AAC&U News, November 2018

Democracy Under Siege: A Category 4 Storm

A series of hurricanes on the east coast and wildfires on the west coast are not the only forces battering America’s landscape. Another insidious assault has been unleashed with increasingly troubling and terrifying consequences: the totalitarian tactics that assail democratic values, institutions, and processes.

The Atlantic devoted its entire October issue to the question, “Is Democracy Dying?” One article reports that “only 30 percent of Americans born in the 1980s believe that living in a democracy is ‘essential,’ compared with 72 percent of Americans born in the 1930s.” Other articles examine threats to democracy in Europe and the rest of the world. In the face of this global blitz, what should colleges and universities do? Take shelter until the danger is over? Or take serious risks and join forces with others to reduce the ravages on American democracy, its people, and the planet?

Drawing on its long history of linking liberal education with the health of democracy, AAC&U named its 2018–22 strategic plan We ASPIRE: Educating for Democracy. But I fear the plan is not sufficient to counter the growing unruly power of antidemocratic animus. Too often, higher education's analyses use the inadequate explanatory framework of Republican and Democratic partisan divisions. We have not properly named the danger: not just disagreements that can be settled with deliberation and reason but a fundamental offensive to cripple democratic structures, democratic culture, and democratic values.

Yale philosopher Jason Stanley, author of How Fascism Works, identifies what he claims are ten pillars of totalitarianism. Many of them have become all too familiar parts of everyday reading, viewing, or listening in American life today: promoting a mythic past, demonizing a group into them versus us, circulating propaganda and conspiracy theories, spreading anti-intellectualism, casting doubt on the media, replacing reasoned debate with fear and anger, arguing that the minorities being policed are criminals, and embracing a hierarchy of natural superiority as justifying discrimination. These weapons have been deployed during previous historical eras to erase human rights by debasing human beings and promoting ignorance by undermining the value of evidence, facts, and analysis. What’s at stake is not just losing an argument but losing viable democratic processes and values.

Instead of the obsessive—and I would argue distracting—discussion about free speech and bringing opposing political partisans to the same stage, higher education needs to focus its attention and its educational resources on educating students in, for, and through democracy. The education needed is not for a monocultural democracy, but for a wildly, deliciously, discomfortingly diverse democracy. Democratic institutions are weakened in the United States and elsewhere when they are stratified and riven with inequalities, but they are generative when the voices, insights, and talents of all participants are tapped. 

In the Atlantic issue referenced above, Yoni Appelbaum argues, “Democracy is . . . an acquired habit. Like most habits, democratic behavior develops slowly over time, through constant repetition.” What better conditions could be found for cultivating those democratic habits than those in American colleges and universities, which are among the most democratic and diverse places of intimacy and engagement in the country?

Despite hierarchies of wealth and prestige, colleges still mix zip codes, cultures, faiths, races, genders, languages—all kinds of differences—in a space where everyone’s goal is to learn from one another. What are we waiting for?

Students need opportunities to (1) study the wide variety of democracies around the world, comparing constitutional language and protections offered—or not; (2) examine the historic struggles for democracy in this country and elsewhere, including how people organized, the forces they opposed, and the consequences of their opposition; (3) excavate and debate core democratic principles as they have been asserted, ignored, contested, and embodied in law, policy, and culture; and (4) explore the forces that caused democratic societies to fail strikingly and rapidly in Europe in the 1930s and elsewhere around the world.

Finally, students need many chances to discover what democratic practices feel like by exercising these practices in the classroom, in student organizations, online, in intimate relationships, and in the workplace. Students themselves should help chart their campuses' efforts to educate for democracy. Challenge students to make meaning of—rather than be a victim of—the world that is spinning lethally around them.

Caryn Musil image from museum1.jpg
A flame of fear (peur) heats a beaker of ignorance
to create hatred (haine).

In 2012, a museum opened at Camp des Milles, an internment camp on the outskirts of Aix-en-Provence in France, that tells the story of the triumph of totalitarian values. UNESCO has chosen the site as the headquarters for its new Chair of Education for Citizenship, Human Sciences, and Shared Memories. Designed to record the truth about the past in its excruciating, heartbreaking details, it was also constructed to remind visitors of lessons to bring into the present day. There is a simple chalk drawing there that dramatizes—through a chemical experiment using a flame, a concoction in a beaker over the flame, and the resulting product—the volatile link between fear, the ignorance it fuels, and the hate it inevitably produces.

The explosive mix of fear and ignorance that produces hate was recently dramatized by thirteen bombs mailed to people who had been singled out by President Trump’s invective, then by the murders of two African Americans in Tennessee by a white man after he couldn’t enter a church to kill others there, and finally in the bloody massacre of eleven Jewish people at their Pittsburgh synagogue.

Colleges and universities must make it their mission to interrupt this tripartite cocktail by advancing knowledge, sharpening analytical and critical thinking capacities, and enhancing students’ empathy and agency. All these are democratic habits of mind, heart, and behavior. They are educational habits as well. 

Democracy is made inert if ignorance replaces hard-earned knowledge, bigotry replaces curiosity and humility, and demonizing others replaces recognition and compassion. Higher education can animate, not suffocate, democratic culture and habits. But we must decide to do that and to do it more courageously, creatively, and pervasively.

The Nobel Prize–winning novelist Toni Morrison warned the academy in 2000 to be unapologetic about embracing core values of democracy and social responsibility: “If the university does not take seriously and rigorously its role as guardian of wider civic freedoms, as interrogator of more and more complex ethical problems, as servant and preserver of deeper democratic practices, then some other regime or ménage of regimes will do it for us, in spite of us, and without us.”

About AAC&U News

AAC&U News is written and edited by Ben Dedman. If you have questions or comments about the newsletter's contents, please e-mail dedman@aacu.org.


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