Higher education and democracy

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Macalester College
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This "Household Words" column appeared in the Fall 2006 issue of Macalester Today.

By Brian Rosenberg

"An educated citizenry is the essential instrument for promoting responsible social action and community well-being."

--Eugene Lang

This past June I was one of several American college presidents invited to attend a forum at the Council of Europe headquarters in Strasbourg, France, on "Higher Education and Democratic Culture: Citizenship, Human Rights and Civic Responsibility." (I know, I know, it's a tough job....) The purpose of the forum was to bring together leaders of colleges and universities in the United States and Europe--along with a few representatives from Asia and Australia--to "explore the responsibility of higher education for advancing sustainable democratic culture."

Several thoughts struck me during the course of the meeting. One is that American colleges and universities, for all our challenges and despite the obvious need to do better, are much further along than are our European counterparts in thinking about post-secondary education as preparation for engagement and responsible leadership in local, national and global communities. We educate a larger and more diverse segment of our population in a larger and more diverse set of skills, and we make a more concerted effort to embed vocational preparation within the broader context of what might be termed preparation for citizenship.

Another thought is that American liberal arts colleges by and large define their responsibility to society in different terms than do American research universities: while the latter might identify their chief contribution as the production of important and original research (or at least organize their priorities as if this is their belief), the former would almost certainly identify that contribution as the production of what Frank Rhodes, president emeritus of Cornell University, termed "a steady stream of informed, influential and engaged graduates." Of course, these missions overlap--research universities do produce such graduates, and the faculty at colleges such as Macalester do make significant contributions to scholarship--but the difference in emphasis is real and telling and may help explain why liberal arts college graduates appear, at least to those of us who pay attention to such things, to have a social impact disproportionate to their relatively small numbers.

The belief that informs liberal arts education in America is that democratic citizenship is best fostered not through indoctrination into the virtues of democracy, but through providing what Rhodes called the "essential equipment for the free and educated person" and through addressing what Brenda Gourley, vice-chancellor of Britain's Open University, called "the large issues and challenges of our time and place." In other words, democracy is best served not simply by teaching democracy, but by inculcating the skills, habits of mind and knowledge without which effective democracy is impossible. This is by no means to say that courses in "American Government" or internships at the state capitol are unimportant, any more than it would be unimportant for a student of literature to take courses in the "History and Theory of the Novel"; it is to say, however, that the former are insufficient to produce engaged citizens, just as the latter are insufficient to produce gifted novelists.

This is why courses in physics and painting, geology and classical Greek, are as essential as courses in politics and international studies to the creation of global citizens. They prepare the kinds of individuals--the minds, sensibilities and characters--without which "sustainable democratic culture" is difficult if not impossible. They shape and inform the countless internships, volunteer jobs and community service positions occupied by our students. They strengthen in those students an appreciation of beauty, reason, open-mindedness and rigorous thought. And this is why I continue to believe that maintaining a broad, diverse and challenging curriculum is central to, even the bedrock of, the social mission of Macalester.

This is also why I believe that a widely accessible system of liberal education is a prerequisite for effective democracy. It is not enough to have the right statutes or structures in place; democracy in particular requires the participation of individuals prepared for both the challenges and opportunities of freedom. This preparation, in the words of the organizers of the Strasbourg forum, "encompasses democratic values, ways of knowing and acting, ethical judgments, analytical competencies and skills of engagement." It includes "awareness of and concern for human rights as well as openness to the cultural diversity of human experience and a willingness to give due consideration to the views of others." In sum, preparation for the condition of freedom is the animating work within and beyond the classrooms, laboratories and studios at Macalester.

Higher education indeed bears much responsibility for advancing sustainable democratic culture; the corollary, however, is that democratic societies bear much responsibility for supporting and strengthening higher education, and especially education in the liberal arts. This is a lesson underscored at least since the founding of our particular democracy but of which we can never too often be reminded.