Liberal Education

Democracy, Leadership, and the Role of Liberal Education

The desire for strong central leadership and clear, expedient answers to our national predicament since September 11 is understandable. We see this desire in the new emphasis placed on virtually every public utterance of the President, in the unrealistic expectation of a simple and tidy end to the war in Afghanistan, in the frustration at our inability to find the source of the anthrax attacks, in our wish for a magical solution to turmoil in the Middle East, and in the recurrent pleas for a national "return to normalcy."

Paradoxically, however, the strength of our country's response may lie not in the expedient satisfaction of these understandable but mostly unattainable desires. If our strength as a nation lies in our democracy--and many would argue that it does--then it is also true that complexity, diverse leadership, and education are essential to an effective response. We can find evidence for the strength of our contemporary American democracy in two places: the sheer breadth and depth of this democracy and the educated citizenry on which it is built.

The importance of education is implicit in the history of democracy itself. Some of the earliest philosophers, Plato and Aristotle among them, shared a concern (born of elitism as much as intellect) about rule by those deemed less qualified to make decisions--the mob, the unpropertied, the poor. Over time, these concerns were muted by an understanding of the larger conditions necessary for a just democracy, including respect for minority rights, support of basic economic and personal freedoms, and--not incidentally--the overarching need for an educated citizenry. For if such decisions as affairs of state are to be left directly to citizens or their elected representatives, the need for citizens to be educated assumes profound importance. Education in this vision of democracy calls on the classical notion of an informed citizenry--individuals who are able to think, reason, analyze, and reflect with discrimination and care.

Breadth of democracy
The majority of activities on and since September 11 have focused near New York and Washington D.C., on what have come to be called "symbolic targets." In terms of our government, they have focused on the federal system: the White House, Capitol Hill, the Pentagon. But attacking these visible manifestations of the nation does not begin to strike at the heart of our democracy. By popular vote we elect positions ranging from governor to port commissioner to local school board. We have so many elected officials it has been suggested that we suffer from an excess of democracy (and when I spend hours reviewing the initiatives on this year's Washington State ballot, it can be hard to disagree).

But it is these local officials, as much as those at the national level, who will be charged with providing local security, with bringing communities together, with building local and regional coalitions. And, as we have seen in New York, it is citizens at the local level, elected and unelected, who will assume responsibility for the safety, healing, and cohesion of their communities. In short, because democracy is sustained at the local level across the country, it cannot be destroyed by attacking discrete national symbols of that democracy. It is in the very nature of democracy to disperse power and control.

Centers of leadership
Of course, if power is dispersed, we also need leaders and citizens at all levels who can rise to the occasion. Resources, research, and education are a part of creating that leadership. In fact, the need for diverse centers of leadership is part of the contemporary writing on leadership. Alexander and Helen Astin, themselves established leaders in American higher education, have recently published Leadership Reconsidered: Engaging Higher Education in Social Change. In it, they argue that "Leaders …are not necessarily those who merely hold formal leadership positions; on the contrary, all people are potential leaders...leadership is, by definition, a collective or group process."

In this vision of leadership, then, education in a democracy lies not in the development of specific skills, but in the creation of a truly educated citizenry, for all citizens are potential leaders.

Liberal education for an educated citizenry
The tenets of liberal education are the basis for an educated citizenry--in this or any other climate. This is true not because through liberal education we offer answers, but because we are so good at asking questions, at holding competing ideas, and wrestling with complex conditions like the situation in which we presently find our country. On the one hand, we value civil liberties; on the other hand, we recognize the need for heightened national security. On the one hand, we understand the moral and practical uncertainty of engaging in war against an idea that has neither a constant face nor is limited to a single country; on the other hand, we see the need to subdue those who have already attacked us. On the one hand, we know that our Middle Eastern policies have supported too many corrupt rulers; on the other hand, we know that foreign policy alone cannot explain religious fanaticism. On the one hand, we admit that we have too often exported capitalism instead of democracy; on the other hand, we realize that those proclaiming a jihad are not interested in democratic human rights. And, on the one hand, we seek to understand the motives of those who would attack us; on the other hand, we remember from 1939 the lessons of appeasement to those bent on genocide.

