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Concerned about American democracy? Focus on the liberal arts

The nation is nearing the end of a political season so contentious that the very notion of American democracy seems to be in peril. The presidential campaign, among other divisive local and national races, has shone a light on exactly how deep fissures run within communities and between political and social groups.

John Coleman

Across the country, people are asking where we go from here and how we can move beyond deadlock and discord. Liberal arts education, one of our great national resources, is essential on our path forward. The manner in which a society is educated will determine its ability to sustain a social contract, resolve conflict, and participate in its own governance. To ensure a thriving American democracy, we must ensure a thriving liberal arts.

Today’s deep political divides exhibit an inability to have a fruitful interchange of ideas, an unwillingness to consider competing views respectfully, and a sense that it is not even worth listening to the other side lest one be shamed by one’s like-minded partisans.

As a political scientist by training I see disagreement, debate and discussion as essential aspects of a healthy democracy. Conflict should not frighten us. But there is no doubt that conflict and the way conflict is expressed can spin out of control and lead citizens to become deeply disillusioned with politics and their political system. Even among my fellow political scientists, I hear a level of lament that is unusual, and this is from those both on the political left and right.

A great national asset

So why should we care about the liberal arts? Look around and you will see that the liberal arts are maligned almost as much as our politics. But the liberal arts model is one of our greatest national assets and one that nations around the world are seeking to emulate. These nations see what we perhaps lose sight of: that the liberal arts build empathy and compassion, the very foundations of democracy.

Empathy is a value, but it is also a skill. And it is not a nice-to-have skill, but a vital element in a healthy democracy. Effective and respectful conversation between people with different views is not possible if people are not willing to look at the world through another person’s eyes.

And that is exactly what the liberal arts promote. We investigate history to understand people of the past. We get into the minds of characters in a play or novel. We study the motivations and perspectives of voters, those facing economic or psychological challenges, and people with different political or religious worldviews. And when all other lines of communication seem frozen in division, we create art that speaks to our common humanity, and brings people together in conversation.

The inherently interdisciplinary nature of the best liberal arts education challenges students to discern rigorously and think critically through a wide variety of fields, research and methods of inquiry. A genuine openness to, and fair consideration of, diverse points of view — including among those of us doing the teaching and research — is essential.

The road to trust and community

Once you have established healthy dialogue — or at least reached the point where you can agree to disagree — you have started to build trust, and ultimately community. And here too, the liberal arts play a vital role.

We study how communities are defined, how they change, how they prosper, and how they weaken. We offer insights about how individuals and communities thrive -- or not. We examine and learn from political communities where conflict led to collapse and those where conflict led to common ground.

Politics is not easy -- nor should it be. Much is at stake. Vigorous and forceful argument and counterargument capture our attention. They energize us and stir us to participate. We should not pine for dull and boring politics.

But we must be open to different perspectives. The liberal arts teach us to act toward others with humility and respect because we recognize there are multiple ways to look at the world. 

Placing value on empathy and community allows individuals and groups to engage in productive debate while maintaining a commitment to societal well-being. At this time of national and global uncertainty, the liberal arts can provide a steady foundation for democracy.

John Coleman is the dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota and professor of political science. He studies political parties, campaign finance, and elections.

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Comments (3)

Liberal Arts and democracy

This is an appealing sentiment, but the evidence for the effectiveness of the proposed cure is discouraging. Ever since the time of the GI Bill, the fraction of the U. S. voting-age population that has been to college or university has risen. The average citizen now has more years of formalized education, including its liberal arts component, than in previous generations. Yet the quality of the public discussion is poor, as described. This does not mean that higher ed has not accomplished good things in this regard. Without the liberal arts component in U. S. undergraduate curricula, which few other countries come close to, the situation might have been even worse. Dr. Coleman seems to be pushing traditional liberal arts education. Higher ed practitioners need to stop patting themselves on the back and figure out a different, more effective, approach. More of the same is not going to help much. Nurturing civilization is the job of every educated person, and should be recognized as the most important part of the job-preparation mindset that has taken over post-secondary schooling.

A different curriculum

That average citizen with more years of higher education than was formerly the norm may not have encountered so much of the traditional liberal arts studies. A big institution such as the University of Minnesota may offer a diversity of classes and specialized undergraduate courses that allows the prospective graduate to matriculate without gaining a solid core of reference. And which paradoxically, together with the sheer size and shifting nature of the student body at the large, rather impersonal institution sited in a metropolitan area, may not exactly encourage the kinds of personal discussion and dialogue that should help broaden interests and help develop inquiring minds. It's a different scene than what Robert Hutchins of the University of Chicago advocated many years ago.

I also wonder about the quality of the history and civics studies taught at elementary and high school levels.

The pernicious threat to democracy and education at hand

Yes, politics is not easy and we should welcome vigorous and forceful argument. But discussion of a liberal arts education itself becomes somewhat "academic" if we don't deal with the pressing matter at hand.
Defeating Donald Trump is the first order of business in protecting not just a liberal arts education but all education and democracy. Education is not served by a president who thinks of it as a way making money by issuing worthless degrees to his own university.
Democracy is not served by man who admires Putin and the tyrants of Tiananmen square as strong leaders. Want to serve the cause of liberal arts education? GOTV for Hillary.