Magazine article Liberal Education

Democracy, Leadership, & the Role of Liberal Education

Magazine article Liberal Education

Democracy, Leadership, & the Role of Liberal Education

Article excerpt

THE DESIRE FOR strong central leadership and clear, expedient answers to our national predicament since September 11 is understandable. We see this desire in the new emphasis placed on virtually every public utterance of the President, in the unrealistic expectation of a simple and tidy end to the war in Afghanistan, in the frustration at our inability to find the source of the anthrax attacks, in our wish for a magical solution to turmoil in the Middle East, and in the recurrent pleas for a national "return to normalcy."

Paradoxically, however, the strength of our country's response may lie not in the expedient satisfaction of these understandable but mostly unattainable desires. If our strength as a nation lies in our democracy-and many would argue that it does-then it is also true that complexity, diverse leadership, and education are essential to an effective response. We can find evidence for the strength of our contemporary American democracy in two places: the sheer breadth and depth of this democracy and the educated citizenry on which it is built.

The importance of education is implicit in the history of democracy itself. Some of the earliest philosophers, Plato and Aristotle among them, shared a concern (born of elitism as much as intellect) about rule by those deemed less qualified to make decisions-the mob, the unpropertied, the poor. Over time, these concerns were muted by an understanding of the larger conditions necessary for a just democracy, including respect for minority rights, support of basic economic and personal freedoms, and-not incidentally-the over-- arching need for an educated citizenry. For if such decisions as affairs of state are to be left directly to citizens or their elected representatives, the need for citizens to be educated assumes profound importance. Education in this vision of democracy calls on the classical notion of an informed citizenry-individuals who are able to think, reason, analyze, and reflect with discrimination and care.

Breadth of democracy

The majority of activities on and since September 11 have focused near New York and Washington D.C., on what have come to be called "symbolic targets." In terms of our government, they have focused on the federal system: the White House, Capitol Hill, the Pentagon. But attacking these visible manifestations of the nation does not begin to strike at the heart of our democracy. By popular vote we elect positions ranging from governor to port commissioner to local school board. We have so many elected officials it has been suggested that we suffer from an excess of democracy (and when I spend hours reviewing the initiatives on this year's Washington State ballot, it can be hard to disagree).

But it is these local officials, as much as those at the national level, who will be charged with providing local security, with bringing communities together, with building local and regional coalitions. And, as we have seen in New York, it is citizens at the local level, elected and unelected, who will assume responsibility for the safety, healing, and cohesion of their communities. In short, because democracy is sustained at the local level across the country, it cannot be destroyed by attacking discrete national symbols of that democracy. It is in the very nature of democracy to disperse power and control.

Centers of leadership

Of course, if power is dispersed, we also need leaders and citizens at all levels who can rise to the occasion. Resources, research, and education are a part of creating that leadership. In fact, the need for diverse centers of leadership is part of the contemporary writing on leadership. Alexander and Helen Astin, themselves established leaders in American higher education, have recently published Leadership Reconsidered: Engaging Higher Education in Social Change. In it, they argue that "Leaders..are not necessarily those who merely hold formal leadership positions; on the contrary, all people are potential leaders. …

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