This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.
How do societies become enlightened? If they are under authoritarian rule, a small elite can impose values of the broader population. Sometimes authoritarians—or leaders with personal charisma and political power—promote enlightenment values: Peter the Great and Kemal Ataturk, for instance, used political power to push liberal values into their societies. Indian nationalists like Gokhale, Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar did the same, although they took a more democratic approach and constitutional methods to do so. The Constitution of India was an elite enterprise and was (is?) far ahead of its time in terms of the values it sought to enshrine in the genetic code of the new republic. Whether in Russia, Turkey or India, what we can see is that while it is relatively easy for the state to inject enlightenment values into society, it is by no means a given that society will completely adopt the package.
The challenge of promoting enlightenment values becomes much harder in a democratic societies that are under the grip of tradition, orthodoxy, orthopraxy, ignorance or lack of education. Here the principal channel for promoting enlightenment is education (again, in the sense of open-mindedness and critical reasoning). Yet it is not uncommon for the education system to be controlled by the very sections of society that oppose enlightenment values. Democracy empowers everyone alike—the liberal and the bigot, the enlightened and the ignorant, the reasoner and the dogmatist. Ignorant majorities can democratically decide to expunge Reason. In the absence of an educated population, democracy ends up as the tyranny of the ignorant. [See this post on dogma, reason and democracy]
For democratic societies to become enlightened the pace of education (E) must be higher than the rate of population growth (P). If E > P long enough for a majority of the population to be educated, then enlightenment is likely to prevail in a democratic society. If E < P, then that society is likely to ultimately reject enlightenment. It becomes impossible to endogenously and democratically reform the education system (in the broadest sense of the term) once it crosses a point of no return. The existence of countries like this in the contemporary world should serve as a signal warning against complacence on the E/P ratio.
One important argument that contests reaching the conclusion we have arrived at concerns the role of institutions. Institutions where they exist, the argument goes, will defend enlightenment values. Well, yes, but institutions are comprised of mortal individuals. The individuals that constitute institutions are prisoners of the same narratives as the rest of society. The ‘doctrine of necessity’ will cause them to side with the popular. No institution can escape the hard social arithmetic of the E/P ration. The strongest constitutional institution, the most influential liberal social institutions are subject to education prevailing over ignorance. Tamasoma jyotirgamaya.
Tailpiece: The term “education” is used here not in the narrow technical sense of literacy rates, graduation rates and so on. It is possible to acquire post-graduate degrees while remaining uneducated. Similarly, it is possible to be well-educated without ever having to go to school. Education is the ability to acquire and use knowledge and most importantly, employ reason in decision-making.
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