Liberal Education

"Game of Thrones" and Educating for Democracy

At a time of increasing polarization in our nation, and indeed around the world, a monumental moment occurred in May when people all along the political spectrum came together to embark on a shared endeavor—to watch the finale of Game of Thrones. It turned out to be HBO’s most-watched episode ever, garnering 19.3 million viewers, including replays and streams.1 These record-breaking numbers materialized despite more than 1.6 million fans signing a petition on demanding a remake of Season 8 “with competent writers.”2 Since most of my knowledge of the series comes from the comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s Game of Thrones recap sketch—dominated by the refrain “Kilt! Kilt! Kilt! Kilt!”—I was baffled when I read that some businesses had reportedly hired grief counselors to help their employees cope with their disappointment over the season and return to a focus on work.

I was, however, captivated by a scene in the final episode when members of the Great Council, charged with determining the future of the Seven Kingdoms, engage in a swift, wholesale repudiation of establishing a democracy. With the council devolving into laughter at the mere suggestion of letting all inhabitants choose the next leader of Westeros, one council member offers the rejoinder, “Maybe we should give the dogs a vote as well.” Skepticism regarding the wisdom of democracy has long been a topic of philosophical treatises, from Plato’s Republic to Ronald Dworkin’s Is Democracy Possible Here? Principles for a New Political Debate. Dworkin’s contemporary discourse confronts a particular challenge for democracies during periods of extreme polarization, when partisan divides reach the point at which we are no longer partners in self-government and “our politics are rather a form of war.” He warns:

Democracy can be healthy with no serious political argument if there is nevertheless a broad consensus about what is to be done. It can be healthy even if there is no consensus if it does have a culture of argument. But it cannot remain healthy with deep and bitter divisions and no real argument, because it then becomes only a tyranny of numbers.3

According to Dworkin, the full promise of democracy requires fomenting public debate or, alternatively, finding common ground even in the absence of consensus.

Since our nation’s inception, institutions of higher education have been established with the goal of educating for democracy and preparing knowledgeable citizens and leaders. If colleges and universities are to develop the independent and critical thinkers necessary to ensure that democracy flourishes, we must reaffirm a commitment to the civic mission of higher education. Doing so mandates the development of a deeper-level understanding across subject areas, connecting knowledge to experience and adopting a holistic approach to evidence-based problem solving that incorporates diverse, sometimes contradictory points of view as central to liberal education.

The ability to engage in and learn from experiences different from one’s own and to understand how one’s place in the world both informs and limits one’s knowledge is essential to the crucial capacity to understand the interrelationships between multiple perspectives, including those that are personal, social, cultural, disciplinary, environmental, local, and global. This understanding is pivotal for bridging cultural divides and necessary for working collaboratively to achieve our shared objectives around solving the world’s most pressing problems.

The authors in this issue provide a road map for promoting engaged civic learning across all types of institutions, in the classroom and beyond. In the process, they offer hope that higher education can and will play a crucial role in shaping a future grounded in social justice and in which democracy is more than the tyranny of numbers forecast in Game of Thrones.


1. Nicole Lyn Pesce, “It’s Official: The ‘Game of Thrones’ Finale Was HBO’s Most-Watched Episode Ever,” MarketWatch, May 20, 2019,

2. Dylan D., “Remake Game of Thrones Season 8 with Competent Writers,”, accessed May 29, 2019,

3. Ronald Dworkin, Is Democracy Possible Here? Principles for a New Political Debate (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2006), 6.

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