Yesterday, a mob attacked the U.S. Capitol in an effort to disrupt the certification of Joe Biden as president-elect. Shockingly, the president of the United States encouraged the assault and then refused to condemn it. While senators and representatives sheltered behind armed guards, right-wing activists paraded through the Capitol halls. Not surprisingly, the siege turned into tragedy, with four persons dying on the Capitol grounds.
As someone who works at the intersection of education and democracy, I found the experience chilling. For those of us schooled in the emerging scholarship on the fragility of democracies, it felt like the inevitable expression of trends at work in our politics for more than a decade. It left me pondering, with even greater intensity, the topic that has occupied me for weeks. As educators, where do we go from here?
Over the next few months, we will all be reflecting on the implications of yesterday’s events, but for me this morning, one thing is evident: our colleges and universities must begin to play a larger role in the preservation of democratic values. In the past, our higher education system has largely pursued a value-neutral agenda. We don’t tell people what to think: we teach them how to think, so they can discover their own values and ideals. This is commendable, indeed beautiful. But I wonder if there are limits. Can we afford to be neutral about the value of democracy?
The survival of democracy in America depends on the existence of a well-educated electorate: voters who can tell the difference between truth and lies, between honesty and demagoguery. It will require voters who are wise and critically aware consumers of social media. It will require voters schooled in American constitutional and democratic values. It will require voters who understand both the greatness and the failings of American democracy evident in our history. And it will require students who understand the very real and concrete differences between alternative forms of government. I am not sure studying these issues can be optional anymore. Can an understanding of history, politics and rational decision making remain an elective course of study? Is civic virtue something we can leave to other institutions — families, churches, political parties and television networks — to teach and encourage? This morning, I think not.
All of us in higher education must recognize that support for democracy is not just a preference that higher education can take or leave, but an essential precondition for our work. When Hitler seized power in Germany, one of the first things his regime did was to purge the universities of Jews and perceived political and intellectual opponents. This has happened many other times in history. Authoritarian regimes cannot afford free universities that encourage critical thought. So if we care about the preservation of academic freedom, we must also care about the preservation of the only governmental system that will allow it to flourish.