Questioning, exploring, stating the unpopular, challenging poorly reasoned theories, wrestling with convoluted and contradictory positions--this is what liberal education asks us to do. And it is exactly what is needed in the present environment, as we struggle with competing and complex ideas. We see these methods in practice across the country. Colleges and universities are holding forums for their students but also for their larger communities. The communities are turning out in large numbers, sensing that information and wrestling with these issues are some of the more important things we can do as citizens.

Educating the whole student
Another important role for our colleges and universities is to embrace the notion of educating the whole student. This is not a new idea, but it has rarely been so obvious that support and education for the whole student are needed. Our traditional-age students, after all, are the ones that have been insulated from American wars, the ones who are at conventional draft age, the ones who have been accused of focusing on consumption rather than service. No one can doubt the need for these students to value diversity, to have an understanding and appreciation for other cultures, to be exposed to a variety of ideas in and out of the classroom, to have support as they confront their fears and anger over the international climate, or to be intellectually involved in the current debates. We need to provide our students with the personal and intellectual support to become engaged citizens in this democracy.

Again, we have seen this effort on many of our campuses. Several colleagues have told me about putting a television in a central location on September 11, understanding the need for the campus community to gather and witness together. Others have talked about the coordination of counseling centers with academic resources, to ensure students are aware of the personal help that is available to them. The Chronicle of Higher Education has reported the significant number of new classes professors are volunteering to teach, often without compensation, in response to the terrorist attacks. And students are registering for these classes in large numbers, testament to their thirst for understanding.

We can expand this effort, by reinforcing learning communities that challenge students to interact with diverse peers, by supporting efforts like service learning that invite our students to engage with their communities, by expanding courses that respond to the contemporary political environment, by supporting cross-disciplinary analysis of contemporary political, economic, and moral questions, and by strengthening campus coordination among divisions so that we provide support for the whole student and not only the student in the classroom.

Public analysis
Finally, our colleges and universities can provide the outreach, research, and intellectual capital necessary to inform our national policy making. During a time of relative peace and prosperity, perhaps we could afford to place political spin above complex policy development. But it may be time to wrest the political discussion away from those pundits who handicap politics like a horse race, and return the debate to more reasoned public analysis. In the present environment, there is a clear need for thoughtful, well-researched, seriously debated policy and scientific consideration. What are the lessons of our Middle East policy to date? What are the consequences of creating military coalitions with repressive states? How do we conduct a war against a movement rather than a country? How do we create meaningful civil defense? What would a modern day Marshall Plan look like, and could it possibly work? What methods do we have to combat bioterrorism? What vaccinations can we develop quickly, and how can we best distribute those we have? What are the ethical considerations in the distribution of vaccines and other counter-terror measures?

In addition to providing intellectual expertise on these questions, higher education has a strong tradition of outreach and exchange that can aid in furthering international understanding. From the Fulbright scholars program to junior year abroad schemes to foreign exchange programs, we invite students and faculty alike to engage on a personal level with the culture and academic world of other nations. These programs need to be supported and expanded; we should not succumb to a natural inclination toward isolation that the current climate could breed.

A responsive campus
In talking to colleagues since September 11, I sense that we all feel the need to ensure our colleges and universities are responding appropriately to the new environment. One colleague told me that she firmly believed the best place at this time for any young person is on a college campus, and she was doing all she could to make that campus responsive. Another colleague, in response to a university-sponsored community forum on the present environment, stated simply, "This is why the academy exists."

If the challenges were relatively straightforward and the answers clear, if the problems were short term and the solutions swift, then higher education would be of limited value. Speed and clarity are not our most apparent assets. But if what is needed is the honest wrestling with an array of ideas, the aggressive research and analysis of solutions both scientific and diplomatic, the willingness to understand a diversity of cultures and backgrounds, the engagement of the entire community in the issues facing the nation, and the support of a generation of students, then surely liberal education has something to offer.

David Held argues that "democracy is a remarkably difficult form of government to create and sustain." Liberal education has played and will continue to play an important role in sustaining our democratic form of government.

Mary Marcy is co-director and senior administrator for the Project on the Future of Higher Education at Antioch University. E-mail:

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