Liberal Education

Higher Education as a Matter of National Security: Can a Democracy Plan Ahead?

What is often viewed as the fairly arcane business of determining and administering higher education policy is a matter of great national interest and, actually, a matter of national security. It thus makes a difference for American society in ways you may not have considered.

My thesis is pretty straightforward. The ability of the United States to protect itself and its interests around the world—our national security, broadly defined—depends directly on the strength of our economy. And it is clear that economic strength in the era of global competition depends on a nation’s educational attainment—most importantly, the proportion of the workforce with postsecondary credentials.

What you and your higher education colleagues do has a direct bearing on the nation’s economic viability and our ability to project power and influence for good in the world. I’ve learned that politicians and sportscasters share a common skill or conceit, namely, the ability to say something obvious and make it sound profound. That’s what I just did—at least, the obvious part.

We’ve been here before; in the fall of 1957, the Soviets’ launch of Sputnik sent an existential chill down the spine of this country. How could the Commies have beaten us into orbit?

Before heading farther down this path, let me make a disclaimer. My argument is going to be essentially pragmatic. Please don’t misinterpret. I do not want to fall into the trap of justifying education only on the basis of national economic and military power. As the product of a liberal arts education, I cherish the intrinsic, noneconomic value an education has for the educated person, as well as the extrinsic value education has for the society and democracy. However, as a politician, I realize that such sentiments don’t cut it in these days of sequestration and budget cliff-hanging. So, please forgive the necessity of appealing to necessity.

The connection between education and national defense

We spend more on education than on national defense. Who’d have thought, or wanted, it to be otherwise? Still, I fear that the connection between the two is hugely underappreciated—the direct relationship between education and the ability of the United States to hold its own in the world economically and eventually, as a consequence, as a world power. National security is inherently a function of the economy, and the economy is inherently a function of educational attainment.

In the national debate about what matters, education needs to pull out all the stops and make all its best arguments. One argument that has been neglected is based on the direct relationship between educational attainment and national security. In the near term, the debate about our national stature will still turn a lot on military capability. So, it’s probably smart for educators to try to drill into that conversation. In the economics of national strength and stature, educators should be able to exert the sort of leverage we usually attribute to hedge fund managers and derivatives traders.

Now, I don’t see us relinquishing our power position in the world any time soon. We will devote whatever it takes to remain the sole superpower—until it takes too much of GDP. That would be too much of a GDP that is at risk of not keeping pace with other advanced nations, not keeping pace largely because, in a global information-age economy, the US economy is hampered by an underperforming educational system.

Before some recent improvement, the US educational system had essentially flat-lined the proportion of adults with postsecondary degrees and certificates. Meanwhile, most of Europe and much of Asia have charged ahead of us in this critical predictor of economic strength.

The public and policy makers alike expect a lot from educators, especially those in higher education. That is an expectation that has been heightened by the huge recent increases in tuition, costs, and, consequently, student debt. The public needs to not misunderstand what is at stake. (Sorry for the double negative.) At key risk of misunderstanding is that higher education is just a private good, an expense justified by increased earning power. That’s all well and good, but it can’t be the end of the discussion. If it is, it may portend the end of higher education as we know it—that is, as a system historically supported though public expenditures because policy makers (and their constituents) see in it a public good, the importance of which isn’t fairly captured in private income data.

I’d love somehow to broker a conversation between Chuck Hagel, the secretary of defense, and Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, in which Secretary Hagel would recognize the connection between what Secretary Duncan is trying to accomplish today and the ability of his own successor in, say, 2025 to be able to sustain American power in the world. I have no doubt that Secretary Hagel “gets it.” But his silo is not well connected to Secretary Duncan’s silo. They’re both too preoccupied with the exigencies of today to have much time left to fashion some interdepartmental strategy that might show results in a generation. But, in the long haul, they are in the same business: preserving what’s best about America.

