governments, to strong men, and more hostile to immigrants.

On the other hand, the less educated defend equality more than the graduates, and are more critical of social inequalities: three-quarters of people with at most a Brevet level believe that the differences in income, in France, are too large, while 58% of second-cycle university graduates support this view. They are also more critical of academic injustices.

Another way to assess the effects of education on representations of social life is to try to find out if the massification of education increases the confidence we have in others and in institutions, a point of all the more sensitive as France is not particularly a society of trust …

In fact, as with regard to values, the level of education positively affects the level of confidence of individuals: the most educated, the winners of the school selection, are more confident than the less educated, whether in others. , in institutions or in the political system.

People with little education have less confidence in their ability to participate in political life, and more broadly, to choose their life independently. It follows the feeling of being powerless, ignored and despised by those who know: the experts, the “intellectuals”, those who call themselves “intelligent”.

Democratization and disillusionment

The generalization of diplomas is helping to strengthen their hold: it is no longer possible today to claim a comfortable professional integration without an educational qualification. And more generally, in a society where the diploma is omnipresent, the fact of not having a diploma becomes particularly penalizing.

The integration of the less qualified is more chaotic, marked by periods of inactivity or unemployment, and a series of fixed-term jobs. Three years after leaving school, only 46% of non-graduates hold a permanent job, against 91% of young people leaving business or engineering schools.

School democratization therefore has a perverse effect, neither intended nor anticipated: it accentuates the stigmatization of non-graduates which, in return, contributes to the widening of the inequalities in the professional integration path between the most qualified and those who have less or less. are not. Furthermore, the observation of the existence of very positive returns to education at the highest levels goes hand in hand with cascading devaluation effects at the lower levels.

In addition, school democratization raises the aspirations of young people without always raising their employment opportunities, thus generating a feeling of frustration and downgrading. Even more, in the name of equal opportunities, failure at school is experienced as a humiliation and you can only save your dignity by rejecting the values ​​of the school since it is supposed to have opened up all possibilities to you.

Thus, the most educated people believe more often than the others that the capacities and the efforts are rewarded, that the school is fair, and more generally that the society is fair.

This is reflected in political choices, as illustrated by the transformation of the electorate. In France, as in the United States and in other comparable countries, the social-liberal, democratic and green electorates are today made up of graduates while the absenteeist, far-right or populist electorates are made up of the vanquished of the school competition who feel despised by the elites, the “experts”, the “intelligent”, the “mobile” … In thirty years, the composition of the electorate has shifted around diplomas since it is now the diploma that fixes the social position .

Today, educational equality is not only a moral issue of justice. It is also a social and political issue, and a question of survival for democratic societies, given the divisions and inequalities that educational issues can generate within an age group.

Author Bios: Marie Duru-Bellat is University Professor Emeritus in Sociology, Sociological Observatory of Change at Sciences Po and Francois Dubet is University Professor Emeritus at the University of Bordeaux