It’s often said that a person’s tolerance rises with their education level. So on this basis, the higher a person’s educational attainment is, the more likely they are to accept racial or ethnic minorities.
Studies often show that young people are also more welcoming in their attitudes to outsiders. This is thought to be largely because they have higher levels of education than older age groups.
So, you would expect that society as a whole becomes ever more tolerant and enlightened as new, better educated generations steadily replace older, less educated ones.
But recent political events suggest that this line of reasoning is too simple. Because how is it possible that anti-immigrant sentiments – as expressed in the Brexit vote and the election of Trump – are so virulent when the education levels of Britons and Americans are at their highest ever?
In our own research, which is currently under review, we find that while younger people may have become increasingly tolerant of sexual fluidity and racial and cultural diversity, they are growing less positive about immigrants.
Education is said to make people more tolerant by enhancing their knowledge and reasoning skills. This helps people to see through prejudiced claims and dismiss irrational fears about those who are culturally different.
Schools and universities also enhance tolerance by emphasising it as a virtue. The longer individuals stay in the education system, the more they are exposed to tolerance as a “core value” – and the more likely they are to internalise it.
On this basis, some scholars have argued that education brings many extra benefits for society and that we can never have enough of it. This is supported by previous research which has shown that people have become ever more accepting of racial minorities and LGBT people – with young people generally showing the highest levels of tolerance.
And yet, intolerant notions across all age groups still persist. In the 1990s and 2000s, there was a steady growth in the number of people in Britain who believe that it is right for employers to discriminate against immigrants when recruiting new staff.
And this trend has continued into more recent times – with figures showing a huge decline in the number of people who believe legal immigrants in Britain should have the same rights as British citizens.
The figures also show that in 2013 only a small minority of people still believed that legal immigrants should be treated equally.
So it seems that the more educated British society has become, the lower the levels of acceptance towards immigrants. Strange as this may seem, the reason for this may also be in part down to an increased level of education across society.
This is because education does not only enhance knowledge and foster tolerance as a virtue but also gives people a competitive edge, and access to higher social positions. This makes people with the highest education levels feel more secure and less exposed to competition from other people “coming to take their jobs”.
But what the highly educated gain, the people with middling and low levels of education lose. The value of their qualifications is diminished when all others in society become more educated and “out-compete” them in the struggle for desirable jobs.
And this loss of status produces feelings of economic insecurity which may translate into more defensive and intolerant attitudes towards “out-groups”.
Not a cure-all
So while higher levels of education may be good for some individuals in terms of making them more tolerant, there may not be any benefits for society at large because of the “trade-off” the process of educational expansion creates.
It is this effect – sometimes referred to as the positional effect of education – that may explain why a positive relationship between education and tolerance does not always occur in society as a whole.
Another possibility is that other social forces have a stronger effect on attitudes towards immigrants than education. Along with the new wave of negativity towards migrants, the remarkable return of nationalism is something, for instance, that cannot be ignored. Mainstream parties have now adopted some of the nationalist rhetoric and proposed policies of populist anti-immigrant parties.
This has led to more restrictive immigration regimes in a number of Western countries and a discourse more generally of protecting and privileging the ethnic majority.
In such an environment, the taboo of expressing negative sentiments towards those who are culturally different – especially immigrants – has undoubtedly weakened. And this serves as a stark reminder that educational expansion is not the panacea to all of society’s problems.