Postsecondary education can have a crucial role in suppressing authoritarian tendencies, particularly in the United States, according to a report published by a nonprofit research and policy institute at Georgetown University.
The report, published by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce warned that the current global crisis, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, mirrors similar historical contexts that gave rise to authoritarian regimes. In particular, the report noted growing political polarization in the United States has already intensified authoritarian attitudes and practices, including the use of mine-resistant vehicles and armored cars by police departments.“Across the country, military and police vehicles patrolled the streets, sometimes using force against peaceful protesters calling for long-denied racial justice,” the report read. “With the presidential primaries complicated by the presence of COVID-19, concerns about potential voter suppression circulated. Shuttered educational institutions and businesses heightened the sense of uncertainty. Propaganda and traditional media competed fiercely to win credibility with a skeptical public.”
The report, titled “The Role of Education in Taming Authoritarian Attitudes,” was published Sept. 22 and combined data from the World Values Survey, General Social Survey and American National Election Studies to analyze 51 countries. The report used the World Values Survey to rank them according to their authoritarian tendencies.
The McCourt School of Public Policy professors at CEW Anthony P. Carnevale, Nicole Smith, Artem Gulish and Kathryn Peltier Campbell, as well as Lenka Dražanová of the European University Institute’s Migration Policy Centre, authored the report. CEW, a research policy center formed by Carnevale in 2008, studies the interaction between education and the workforce. Smith, chief economist at the CEW, said the use of authoritarianism in everyday language misses the full scope of what really constitutes an authoritarian state of affairs.
“Most people go back to Nazi Germany, thinking of Adolf Hitler as an authoritarian and think that’s what an authoritarian is,” Smith said in an interview with The Hoya. “But the understanding of what authoritarianism really is is much more deep than just the political understanding.”
The researchers operated under a definition of authoritarianism used by political scientist Karen Stenner, an influential definition in contemporary authoritarian research. Stenner considers authoritarianism to be a worldview wherein people prefer “authority and uniformity” before “autonomy and diversity,” according to the report.
People who seek order in response to perceived threats to their way of life tend to favor authoritarianism, even in a democratic society like the United States, according to Smith.
“Authoritarianism is not the antithesis of a democratic understanding,” Smith said. “In fact, you can have an authoritarian outcome from a democratic regime.”
Out of 51 countries studied, the report found that the U.S. population is the 16th-least authoritarian, indicating “moderate” authoritarian inclinations, roughly on par with Chile and Uruguay. The highest authoritarian tendencies were exhibited in India, Kyrgyzstan and South Africa, while the lowest levels were found in Germany, New Zealand and Sweden.
Against a volatile global context, the report identified education as a potential inhibitor for growing authoritarianism. It found that people with a bachelor’s degree or higher are seven times less likely to exhibit authoritarian preferences than people with a high school diploma.
Education weakens authoritarian tendencies in part because it offers income and class benefits, which can decrease perceptions of threat, according to Smith.