Universities should make democracy education a requirement

Universities have an obligation to restore democracy education as a core element of their institutional mission and should make rigorous study of democracy a requirement, Ronald J Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University, America's first research university, told the Magna Charta Observatory anniversary conference hosted at the University of Bologna, Italy, last week.

“By this I mean a requirement that incorporates a rigorous study of the ways in which the democratic experiment has achieved its highest aspirations, as well as the ways in which it has fallen short of its ideals of equality, liberty, and opportunity,” said Daniels.

Universities are essential not just within democracy but within liberal democracy, he said, defining the latter as where government by majority rule is balanced by protection of individual – and especially minority – rights.

“This distinction is not simply academic. For years, we have witnessed the rapid rise of illiberal democracies around the globe. In countries like Hungary, the parties in power have maintained nominal majoritarian rule as elected leaders chip away at core democratic institutions (universities among them).

“Under such a looming threat, liberal democracy is more precious than ever.”

Data from the Varieties of Democracy Institute had found that the share of the world’s population living in democracies has dropped from 52% to 32%.

“Fuelled by bigotry, extremism, and a growing antipathy towards democratic institutions, the number of liberal democracies in the world has plummeted to levels that haven’t been seen since the latter days of the Cold War, wiping out decades of liberal democratic gains,” he said.

“We don’t have to look far to see the evidence of this retreat, from the shocking attack on the United States Capitol building on 6 January 2021 to Putin’s horrifying, unjust, and – I pray – ill-fated war of aggression in Ukraine.”

Universities must step up

He argued that in a moment like this one, it is incumbent upon every institution with a stake in the liberal democratic experiment to step up and vigorously protect it. This includes universities.

“Universities, I believe, need liberal democracy to thrive and flourish. At the same time, our universities are indispensable institutions in their contributions to good, democratic governance.”

In his book, What Universities Owe Democracy, drawing on his own experience as a university leader in Canada and the United States, he argues that universities have the capacity to contribute to liberal democracy in four distinct ways:

• Advancing social mobility by launching students up the socio-economic ladder.

• Educating students in the values, history and skills needed to be good citizens.

• Stewarding facts and cultivating expertise that can be used to inform the public and policy and check power.

• Fostering pluralism by bringing people from vastly different backgrounds together and teaching them how to engage with each other meaningfully across their differences.

Advancing the American dream

Although liberal democracy is premised on the belief that people regardless of their station at birth should have the opportunity to build their own success – “we call it the American dream” – higher education isn’t nearly as equitable as it should be at making that dream a reality, he argued.

Indeed, in the United States, 45% of children whose parents hold four-year degrees (and 60% whose parents hold postgraduate degrees) graduate from a four-year college, compared to only 17% of children whose parents did not attend college.

In Europe, almost three-quarters of children whose parents graduated from university go on to graduate themselves, compared to less than a third of those whose parents didn’t.

One more distressing statistic from the US was, as Harvard economist Raj Chetty found, that nearly 40 top American colleges and universities enrolled more students from families in the top 1% of income earners than the bottom 60%.

A key factor was the “tragic retreat” over recent decades in government support for the Pell Grant – for low-income students – which has gone from covering nearly all of college education to less than a third of the cost of attendance.

However, universities are also to blame for adopting admissions policies that advantage wealthy students over poor ones – for instance via interest and legacy preferences – Daniels argued.

The role of civic education

The second area where colleges and universities serve democracy is civic education.

Dissatisfaction with democracy has risen substantially in nations across the globe, with very few exceptions, and is acute among young people, including university students. However, universities rarely do enough to educate students in the values, virtues, and philosophical underpinnings of liberal democracy, Daniels argued.

“Too often, we have been content to let primary and secondary schools bear that burden. We don’t have that luxury any longer. In the US, only about 25% of American K-12 students demonstrate even a rudimentary level of proficiency in civics.”

With 70% of high school graduates going on to immediately enrol in post-secondary school each year and so many lacking a sufficient foundation in civics, university educators have an obligation to “restore education for democracy as a core element of our institutional mission”.

A democracy requirement

“At the centre of any effort,” Daniels argues, “should be some kind of ‘Democracy Requirement’.

“By this I mean a requirement that incorporates a rigorous study of the ways in which the democratic experiment has achieved its highest aspirations, as well as the ways in which it has fallen short of its ideals of equality, liberty, and opportunity.

“But whatever specific form it takes, this education should be neither reactionary, nor radical, but even-handed and comprehensive. And, above all, it should provide students with the knowledge and tools to renew democracy’s promise.”

He conceded that even Johns Hopkins – which has a campuses in Maryland and Washington, US, but also at the University of Bologna and in Nanjing, China – still had work to do to ensure all students participate in democracy courses.

