Liberal Education

Missing Knowledge

Mid-way through his initial semester as a first-year college student, my son was given the following writing assignment: Can Democracy Be Established through Conquest? Discuss with reference to course readings on the Hebrews, Greeks, etc. A timely question--not just for first-year students, but for our nation, and the entire global community. But how well has our collective course of study prepared Americans to provide knowledgeable answers?

As we go to press, the United States is expected to soon initiate military action in Iraq. Administration leaders have fanned out across the world to explain that war in Iraq will ultimately create a new frontier for democracy in the Middle East. Headlines tell us that millions are rallying in other democracies against the buildup to war, not because they support Saddam Hussein, but because they fear American power. Thoughtful people everywhere are asking whether peace--much less the advance of democratic self-governance--can emerge from a global strategy built on the unchallenged prowess of a superpower democracy. When I think about these questions as an educator, I am struck by the disconnect between the contemporary practices of liberal education and the knowledge we now need to reach reasoned conclusions about our democracy's role in the world.

As this issue of Liberal Education reminds us, many educational leaders in newly independent democracies are taking a close look at American designs for liberal and general education. They do so because their countries need citizens who will take responsibility for the future of democratic freedom and because liberal education has presented itself for over two centuries as the best possible preparation for both democracy and civic responsibility. If we are honest with ourselves, however, the de facto U.S. curriculum on "democracy's challenges" is, at best, episodic and shallow. American college students do--when we succeed with them--learn to think analytically and critically. These are important skills in a democratic society. But it's a matter of chance whether college students devote those skills to the kinds of questions that now confront us as participants in the world's most powerful democracy. There is a large and growing gap between the preparation Americans receive as democratic citizens and the kinds of things we need to know to make sense of the global landscape.

Take, as a case in point, my son, the first-year college student. In high school, like most Americans, he encountered twentieth century history mainly as a rapidly "covered" tale of American triumphs over evil regimes. There was no attention to the history of democratic ideas and practices, and very little time spent on the wider world. Now in college, he is taking a very good course--elective, not required--focused on the roots of Western culture. In form and content, the program is a recognizable descendant of the Western Civilization sequence invented during World War I. As the assignment described in the first paragraph suggests, his professor clearly wants him to connect the study of classical Western texts to the contemporary world around him. (And I am grateful for that expectation.)

Nonetheless, we have to ask about the adequacy of "fit" between a close study of major humanities texts from the ancient world and our civic need to make sense of alternative American policies for a fractured, turbulent, and threatened global community. There is enormous value in the study of major cultural traditions and texts, undeniably. But we need much more than this to educate citizens who are prepared to engage knowledgeably with questions about democracy and consent, not just for fifth-century Athens, but for the twenty-first century global community.

Over a quarter of a century ago, historians acknowledged that the tradition of "Western Civilization"--initially organized as a history of the ideas and institutions basic to constitutional democracy--was falling out of the core curriculum, because so many scholars no longer viewed "The West" as the optimal framework for presenting the roots and contours of the modern world to students. William McNeill fiercely rebuked historians for their failure to replace this declining core course with a World History framework of analogous intellectual substance and civic focus. Since then, the majority of four-year institutions have sought to expand students' cultural horizons by requiring the study of cultural diversity and/or world cultures. Engaging diversity, as we have frequently noted in these pages, has become a required preparation for life in a diverse democracy.

Cross-cultural studies are, nonetheless, only a part of the democratic learning Americans need for the twenty-first century. Democracy itself, explored historically, cross-culturally, comparatively, and prospectively, should surely become a core theme of Americans' civic education.

This year, AAC&U is joining with Campus Compact to shape a new Center for Liberal Education and Civic Engagement. Designed to support both faculty scholarship and curricular innovation, the Center will seek to ground the powerful contemporary movement toward service learning in an equally powerful exploration of democratic histories and aspirations. For the first few years at least, this Center will focus on the unifying theme of Journeys to Democracy, as a way of exploring both global and U.S. struggles over democracy's inherited legacies and contested future.

Journeys to Democracy is a theme that has large potential. Ultimately, it is the kind of theme that can provide a much-needed unifying framework for Americans' learning as both global and U.S. citizens. To my mind--as a parent, an educator, and a citizen in a democracy under "High Alert"--it is time to face up directly to our collective need for a successor curriculum to Western Civilization. Together, we need to devise forms of analysis and exploration that can provide--for this tumultuous era of global interdependence--new ways of exploring democracy's past, present, and future.

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