Currently, an army sergeant E-5 with a high school diploma earns about $55,000 in pay and benefits annually; a first lieutenant with a college degree earns about $80,000. The average new teacher earns less than the sergeant, and the average tenure-track assistant professor earns less than the lieutenant. It carries no disrespect to the military to suggest that something closer to parity with the sergeant and lieutenant is in order.

Assuming you may be persuaded—or didn’t need persuading—that there’s a connection between postsecondary education and national security, let me now draw out some of the implications of that proposition.

Here’s the bottom line: the most important thing you can do as higher education policy folks is to be consumed 24/7 with the messy business of our representative democracy. The best policies in the world related to completion or longitudinal data will count for little unless they are embraced by policy makers, especially state and federal legislators, and their employers, the ever more fractured and politically self-segregated electorate—people who often don’t look past the private benefits of higher education.

What will be the Sputnik of the twenty-first century that will push our society out of its individualistic preoccupation with private wealth and put us back in touch with our legacy quest for public richness?

I hope we can aspire to a better grasp of some fundamental values that need to be instilled in and by every educator—the values of community, democratic involvement, and citizenship. These are not academic disciplines or subject-matter areas. However, these values are at the foundation of any educational system that prepares its students for their eventual responsibilities. They are about character as well as competency. And competency without character is not all that attractive.

The centrality of citizenship

Let’s consider briefly the impact of computers and technology on our sociability and, so, on our democracy. The isolative effects of the personal computer—and of our collective online habits—are both direct and indirect. We are spending more time alone with our computers and smart phones, and less time in the personal, physical company of other human beings. While technology enables us better to manage our individual informational intake, it often serves to exclude what we may disagree with or think we needn’t learn about. Although some research has suggested that the Internet may be more broadening than narrowing, I have to say that the narrowing makes more intuitive sense than the broadening. And it comports better with what I see and experience.

A base level of public honesty is needed to support the integrity of our politics. Our system of government and our sense of a democratic political community depend on broad exposure to what’s around us—on an understanding of differences among us, and on the tolerance that comes from that understanding. Together, that understanding and tolerance are the predicate for compromise and problem solving, which are, in turn, the central function and responsibility of our representative democracy. To the extent that the way we learn narrows our social and political horizons, it starts to get in the way of the solving of our society’s problems. It subverts the raw materials of compromise.

The technological advances that both facilitate intellectual pursuits and erode them seem likely, at the same time, to impede social pursuits and the efficacy of democracy. The way we learn and communicate with each other—or don’t—affects the way we govern ourselves. If schools and colleges—if educators—are not seized of the centrality of citizenship, I fear they will eventually fail us as much as if they didn’t address the STEM disciplines.

The ability of our people to appreciate and act on the connection between educational attainment and our national and international strength depends on their being ready to be, and motivated to participate as, responsible citizens. The viability of our democracy is a direct function of civic literacy and participation. In turn, the viability of our educational system is a first derivative of that civic literacy and participation. Our elected representatives need to pay attention to civic deficits as much as to budget deficits. The latter won’t likely be solved without progress on the former. So, too, must our educators pay attention.

The founders—especially Jefferson—understood this. They knew that their experiment in self-government through representative democracy could not succeed unless the citizens—the voters—understood what it was all about and were both prepared and inclined to participate. In a compelling aphorism, John Dewey gave voice to this civic mission of the schools early in the last century: “Democracy needs to be reborn in each generation, and education is its midwife.”

Why is that? Well, our governmental structure and the ways it works (or doesn’t) is complicated stuff. We are not genetically hardwired as citizens. Self-government involves learned behavior. It must be taught.

One of my favorite statements from the founders is Madison’s explanation of what a republic is all about. I like it because it actually makes it sound like being a legislator is an honorable calling. In Federalist 10, Madison explained the difference between direct democracy and representative democracy and the reasons that a representative democracy was central to the new American republic:

A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure. . . . The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest. . . . The effect . . . is . . . to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.

