In light of the political upsets in 2016, Aileen McGrath examines the role education has to play in democratic outcomes.

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DEMOCRACY has played an unrivalled role in shaping modern day society. An idea that was relatively delayed in appearing in many countries, its existence in our society is rarely brought into question. Yet, the question of how education impacts on democracy is of great importance.

The education gap has never been so prevalent in terms of democracy; present in the likes of the recent Brexit and US election upsets. In order to combat this resounding issue, there is a blatant necessity for thorough education at third-level to ensure the democratic rights of impressionable youths are protected.

According to the Washington Post, about eight hours after the Brexit polls closed, Google reported that searches for “what happens if we leave the EU?” had more than tripled. This is the perfect example of a lack of education on one of the most widely discussed and controversial issues to date.

It appears that voters became lost in a frenzy of hype and hearsay that demanded their attention, hindered proper research and prevented the casting of fully educated votes. Consequently this lack of information, which so deeply infringed on the process of democracy, left an entire nation reeling from the failure of their education system.

The recent US Presidential election has been the hottest and most controversial topic of debate for the past year. Yet it has proven itself to be an area of politics in which education, or a lack thereof, played a grossly devastating role.

According to a study done by the New York Times on the exit polls, 49% of college graduates along with a greater 58% of postgraduate students gave their support to Clinton. What is most interesting here is the real life example of how education can actually divide politics.

 “Voters became lost in a frenzy of hype and hearsay that demanded their attention, hindered proper research and prevented the casting of fully educated votes.”

One would assume the influence of a third-level education would have a positive effect on the democratic process. However it is arguable, that in this case, the increase in support for Trump amongst the less well educated could be viewed as a stance against the assumed snobbery present in the entitled world of politics.

Trumps’ lack of previous political experience or even education on certain topics seemed to work majorly in his favour, resonating with those usually deemed unqualified or undereducated in similar affairs.

Third-level Institutions are establishments, which hold the idea of democracy close to their hearts. It could be said that there exists a certain expectation on transitioning second level students to break free from the shelter and security of their previous educational lives and take the necessary leap into adulthood. With this comes a certain pressure to become more engaged with social realities of the world, and to form an educated opinion on issues that before, may have been foreign to us.

Arguably, this depiction of universities allows for the unoriginal and homogenised creation of democratic thought. The core ideal of democracy is to have your voice heard. Ultimately, the majority rules but this does not mean the minority should be condemned for their beliefs.

“There appears to be a certain sense of righteousness among the majority at third level resulting in an atmosphere of fear.”

However, this is a very real issue in many third level institutions with the contradictory view that your opinion is the be all and end all. There appears to be a certain sense of self-righteousness among the majority at third level resulting in an atmosphere of fear.

The pressure to comply with the popular opinion is only growing by the day. Many ill-informed students who have not been awarded the proper education or knowledge on a certain topical issue can be coerced into forming a generic opinion based on whichever side is easier to take. And so, we begin to see this form of suppression at play while hiding beneath the mask of democracy.

UCDSU recently held a referendum on whether it should take a neutral stance in the ongoing abortion debate. The point of this was to protect the democratic rights of the pro-life minority, whose views are widely condemned. One has to wonder how many participating students actually did their research on the topic before voting and how many just voted in favour of the majority for fear of being marginalised.

Despite the secret ballot being the most sacred form of democracy, the question must be asked; are the likes of intimidation and a certain “herd mentality” common to universities encroaching on this right?

Furthermore, it must be questioned what effect third-level education has on democratic outcomes? Positively or negatively, it is indisputable that it does, whether through means of discussion, influence or teaching. It has become increasingly undeniable that the gap between education and democracy is widening and must be filled before the self-destructive demise of a concept long suffered for.