Princeton historian Sean Wilentz prefaced his 2005 offering, The Rise of American Democracy, Jefferson to Lincoln, with a timely and chilling reminder. It is as apt for education as it is for the subject of his scholarship, the roots and practices of American democracy.
"Democracy is never a gift bestowed by benevolent, farseeing rulers who seek to reinforce their own legitimacy," Wilentz says. "It must always be fought for, by political coalitions that cut across distinctions of wealth, power, and interest. It succeeds and survives only when it is rooted in the lives and expectations of its citizens, and is continually reinvigorated in each generation. Democratic successes are never irreversible."
Our democratic and educational successes are inseparably coupled.
James Madison saw a direct link between education and the ability of individuals to understand and to grapple with the complex issues of self-governance. "A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps, both," Madison said.
Madison recognized the inherent dangers in governments that are unaccountable to the scrutiny of the public. "A people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives," he said. Madison thought that schools, like the press, were obligated to provide keystones of the democratic foundation. "Learned institutions ought to be favorite objects with every free people," Madison said. "They throw that light over the public mind which is the best security against crafty and dangerous encroachments on the public liberty." Like Thomas Jefferson, Madison lobbied for the creation of a national university and was frustrated in his efforts. The nation in the post-Revolutionary era, as now, was not prepared to fully embrace the obligation to educate in order to sustain a new theory and practice of sovereignty.
Democracy and education are stressed today by a confluence of powerful forces. Some are deeply rooted in political self-interest and the amassment of personal wealth, some in cultural, nationalistic or religious proselytizing that defy the constitutional foundations of the American democratic experiment and that devalue the appreciation for, and the practice of, the tenets of education, political accountability, and individual rights upon which the Framers drew their vision of a new relationship between nation states and citizens. Historian Henry Steele Commager called it "a dangerous illusion," however, to assume that democracy is more difficult now, or under greater stress today than ever before, "for it permits us to excuse our failures on the plausible argument that after all, no other generation ever faced crises as grave as ours. The problems which confronted the Revolutionary generation were quite as complex, as importunate, and as frightening as those which confront us now," Commager said.
It is no less a dangerous illusion to assume that each of the threats to educating citizens to participate effectively in the democracy materialize from policies and ethos borne entirely of an upwelling beyond the academy. Democracy requires a population with the tools to understand complex questions of policy; the learned ability to identify consequence; sufficient understanding of history; and at least rudimentary knowledge of multiple ways of knowing and recognition of events beyond our personal environments if we are to avoid violent deceptions and crafty and selfish encroachments on our liberty. We have confused these arts of liberty with marketing-like references to how much we value the liberal arts. We have no one to blame but ourselves in the university if in place of a meaningful requirement for an understanding of our constitutional democracy and awareness of its obligations and costs, we retail viewbook and consumer-oriented curricula.
It is popular and often convenient to point to the nineteenth-century establishment of land grant colleges as a recognition of the need for both academic study and the learning of the mechanical arts. …