Liberal Education and Threats to Democracy

In April 2020, AAC&U released a new vision of educational excellence, What Liberal Education Looks Like: What It Is, Who It’s For, and Where It Happens. Designed to guide higher education at this time of unparalleled transformation, it is a vision that details the ongoing dynamism and enduring relevance of liberal education in preparing students for work, citizenship, and life in a future none of us can fully predict. Foundational to this vision is the conviction that fulfilling our nation’s historic mission of educating for democracy will necessitate a renewed and reinvigorated commitment among colleges and universities to higher education’s civic and democratic purposes.

Indeed, in the face of increasing polarization and partisanship, a global pandemic, economic uncertainty, and protests around a moment of racial reckoning in America, furthering AAC&U’s mission of advancing the vitality and public standing of liberal education by making quality and equity the foundations for excellence in undergraduate education in service to democracy is more critical than ever. In this ostensibly post-truth era, when the burgeoning culture wars have accelerated the proliferation of misinformation and incivility, a liberal education offers the best means of ensuring the sustained engagement of a free people who are united in their quest to preserve the democratic principles of justice, liberty, human dignity, and the equality of all people.

By its very nature, a liberal education frees the mind from past dispositions, producing independent thinkers who seek the truth unfettered by dogma, ideology, and preconceptions. Yet it also has the capacity to foster civility, promote dialogue across difference, and contest anti-intellectualism, producing citizens who are less susceptible to manipulation and prejudice and more disposed to civic and democratic engagement.

AAC&U’s positing of liberal education as the form of education most appropriate to advancing democracy was validated in a recent report by Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW). The Role of Education in Taming Authoritarian Attitudes examines how colleges and universities can challenge the rise of authoritarianism worldwide and the resulting threat to democracies. A preference for authoritarianism is measured by individuals’ inclinations toward, as the report describes it, either “independent thought, respect for diversity, and inquisitive assessment of evidence” or “unquestioning acceptance of authority.”

Comparing the attitudes and preferences of people from fifty-one countries, CEW’s analysis found that those living in the United States have moderate authoritarian preferences, ranking sixteenth. The report also found that the United States has the strongest association between being college educated and having a lower propensity toward authoritarianism.

Citing the power of liberal education in mitigating authoritarian tendencies, the report affirms that American college graduates at both the bachelor’s and associate’s degree levels are less likely to express authoritarian preferences than those with less education. Indeed, the researchers found that liberal arts students are less inclined than those studying business or the STEM disciplines to adopt attitudes of political intolerance, signified by the repression of free speech and by xenophobia, racism, ethnocentrism, and religious sectarianism.

The authors of the report point to the ways in which authoritarianism tends to flourish when social norms and personal security are threatened. Rising inequalities of wealth, the devastating impact of COVID-19, and divisions over issues of racial and social justice have fueled feelings of vulnerability among many Americans, who are then more likely to seek the protection of authoritarian leaders and political systems. And when those with high authoritarian inclinations identify strongly with specific groups, a perceived threat to those groups can result in greater intolerance.

According to the report, liberal education reduces individuals’ sensitivities to potential triggers by providing psychological protection in the form of self-esteem, personal security, and autonomy. It also fosters a level of interpersonal trust associated with lower inclinations toward authoritarian preferences. Exposure of liberal arts majors to diverse contexts and cultures diminishes the likelihood that differing worldviews will trigger authoritarian responses and increases the chances of such responses being countered with evidence.

In addition, the findings reveal that postsecondary education leads to greater political participation and civic engagement. Because democracies with higher levels of education have greater levels of political tolerance and are more likely to survive, the report concludes that “higher education is the cornerstone of successful democracies not easily shaken by authoritarian threats.”

The articles in this issue offer further incontrovertible evidence as to why championing liberal education is essential for the health of our democracy. I am grateful for the insights and inspiration they provide.

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