Of course, as with any study, there are some complications. First, the effect of education on complaining doesn’t hold up well in countries with a highly educated populace. This is likely because “the knowledge of how to address government misconduct is more widespread and there is less fear of reprisal” in these societies: Those with less education might benefit and learn from their complaining neighbors. Second, technology can matter: “Having a cell phone sharply raises the probability of reporting police abuse and burglary, although not of complaining about government generally” (computers don’t). Ultimately, though, the authors find that education is not likely a proxy for something else: Complaining does not substantially depend on income, trust, or social status.
There are unique effects, the authors find, about how education changes an individual’s relationship with the state: “Educated people might merely know better how to complain effectively,” they suggest. “They are more literate, more articulate, and more knowledgeable about where to go and how to complain.” Moreover, those with high levels of education tend to have less fear of the police, perhaps because “they know the law and the rules and hence can stand up to officials.” Though the authors are careful to note that their evidence can’t necessarily prove causation, the logic does make sense. More limited studies, on a local level, have found the same effects of education, from ethics complaints in Florida counties to complaints in provincial capitals in China.
Assuming the links between education, complaints, and accountability have at least some strength, there’s a lot at stake. For developing countries, and for international funders of those countries, prioritizing education might make sense in order to combat issues of corruption or government misconduct. These countries might simultaneously reap the benefits individuals receive from education (work readiness, etc), in addition to adding citizen oversight to government institutions, all through one investment. For developed countries, this finding might go some way to explaining structural inequalities, particularly around cities. What if complaints partially explain why Chicago’s educated and wealthier white suburbs, for example, have better infrastructure than its predominantly black, less-educated, and low-income South Side? Is education and complaints why gentrifying areas physically improve? It’s at least something to investigate.
For all countries, the possibility of actually teaching complaints should come to the fore. The effect of education on complaining is, at best, a side effect of curriculum itself. Societies that seek better government might do well to invest in civics classes that teach youth how to advocate for themselves and their community. In the US, civics requirements and courses are often wanting, and most often suggest that voting—not an American best—is the sum of participation. The impact of teaching civic participation—including but not limited to filing complaints—could help ensure that government services focus where they need to, or at the least create a record of ignored requests that would be useful later for public pressure. It’s almost surprising, in fact, that this sort of non-partisan civic education hasn’t become part of public education systems: Wouldn’t everyone agree that government should be held accountable to the people? Teaching middle school students that they can file a service request for a pothole (for example), or having high school classrooms submit FOIA requests (particularly given forthcoming simplifications) shouldn’t sound so far-fetched. It’s no more complicated, and perhaps more important, than many topics already in public curricula.
When countries invest in education, their government improves. If complaints help drive accountability, then teaching complaining—like has never been done before—could lead to enormous collective benefits. If “dissent is the highest form of patriotism,” as is often said, complaint might be the height of public service.