Schooling and citizenship: evidence from compulsory schooling reforms

Publication type

ISER Working Paper Series

Series Number



ISER Working Paper Series


Publication date

January 25, 2007


Philosophers, economists and political scientists have long argued that education plays a major role in the transition from authoritarian rule to democracy and in the sustainability of democratic systems. Lipset (1976) emphasized that better-educated individuals facilitate the functioning of democracy because they are more likely to believe in fundamental democratic principles and to actively support democratic practices. Similarly, many authors stress that individuals with higher education are 'better' citizens: they are more likely to vote for democratic parties, to believe in democratic values, to participate and be interested in politics, and to critically observe the work of the government and politicians. It is also commonly acknowledged that individual political behaviour is a crucial factor in democratic societies, shaping political life, defining the function of government, and keeping democracy alive.

To date, however, we know surprisingly little about whether more education really impacts on individuals' democratic attitudes and political behaviour. There are good reasons to suspect that more schooling might promote democratic citizenship. First, the more education individuals have, the more insight and awareness they gain about basic democratic values, the political system, and the meaning of civil liberties (Nie et al., 1996). Second, having more schooling is likely to increase people's cognitive and analytical abilities, social skills, and cultural sophistication. This, in turn, might result in higher levels of tolerance toward other people's political and religious beliefs. For example, Nunn et al. (1978) found that with more years of schooling, students also showed increased tolerance of freedom of speech. Moreover, better cognitive skills might increase individual powers of discernment in choosing more capable politicians, and thus result in an electorate better able to judge the government critically (Milligan et al., 2004). Third, having more education increases the chances that people will learn from history. Individuals with more schooling have been found to be better informed about Communist and Nazi beliefs (Nunn et al., 1978). Finally, democratic citizenship is a compulsory subject in many school systems around the world (Holmes, 1979).

However, there are also plausible reasons as to why more schooling could actually reduce democratic citizenship. Standard economic theory suggests that individuals with more education are likely to have higher opportunity costs of time and could therefore reduce time devoted to civic activities. This might be particularly true for time intensive political activities such as participation at demonstrations or being active in a citizen group. Moreover, with respect to voting participation, Dee (2004: 1700) mentions that 'education could also reduce voter participation by promoting an awareness of voting as an essentially expressive act with an infinitesimally small probability of influencing actual policy'.'

Investigating whether society as a whole might benefit from increasing the number of years of compulsory schooling is important from a policy perspective. One of the justifications for public financial support to the educational system is that schooling provides important social benefits by promoting tolerance, democratic values, and political involvement. If true, this suggests that there exist important social returns over and above the private returns to education usually studied by economists.

This paper examines whether schooling has a positive impact on individual's political interest, voting turnout, democratic values, political involvement and political group membership, using the German General Social Survey (ALLBUS). Years of schooling are found to be positively correlated with a broad range of political outcome measures. Some of the effects are large and statistically significant. However, this study finds little evidence that more schooling really affected citizenship for Germans born between 1930 and 1960. It is likely that the positive association between schooling and democratic outcomes is driven by other factors, for example, parents' schooling and political interest.



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