Democracy and the Liberal Arts

Liberal Arts

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is on a mission. He’s part of an old American political tradition dating to the 1850s, the tradition of Know-Nothing-ism. It’s a nativist strain of the far right that is anti-minority, anti-immigrant, historically anti-Catholic, and above all, anti-education. 

DeSantis is doing a pretty good job of despoiling higher education in Florida. He has taken over New College, one of the few quality schools in the underserved state, and installed his cronies there. He doesn’t just want to get rid of African-American Studies Advanced Placement courses. He wants to dump all Advanced Placement. Because who needs learning?

DeSantis isn’t the first graduate of Harvard Law School to rail against “elitism” in education. Former Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pennsylvania) famously criticized President Barack Obama for wanting everyone to go to college. “What a snob!” Santorum sneered at the idea of more people reaching higher levels of schooling. 

There’s a lot that these know-nothing demagogues don’t know (or worse, pretend not to know in order to get votes). But let’s focus here on just three of those things. 

  1.  Education is the primary social good.

One is that education of any kind — including liberal education, STEM, technical, vocational, or pre-professional education –– isn’t just good for a particular student. It’s good for society. A more educated society is a more prosperous, more engaged, better-informed, and more productive society. Things like Pell Grants and loan forgiveness help all of us. This is an idea that right-wing politicians like DeSantis don’t get — or don’t want to get. 

  1. Elitism comes in different flavors; pick the right one.

A second problem with the know-nothing is their use of the term “elitism.” They have devised, and now exacerbate, what I call the Great American Con: the idea that educational elites, not economic elites, are the avatars of power and privilege and enemies of the average struggling American. 

These proudly ignorant Harvard alums and other liberal arts grads on the far right would have us believe that billionaires and big corporations and hedge funds aren’t the reason the American Dream has slipped out of reach for many. They want us to suppose it’s about the educated vs. the uneducated rather than haves vs. have-nots — and Americans have largely bought into that invidious lie. 

  1. Democracy means not falling in with the wrong countries. 

Even more important than national prosperity or lies about elitism is the overall health of our democracy. It isn’t just an up-or-down, yes-or-no question; there are many ways democracies can falter without disappearing, sliding instead toward a state of “anocracy,” or highly imperfect democracy. Turkey and Hungary are anocratic examples we don’t want to follow. But in recent years, we’ve been on that downward trajectory as a country, thanks to widespread political lies, attempted crimes (like Jan. 6th), and attempts to limit voting. 

A democracy can withstand a lot of this garbage and remain democratic. But it can’t become a dump.

  1. The liberal arts are not a luxury or a frill. 

The liberal arts, like a free press, aren’t just good for a democracy; they are essential. (In fact, there are important ways in which they are inextricably connected.)  The liberal arts promote citizenship: contextual as well as specific knowledge, engagement, community, and dialogue. That’s why we learn things besides (all-important) skills like plumbing, nursing, or mine-laying. We need to learn about society in order to be a democratic society. We need to learn about the world and that we’re part of it. 

Critical thinking, moral reflection, free expression, and the tradition of liberal learning are the bulwarks of democratic life —‚ even if Ron DeSantis and his ilk hate them. Democratic citizens need to learn to reason, argue, tolerate, judge, communicate, and cooperate. 

Without liberal education, in short (and without the adult education we call “journalism”), we would live in an authoritarian nightmare. If leaders such as DeSantis continue to attack or destroy our higher education system, ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls on all of us and for American democracy. 

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About: Acclaimed author and freelance writer Jeffrey Scheuer is an information ecosystem expert. Top press professionals and elite educators have sought his insight on media, politics, and — most recently — higher education. He’s on a mission to illuminate for society what it means to think critically and live as an educated citizen in a thriving democracy. His new book “Inside the Liberal Arts: Critical Thinking and Citizenship” is the only book to systematically relate the liberal arts to thinking rationally and critically. Scheuer takes liberal arts educators, students, media, and consumers through an exploration of the role of higher education in democracy.

By Jeffrey Scheuer

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