By Jennifer M. Morton
Education is crucial to a democratic society because it is how we ensure that future citizens will have the knowledge and skills our societies need. In countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and France, some educational institutions play a further role – they educate the elite. All of the current Supreme Court Justices in the US attended either Harvard University or Yale Law School. In the UK, 41 out of 54 of the country’s past prime ministers received their education at the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge. Seven recent French presidents and 12 prime ministers attended the Paris Institute of Political Studies, commonly called Sciences Po. These universities pride themselves not only in offering superb educational opportunities, but in educating those who will go on to hold influential positions.
One might reasonably ask, how is a system of educational institutions for the elite democratic? Ideally, a democratic society should make sure that the interests of all sectors of society are represented. Those in the elite have disproportionate power in making their voices heard, whether through lobbying, writing policy briefs, or deciding what news gets coverage in The Times or The Wall Street Journal, while voices from groups and classes with less power are chronically underrepresented. The idea of an elite would seem to be at odds with central democratic values.
Concerns about the undemocratic nature of elite institutions has led to intense public scrutiny of their admissions practices. Recently, a lawsuit claimed that Harvard unfairly discriminated against Asian-Americans. Oxford and Cambridge have faced criticism after a report showed that they admit a staggeringly low number of black students. Sciences Po’s efforts to increase socioeconomic diversity have also been controversial. Even though these institutions educate a minuscule proportion of university students, their admissions practices are a source of public concern because of the disproportionate amount of power they hold. One way of holding them accountable for living up to the democratic ideal is to insist that they admit students from a broad swath of society, including from those communities that are historically marginalised. The argument is that this will make the resulting elite more representative of the concerns of the country as a whole.