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Part of the Solution

The tradition of liberal education offers a powerful undercurrent of hope for democracy

By Shirley A. Mullen

November 2, 2022

It is no secret that colleges and universities in the United States are facing a historically unprecedented decline in public trust. Sixty-one percent of Americans, including growing numbers from both parties, believe that higher education is not serving our democracy well, according to recent data from the Pew Research Center. In addition, the longheld assumption that the benefit of a college or university education outweighs its cost—for both individuals and society—is no longer taken for granted. The charges fueling this skepticism about the return on investment in higher education—and, particularly, a liberal education—have become all too familiar in the media. Colleges and universities are too expensive. They are elitist. They are home of the “cancel culture” that undermines the American value of free speech. They are dominated by politically liberal faculty who value international cooperation rather than putting America first. They graduate students—or fail to graduate them—with a debt load disproportionate to their earning capacity.

Contrary to this prevailing narrative that higher education is failing to support our society, however, is the reality, as Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels argues in his 2021 book What Universities Owe Democracy, that higher education is actually a critical asset in addressing the trends that threaten our democracy. As polarization and political gridlock—symptoms of deeper issues of economic inequality, aging infrastructure, a lingering pandemic, intensified racial and ethnic tension, the growing peril of global autocracy—contribute to the spread of self-doubt, cynicism, and fear in society, colleges and universities offer the best possibility for restoring a confident and flourishing democracy. Institutions of higher education, as Daniels points out, have the potential to drive the social mobility, restored civic engagement, renewed clarification of common standards of truth-telling and rules of evidence, and practice in animated civil discourse among diverse populations that can help us grapple with the challenges facing our society.

With just days to go until the polls close in the 2022 midterm elections, this is especially pertinent and welcome news. Indeed, as pundits and bloggers speculate on the outcomes of the upcoming midterm elections, amid shifting, but persistently polarized party politics, America’s tradition of liberal education provides a powerful undercurrent of hope that will endure long after the polls close on November 8.

So, how, more specifically, can America’s tradition of liberal education provide value that ultimately outweighs its cost and contributes to the increasingly challenging work of nourishing democracy in the twenty-first century?

To start with, liberal education is one of the most pervasive forces in our culture intentionally cultivating essential capacities that enable individuals to realize the full potential of the privileges of citizenship. These capacities include the ability to frame a clear and compelling argument in behalf of one’s particular interests; to communicate that argument such that it inspires a shared community of support; and to tend to one’s private interests in the context of the diverse and often competing goods of the entire society.

Liberal education also holds great potential to reduce polarization in our otherwise polarized society. Liberal education offers the possibility of shaping a population that reaches across boundaries between “red” and “blue” states, across the aisles in Congress between Republicans and Democrats, across the boundaries between those who are religious and those who are secular, and across boundaries of class, ethnicity, and gender. Those with a liberal education share a common vocabulary that can allow them to act as translators and interpreters in a society whose members are all too often talking past one another because they do not all speak the same language. Those with a liberal education also share common assumptions about human dignity and the spirit of mutual respect in which all potentially productive discussions must occur. They have been invited by their education to a loyalty to the human community that includes but also transcends other, more particular loyalties. We see evidence that the unifying potential of a liberal education is more than a theoretical possibility in the following programs and organization:

  • Bridging the Gap, run by Interfaith America, connects students from Christian colleges and universities known for more traditional, conservative values, such as Spring Arbor University, with students from institutions known for their more progressive ideals, such as Oberlin College, to discuss their different views of the world. The training of a liberal education—which provides students with such shared core concepts as the innate potential of the individual, the importance of using one’s gifts for the good of society, and the commitment to gracious civility—is what allows participants to hold productive conversations about their differing views.
  • Common Ground, developed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, brings together educators from colleges and universities across the country who share a common belief in the value of athletic competition in enabling individuals to realize their full potential. The program aims to “establish inclusive and respectful athletics environments for participants of all sexual orientations, gender identities and faith perspectives.” Again, the ideals of a liberal education contribute the core concepts and framework of humane values for this work to be both possible and productive.
  • The Heterodox Academy is an organization of more than five thousand academics, intellectuals, and otherwise thoughtful individuals from around the globe committed to cultivating open and civil discussions about significant issues—no matter how controversial the topic. The requirement for participation in such conversations is that one’s claims about the topic in question must be supported by relevant rational, empirical, or experiential evidence. The undergirding assumptions about what counts as evidence to support one’s opinion as worthy of consideration by others emerge from the long-standing values of a liberal education.

These examples show liberally educated citizens at work. Herein lies the hope of liberal education for our democracy: Liberal education offers the enticing possibility of a community that promotes and enriches democracy in every corner of our society. Instead of adopting the pervasive patterns of polarization and partisanship, the members of this network embody for their coworkers, friends, and family members the virtues and the vocabulary of critical reflection, humility, curiosity, and mutual respect for others. Rather than perpetuate the orthodoxies or the unreflective preconceived ideas of various in-groups, the members of this network are prepared by their liberal education with the skills to boldly but graciously invite questions that enlarge the understanding of those who think differently for their own enrichment and that of their communities. If enough of us become part of such a community and dare to speak and act in the spirit of critical reflection, mutual respect, curiosity, and humility, we can turn the rich possibilities and extravagant potential of our democracy into a reality.

Author

  • Shirley Mullen

    Shirley A. Mullen

    Shirley A. Mullen is president emerita of Houghton University and a longtime professor of history, trained in the fields of history and philosophy, and committed throughout her career in teaching and administration to the transforming work of liberal education.

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