Admittedly, with its eighteenth-century language, this is fairly esoteric material. But it is absolutely central to understanding our system of government. Conversely, without a grasp of such basics, we risk becoming a people who are dismissive or distrustful of politics because our people don’t understand it—probably because they were never taught it. And, I fear, that is what we have gradually become: a people dismissive and distrustful of government.

A few years ago, the American Bar Association conducted an extensive poll to determine how well American adults understood their own government. The poll asked people to identify the three branches of government. Barely half of the sample polled had the right answer. The remainder was split, answering either Democrats, Republicans, and Independents or local, state, and federal.1 If the adult players don’t know the rules, it’s awfully hard for them to play the game. So let’s also take a look at the farm team for citizenship, our K-12 system.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress—better known as NAEP, or the Nation’s Report Card—tests a broad cross section of our students on a range of subjects. There is a NAEP test in civics for students in grades four, eight, and twelve that is given every four years, most recently in 2010. For each grade level, questions are designed to measure civic knowledge, intellectual and participatory skills, and civic dispositions.

How did our kids do? In comparison to earlier years, the average scores in 2010 didn’t change much, even though the vast majority of students reported learning about civics in eighth grade and studying civics or government in high school. That may sound reassuring. However, the grade-level scores all hovered around 150 (the maximum score is 300). Approximately two-thirds of students scored below “proficient.” Seventy percent of eighth graders could not identify the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence.2

Now, maybe people don’t need to be able to recite in Madisonian terms the philosophical underpinning of the Republic. They do, however, need to know that this country and our fifty states are set up to be republics. And they need to know the differences between a republic and a pure democracy. To live in one but expect the other is a sure prescription for frustration and disenchantment.

The role of politicians

Let me quickly stipulate that we politicians, former and current, are due our fair share of the blame. That’s in part the result of some mixture of educational fatigue and pandering on their—our—part. The educational fatigue comes from politicians not having the energy—maybe even the desire—to fulfill their role as educators themselves. Politicians need to explain what it is they are up to and how it’s supposed to work. It has to go with the territory for our electeds also to be teachers. It is in the essence of the representative dynamic for those in office to come home and explain their decisions. It has to become part of their accountability system.

Here’s where the pandering comes in. It is in politicians’ acquiescing to the idea that they, our representatives at whatever level, from Congress to general assemblies to city councils and boards of education, are mere agents of popular opinion.

Politics is not arithmetic or polling. If we let our people think it is, then they will inevitably be disillusioned and turned off by it—and very hard to persuade that they should trust government. And the schools are the places where most people have the most telling and personal encounter with government.

Those of us who hold (or held) public office have to be proud enough of the work that we do—the time we put in, the homework we do, the deliberations we undertake before negotiating the compromises—and the skills and knowledge it takes to do it, to stand up and explain that the end result is the product of judgment, not just some reflexive, mechanical assessment of what the voters believe they want and, therefore, believe they are entitled to. A representative in our system, at whatever level, is hired to exercise judgment and discretion based on expertise—expertise informed by deliberations and tempered by compromise—all in the cause of serving purposes greater than, but not disrespectful of, one’s constituency.

Here is where we face the challenge for a representative democracy trying to plan ahead. Planning ahead usually involves making the case for deferred gratification. That is, it involves saving and investing now for a more important goal in the future. An electorate that hasn’t been educated to insist on problem-solving behavior and compromise is not likely to be susceptible to arguments for deferred gratification. It may be the greater long-term interests of the district, the city, the county, the state, the nation, or the world. Our purposes in public life cannot be limited by the immediate, self-defined, and self-serving interests of the voters who elect us.

