Liberal Education and American Democracy



Writing for The American Interest, JMC Fellow and Claremont McKenna College Professor of Government George Thomas asks how American colleges and universities could better contribute to maintaining American democracy in the 21st Century.

Leadership is all the rage at elite colleges and universities. Students are not only admitted because of their “leadership potential,” but are congratulated on being “leaders in the making” before they show up to their first class. Admission is proof enough, it seems, that this potential will become actual. Yet such “leadership” is often about resume building and piling up dizzying credentials that have little if anything to do with genuine leadership, particularly of a civic variety. Worse, as William Deresiewicz argues in Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite, what passes for leadership at elite colleges may reflect their self-congratulatory impulses, encouraging a mindset at odds with the traits of genuine leadership. Yes, there are examples of true leadership at these institutions, and certainly students who will go on to be leaders. There is also genuine civic commitment. Yet when it comes to civics, students are increasingly likely to be putting their minds to problems in Uganda and Mongolia rather than to problems confronting America.

It was not always so. In his elegant little book College, Andrew Delbanco notes that the modern elite college and university have only an indirect sense of their public obligations, particularly compared to their past incarnations. Increasingly, the careerist and commercial ends of education threaten to eclipse the broader mission of higher education and obscure its link to democracy.Increasingly, the careerist and commercial ends of education threaten to eclipse the broader mission of higher education and obscure its link to democracy. The embrace of careerism has been most evident at leading public universities, but it’s also a potent force at elite colleges long know for their commitment to liberal arts education. The Board of Overseers at the University of Virginia recently tried to force the president out for not speaking enough to the practical aims of university education, most notably with regard to online education and its newest fad, MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses). The Rector of the board, a political appointee, thought it was high time to rethink the mission of Mr. Jefferson’s University in the 21st century. The Board of Governors at the University of North Carolina (which claims to be the oldest public university in America), urged on by a state governor who has been dismissive of liberal arts education, is looking to eliminate departments and areas of learning to suit market “demand.” According to several members of the board, education is about jobs. Politicians, too, speak as if getting a job was the sole aim of college education. Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin recently tried to remove language about citizenship and the pursuit of knowledge from the University of Wisconsin’s mission statement and replace it with “meeting the state’s workforce needs.” (Walker has since said this was a misunderstanding.) Senator Marco Rubio dismissed the study of Greek philosophy given its apparent job prospects. We frequently hear this sort of criticism of the liberal arts. Never mind that this dismissal of liberal arts is misguided even in careerist and market terms. My guess is these folks, dismissive of liberal education as they are, are unfamiliar with Montesquieu’s famous line on the crucial link between education and republican government.

The creators of America’s republican government were acutely aware of the link. So much so that they argued for the establishment of a national university to nurture and sustain the republic they created. The idea of a national university was widespread during the founding era. To list the advocates of a national university is to name the seminal political and educational figures of the day: George Washington, Benjamin Rush, Noah Webster, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and both John and John Quincy Adams. They justified the idea of a national university in civic terms: it would cultivate the habits and mindset in citizens and public officers—Madison referred to “national feelings,” “liberal sentiments,” and “congenial manners”— necessary to America’s republican experiment. As George Washington asked in proposing a national university: “a primary object of such a National Institution should be, the education of our Youth in the science of Government. In a Republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important? And what duty, more pressing on its Legislature, than to patronize a plan for communicating it to those, who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the Country?”

Yet this was not a public policy program, a Kennedy or Wilson School for the founding generation. On the contrary, knowledge itself, particularly detached from theological orthodoxy, was believed to be essential to the republic. University education of a wide-ranging sort was necessary to sustain a broader way of life that included things we do not usually associate with government: science, commerce, literature, and the arts, for example. In his first formal call to establish a national university, Washington insisted that nothing deserved Congress’s patronage more than “the promotion of science and literature,” as knowledge itself contributed to a “free constitution.” Congress agreed, with both the Senate and House passing resolutions of support that echoed Washington’s thought: “literature and science are essential to the preservation of a free constitution.” In the founders’ eyes, successful political institutions depended on culture and ideas, which depended on education.

Contrary to what we are so often taught, the leading minds from the founding generation, who also happened to be the advocates of a national university, did not think the Constitution was a “machine that would go of itself.” Acute students of history, they were deeply aware that political institutions degenerate and decay. (We might do well to recall that James Russell Lowell’s memorable phrase comes from an address preoccupied by political decay that warns againstthis sentiment.) The national university would supplement America’s political institutions by fostering a healthy civil society. The national university would supplement America’s political institutions by fostering a healthy civil society. As Jefferson put it, education will “form the statesmen, legislators and judges, on whom public prosperity and individual happiness are so much to depend.” Education of the sort offered at the national university would shape the public mind and forge a spirited leadership class to carry the American experiment forward.

A recent report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences commissioned by Congress, the Heart of the Matter, similarly insists that education is “the keeper of the republic.” But how do American colleges and universities contribute to maintaining American democracy in the early years of the 21st century? At its best, liberal arts education is defended as training for democratic citizenship. The virtues of liberal education mirror the characteristics required of democratic citizens: the ability to grasp and evaluate arguments and evidence and to articulate and defend ideas in a reasoned manner. And so it may be. Yet is teaching reasoning and critical thinking enough? Does it foster civic understandings and commitments? Do we need more specific knowledge of American liberal democracy: its institutions, history, and culture? An understanding of the past may be crucial to the present and future of American democracy.

America’s history is bound up with its civic identity. As The Heart of the Matterobserves, American democracy depends on a “shared knowledge of history, civics, and social studies,” and “the humanities remind us where we have been and help us envision where we are going.” This thinking runs back to the idea for a national university. Even prior to the establishment of the Constitution, Noah Webster was berating his fellow citizens for not knowing their history: insofar as we don’t know our history, we lack knowledge of ourselves. This thinking was also behind the creation of the Core Curriculum in the 20th century at places such as Harvard and Columbia. In the middle years of the 20th century, the famous Harvard report, General Education in a Free Society, insisted, “It is impossible to escape the realization that our society, like any society, rests on common beliefs and that a major task of education is to perpetuate them.” The curriculum, accordingly, aimed to nourish the “general art of the free man and the citizen” by teaching the habits of mind and character that were necessary to civic life. The Core, still taught at Columbia, grew out of a desire to foster a shared history and civic consciousness against the division of world war. Such courses, as Louis Menand reminds us, often began as thinly veiled propaganda. But they also forced educators to think more fully about the place of American democracy within the curriculum (and within history more generally). Courses in history, philosophy, literature, and politics would provide a common basis of knowledge. One could have many complaints about the parochial nature of these institutions in their earlier years, and about the Core in particular, but they did impart a sense of public duty.

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