Our purpose is to cultivate in the largest possible number of our future citizens an appreciation of both the responsibilities and the benefits which come to them because they are American and they are free.—Harvard University President James Bryant Conant in the preface to the 1945 report, General Education in a Free Society.
Concerns about the fragility of democracy are coming from across the political spectrum, as illustrated by the appearance of essays and interviews in the last several weeks from representatives of both ends of it, for example, Donald Kagan of Yale University from the right and columnist E. J. Dionne from the left. And they both have points well-taken in lamenting the trend, with the obvious dysfunction in evidence throughout the Western democracies, but they also have different perspectives.
Dionne sees the problem as a weakness in the ability of governments to deliver on the common goods that people want and need, and says that, “since World War II, bouts of economic growth have allowed the democracies to buy their way out of trouble. One can hope this will happen again—and soon”. This seems to me a utilitarian approach. But he quotes from a recent report by the Transatlantic Academy, a global partnership of think tanks, entitled “The Democratic Disconnect”, which begins with the opening statement, “Democracy is in trouble; the collective engagement of a concerned citizenry for the public good –the bedrock of a healthy democracy—is eroding”.
In my reading, Kagan has a more fundamental view of the issue grounded in the failures of our education system to define this public good. In a recent Wall Street Journal interview, he says, “Universities are failing students and hurting American democracy. Curricula are individualized, unfocused, and scattered. I find a kind of cultural void, an ignorance of the past, a sense of rootlessness and aimlessness. Rare are faculty with atypical views. Still rarer is an informed understanding of the traditions and institutions of our Western civilization and of our country and an appreciation of their special qualities and values”.
Democracy, he has written, is “one of the rarest, most delicate and fragile flowers in the jungle of human experience”. It relies on “free, autonomous, and self-reliant citizens and extraordinary leadership to flourish, even survive”, and he notes that these kinds of citizens aren’t born—they need to be educated. He is exactly on point and it is in this role that our intellectual community, largely represented by our elite universities, has failed us.
It is not as though we haven’t been warned over the years, beginning most prominently by Allen Bloom in his 1987 bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind, and we don’t have to look very far to see new evidence in the form of two recent studies by the National Association of Scholars, one on the prominence of race, class, and gender studies in the American history curricula of The University of Texas and Texas A&M University, and the other a scathing across the board expose’ and indictment of the moral corruption and political intimidation at Bowdoin College. And I suspect that these cases are but illustrations of much deeper problems throughout higher education, despite the islands of excellence that persist against all odds.
Has democracy had its day? Are the foundations of self-government in our education system crumbling? The trend doesn’t look promising, and we had better get about the business of turning it around. In a recent issue of First Things, R. R. Reno describes civic friendship as “possible across any number of disparities and inequalities if they are encompassed by a larger common purpose, commitment, or belief”. In other words, a sense of the common good. But you can’t defend what you haven’t been taught and don’t understand and, unfortunately, it seems that we have spent the past half century in disarming ourselves.