It is the duty of everyone running for or holding office to explain that reality—to be a civics teacher of this fundamental truth. This involves absolutely no disrespect for the voters. To the contrary, we must credit them with the intelligence to understand that leaders in whatever office ought to have a broader perspective and a long-term view of what ultimately serves the public interest. Crediting voters with that capacity to understand their system of government is merely a starting point. It is a source of hope. It means that we have some reasonable prospect for turning around the current dysfunction in our politics.

Some of you may remember the old Pogo cartoon that Walt Kelly did for the first Earth Day. Pogo is sitting in the middle of a swampy pool with discarded tires, an old washing machine, and bottles marked with “XXX.” The caption reads, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

As appealing as it may be to blame the politicians for all that ails the body politic, this misses the boat. Electoral politics is a kind of market system, where votes serve the role that money plays in the conventional marketplace. Just as the efficiency of consumer markets depends on transparency and good information and informed and savvy consumers, so too does the efficiency of political markets.

Yet, this country has systematically engaged in unilateral civic disarmament for a couple of generations. The teaching of government—that midwifery of democracy, as Dewey would have it—has been severely neglected. We have asked the schools to fill a whole lot of other obligations, but at a deep cost to their original responsibility to educate citizens.

American democracy surely has to be protected. But it also has to be nurtured and cared for. I am confident that with some care and feeding, the American people can regain a sufficient understanding of their own political system. If so, they will again insist on electing people who realize that their job is not to bow to ideology but to work out the differences that will always beset a huge and diverse nation. We have to figure out how to re-knit some semblance of a political community that can function—function with the give-and-take needed to work through, and work out, our differences. We all must be stewards of democracy.

Candidates appeal to us with simplistic arguments, like “government should be run more like a business.” I fear most Americans don’t appreciate or understand why requirements like due process and equal protection actually mean that we have to put up with some necessary inefficiencies in the cause of something more important—fairness and justice. We need citizens who can take apart notions like “running government more like a business” and figure out what about the idea may make some sense, and what is a red herring. I believe most people would agree with President John Kennedy that “the ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.”3

The role of educators

The connection between higher education and national well-being and security is obvious. But to make that connection work politically requires that you, as educators, look beyond your usual provinces and provinciality. You must recognize your existential stake in a political system that can function. You must take on the job of restoring basic civic literacy, or, I fear, our politics will fail to plan and to appreciate and support our colleges and universities.

One weapon you have to deploy is your fundamental role in advancing national security and economic strength. I ask that you find some way to bring a sense of urgency about this to your work, as tangential as it might seem at first. Your work in higher education can thrive only in a broader and broadened educational culture, one that embraces its own civic connections—from teachers, students, and citizens to the nation’s economic and political strength and to our national security—and then returns to supporting schools and teachers.

Your work—either by intention or through inattention—will shape how the coming generation sees its role in the democracy. Will you see to it that members of the next generation are encouraged to look beyond their academic disciplines and see their role in the great American political experiment? If they do, the experiment can only succeed; and with its success, so also will come success in educational attainment, economic well-being, and national strength. If they don’t, then I fear the further crumbling of the political foundation on which the educational system and our national strength rests.

The democracy lesson is not for someone else. It is for us. There is no more important work to be done—for the sake of education.


1. Harris Interactive, Civics Education (Washington, DC: American Bar Association, 2005).

2. National Center for Education Statistics, The Nation’s Report Card: Civics 2010 (Washington, DC: Institute of Education Sciences, US Department of Education, 2011).

3. John F. Kennedy, “Vanderbilt University 90th Anniversary Convocation Address” (Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, May 18, 1963).

David Skaggs, former Democratic Congressman from the state of Colorado (1987–99), is senior strategic advisor and independent consultant at the international law firm of McKenna, Long, and Aldridge. Previously, he served as executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education, a commissioner on the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, and executive director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the Council for Excellence in Government. This article was adapted from the author’s address to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association’s Higher Education Policy Conference, which was held in Orlando, Florida, in August 2013.

To respond to this article, e-mail, with the author’s name on the subject line.

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