Facts more fragile than ever

Turning to the issue of facts, he said: “Facts are the life-blood of democratic life. They are indispensable to public decision-making and debate. And yet, facts are more fragile than ever.”

This is especially so due to the rise of authoritarian regimes, who cannot abide being constrained by them. Universities, on the other hand, “have a profound responsibility to preserve and publish facts”, he said. However, this role has been subverted and over the past two decades cracks have appeared in the academic research enterprise.

Chief among these is the “reproducibility crisis”. Study upon study demonstrates that an unsettling amount of research in the life sciences and social sciences cannot be replicated.

“Meanwhile, important areas of scientific inquiry like climate change have become so polarised as to resist sober, evidence-based disagreement,” said Daniels. This has fuelled partisan attacks on universities “that accuse us of being places driven more by ideology than a commitment to truth”.

Openness and transparency is needed to burnish trust with the public, he argued. Europe is on the cutting edge of open access and open science. However, the Biden administration has also recently announced a rule that would make taxpayer-funded research available to the public without any embargo period.

Microcosms of pluralism

The last way that colleges and universities serve democratic society is by acting as microcosms of pluralistic democracy that bring students into meaningful contact with peers whose backgrounds and beliefs differ from their own, said Daniels.

“A healthy democracy depends on interaction, dialogue, and vigorous contestation of values and ideas across a vast spectrum of experiences to forge democratic compromise, consensus, and will.”

Yet currently, citizens seem less and less able to communicate effectively across their differences.

“Evidence shows that people increasingly regard those with whom they disagree with [and] distrust, and see in those who hold opposing political views [as] enemies whose ideas are to be feared and silenced, rather than fellow citizens whom they can engage and learn from,” Daniels said.

He cited the fact that in the United States in the last 50 years, the share of Republicans and Democrats who say they would be upset by one of their children marrying a member of the opposing political party has risen from about 5% for each party, to more than 25% for Republicans and 20% for Democrats.

“For a great many young people, university is one of their first opportunities to leave the communities in which they grew up and to interact with others from different racial, religious, regional, socioeconomic, and political backgrounds,” Daniels said.

“Over the past several decades in the US, higher education has become more diverse than ever. And yet, for all that we have done for representation, I believe we have not fully or adequately fostered in our students a capacity for exchanges across these differences that are foundational to a healthy democracy.”

He argued that one reason for this was that American universities have fallen into the trap of allowing students to choose where they live, whom they live with, where they dine, and what classes they take. Research has shown that when given these choices students will most often choose to associate with people who look like them and share similar backgrounds, he said.

“Essentially, we have given our students a pass to opt out of encounters with people dissimilar from themselves.

“And even when encounters across differences do occur, these are more likely to be superficial and fleeting, presenting little opportunity for self-reflection and reasonable, substantive disagreement.”

Corrosive effects of polarisation

He said: “At a moment when we are seeing the corrosive effects of polarisation and hearing so much about the deleterious effects of ‘cancel culture’ – whether such a culture is real or perceived – perhaps we should start not by pointing fingers, but by doing the work to ensure that our students first understand how to live alongside one another and speak to one another about difficult issues in our society.”

Universities should be working harder at fostering a stronger culture of debate and dialogue on their campuses.

“Universities have become too reliant on single speakers, or panels of speakers, who are in broad agreement with one another,” Daniels said.

One study found that American universities typically sponsor only about one event per year in which panellists debate a public policy issue that incorporates different perspectives.

Daniels said Johns Hopkins has recently launched a Debate Initiative that will “model precisely this kind of engagement for our community through multiple marquee debates between intellectual leaders as well as student-organised debates around a host of issues.

“Committing ourselves to more disagreement in our public events is one way we believe we can educate our community in the art of debate and the importance of civic friendship. And we should do this in the pursuit of instilling in our campuses a more purposeful pluralism.”

Communities hostile and suspicious

He said universities face many hurdles right now – from financial hardship and the lingering uncertainty caused by the pandemic to governments, legislatures, and communities that are suspicious, if not hostile to, the academic enterprise to disruptions caused by war and conflict.

Indeed, not long ago, one current candidate for the US Senate – and a graduate of Yale – delivered a speech with the chilling title, ‘Universities are the enemy’.

“Under such extraordinary pressures, it can feel like we have to be always on defence, making it difficult to even imagine launching new initiatives to support democracy. Yet I believe sincerely, and deeply, that this is what we must do,” he said.

“We are indispensable to the democratic project, and I believe now is our moment to renew and magnify that role in the months and years ahead.”

University World News was a media partner for the Magna Charta Observatory Conference. University World News retains full editorial independence in its reporting of the conference.