Liberal Education

Bridging the Divides at the Heart of Democracy

At the opening plenary of AAC&U’s 2018 annual meeting, “Can Higher Education Recapture the Elusive American Dream?,” I had the privilege of facilitating a panel discussion entitled “Identity Matters: Realizing the American Dream.” The panelists, Linda Martín Alcoff, professor of philosophy at Hunter College–City University of New York; Naomi M. Barry-Pérez, director of civil rights for the US Department of Labor; Tamara Draut, vice president for policy and research at the public policy organization Demos; and Wes Moore, CEO of the poverty-fighting organization the Robin Hood Foundation, brilliantly wove their personal narratives into their insights on higher education’s role in advancing the American Dream.

The panelists’ responses to my questions reflected several intersecting themes—the profound impact of the disinvestment in public higher education in the United States, despite the fact that education remains the most powerful catalyst for social mobility; the decline of economic diversity among students at the country’s top public institutions, fueled in part by the pursuit of rankings in US News and World Report; and the ways in which the transition away from the notion of higher education as a public good toward its being considered a private commodity has led to the decoupling of higher education from the American Dream. Underlying each comment was a concern for the function of colleges and universities as democratic institutions, alongside a recognition of the need to identify and overcome the institutional barriers that prevent offering the type of education that best serves the needs of all students.

Yet, like many successful panels, this one was not free from dissent among participants. Professor Alcoff questioned the construct of the American Dream and its false implication that with hard work, anyone can achieve success and gain upward economic mobility. This ideal, she maintained, fails to account for a pervasive institutional order that guarantees the success of some only by ensuring the failure of others. It is a “system of reality” highlighted by James Baldwin in his famous debate with William F. Buckley in 1965, held in the Cambridge Union at Cambridge University, on the notion that “the American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” Baldwin revealed to his audience: “It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, 6 or 7 to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you. . . . It comes as a great shock to discover that the country which is your birthplace and to which you owe your life and identity has not, in its whole system of reality, evolved any place for you.”1 His words call to mind an observation he made in 1961, challenging the rhetoric that supports the ideal of equal opportunity for all in America:

No other country can afford to dream of a Plymouth and a wife and a house with a fence and the children growing up safely to go to college and to become executives, and then to marry and have the Plymouth and the house and so forth. A great many people do not live this way and cannot imagine it, and do not know that when we talk about “democracy,” this is what we mean.2

More than five decades later, the debate over whether the American Dream is available to some only at the expense of others rages on. As in the civil rights movement, the conversations have traversed beyond the academy onto the streets. Spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement in response to police killings of black youth and inspired by professional football player and social justice advocate Colin Kaepernick, whose refusal to stand during the national anthem first gained attention at a San Francisco 49ers game on August 26, 2016, these protesters remind us that “this is what democracy looks like.” When President Trump publicly called for the firing of those football players who, like Kaepernick, chose to take a knee throughout the ensuing football season, the widespread reactions reflected a nation divided.

The PBS NewsHour reported that 48 percent of those polled supported the players and regarded their actions as a respectful means of protest. At the same time, 46 percent found the actions of the players toward the national anthem disrespectful, while only 6 percent were unsure. The demographic breakdown behind these responses is enlightening. Though eight of ten Democrats supported the protests, nine of ten Republicans disapproved of them. And while three-quarters of African Americans regarded them as respectful, 55 percent of whites considered them disrespectful.3

So, how can those of us in higher education bridge the expansive divide over issues at the heart of our democracy? A new study unveils that transforming attitudes and challenging students to entertain the notion that some of their most fundamentally held beliefs might be mistaken is not about brainwashing students in service to a targeted agenda, but rather about teaching them to think critically. IDEALS, or the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey, launched in 2015, polled seven thousand undergraduates from 120 colleges with respect to their attitudes regarding whether liberals and conservatives are ethical, make positive contributions to society, and have something in common with those surveyed. College attendance, from the first to the second year, was associated with enhanced appreciation for those across the political spectrum.4 The research suggests that exposing students to experiences and individuals that encompass diverse perspectives contributes to their thinking critically, and that this, rather than telling students what to think, makes the most significant difference in promoting empathetic imagination.

The articles in this issue of Liberal Education showcase how colleges and universities have implemented applied learning as a means of democratizing opportunity; high-impact practices, including undergraduate research, community-based learning, and civic engagement; comprehensive assessment using AAC&U’s system of Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education (VALUE); and methods of providing faculty with professional development and recognition for investing in learner-centered approaches to curriculum development and general education reform. They demonstrate that by working together, institutions of higher education can lead the way in creating a society in which the American Dream is a reality for all students and their families.


1. James Baldwin, “The American Dream and the American Negro,” New York Times, March 7, 1965,

2. James Baldwin, “From Nationalism, Colonialism, and the United States: One Minute to Twelve—A Forum,” in James Baldwin: The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, ed. Randall Kenan (New York: Vintage Books, 2010), 12.

3. Laura Sathanam, “Poll: Americans Divided on NFL Protests,” PBS NewsHour, September 29, 2017,

4. Matthew J. Mayhew, Alyssa N. Rockenbach, Benjamin S. Selznick, and Jay L. Zagorsky, “Does College Turn People into Liberals?,” The Conversation, February 2, 2018,

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