To Restore Democracy, Our Universities and Colleges Should Teach It

Over the last two generations, American higher education has become unmoored from a once-shared mission: serving, and teaching, democracy.

Now, we’re paying a heavy price. Colleges and universities are increasingly blamed for our widening divisions – by the left for economic elitism (we’re too expensive) and by the right for cultural elitism (we’re politically correct).

We’ve lost public trust and face unprecedented attack in Washington. More broadly, American democracy itself is sputtering.

We in higher education deserve a real portion of the blame for all of this, I’m sorry to say. But our failure lies neither in who enrolls in college nor the culture they encounter there.

Rather it is found in what happens in our classrooms – in what we teach.

From the Revolutionary era forward, American colleges and universities recognized the essential connection between higher education and democracy. We embraced our obligation to prepare citizens with the habits and skills for democratic life.

Over two centuries, a remarkable and usefully diverse tapestry of institutions emerged, with a range of missions. But service to democracy persisted as a shared secular creed.

The North Star was the “liberal arts” in the term’s classical meaning – based on the Latin root for liberty, and constituting the course of study for citizens to participate in public affairs in a free society.

GettyImages-1537369 Jian Feng Zhen (left) and Dayi Deng walk to class on the campus of Princeton University April 23, 2002 in Princeton, NJ. William Thomas Cain/Getty

After World War II, American universities emerged as the world’s most accomplished, excelling at research and successfully pursuing global influence. But higher education drifted into agnosticism about democracy itself.

The importance of our form of government began to be treated in the same manner religious tenets are at most institutions – either studiously avoided or contemplated at a scholarly distance.

On campus, this disengagement from democracy was particularly evident in general education – the courses student must take regardless of major. Until the 1960s, higher education’s broad commitment to civic preparation endured.

But around that time the focus shifted to elucidating what else higher education might achieve. General education moved almost entirely in the direction of self-actualization – helping students explore new subjects and reach their potential.

The impulse was laudable, but the pendulum swung too far. “Gen ed” degenerated into a smorgasbord of disconnected requirements. Students were made to navigate a tasting menu of disciplines – the social sciences, the arts, a foreign language, something “international” – connected only in the manner in which they made the cut: academic departments successfully protecting their curricular turf.

For students, general education became simply a series of boxes to grudgingly check en route to graduation.

All the while, K-12 education was abandoning civics education. Today, students arrive in college with little understanding of democracy, and too often find little in the curriculum to reinforce a commitment to it or even require its study.  

They may acquire skills useful in democratic life – critical thinking, information literacy, teamwork. But teaching about the fundamental workings of government and the broader skills citizens need to participate in democracy has given way to a narrower focus on personal growth on the one hand, and job-market preparation on the other.

The bad news is how much we have already lost; it is staggering that just 55 percent of Americans feel colleges and universities have a positive impact on the country, according to a recent Pew poll.

But the good news is, the problem is fixable. One reason I am optimistic is college students themselves. Contrary to what you might glean from cable TV news, the vast majority are open to new ideas, eager to hear them and respectful when they are delivered.

Beyond the classroom, the magic of college life as a training ground for democracy endures. In dorm rooms, dining halls, sports teams and other extracurricular groups, students encounter new ideas, and live cheek-by-jowl with people of different backgrounds and beliefs.

In an era of public debate poisoned by bullies hiding behind the Internet’s veil of anonymity, they learn to engage and criticize ideas expressed by people they can’t avoid meeting face-to-face around campus. It happens every day on college campuses, even if less and less elsewhere in our siloed polity.

The challenge now is to restore active training for American democracy to our academic mission. At the institution I lead, that is taking the form of a rigorous new core curriculum explicitly rooted in developing the skills and habits of democratic participation  – cross-disciplinary critical thinking about civic problems, information literacy, and civil discourse.

I expect other institutions will take similar steps, in a broad range of ways consistent with their various missions.

If higher education succeeds in these efforts, it will make our purpose and value clearer and help restore public support. Most importantly, it would produce better citizens, with stronger tools for making democracy thrive.

Democracy – not economic development, not career preparation, or self-actualization – must stand foremost again as the animating purpose of college.

W. Taylor Reveley IV is the President of Longwood University in Virginia.

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