The Democratic Mission of the University

By Fiss, Owen | Albany Law Review, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

The Democratic Mission of the University


Fiss, Owen, Albany Law Review


The university is a self-governing institution dedicated to the discovery and dissemination of knowledge. (1) As a historical matter, universities were not borne of the democratic impulse and many of their grandest achievements are wholly unrelated to the furtherance of democracy. Yet today they function in such a way in the United States so as to enhance and strengthen the quality of its democratic system.

Democracy is a system of collective self-governance in which the people shape their public life. The leaders of government are chosen by citizens and then held accountable for their actions through a series of periodic elections. In this way, democracy exalts popular choice. It also presumes, however, that this choice is enlightened. Citizens need to understand the nature of the choices that they face, and must possess the capacity to evaluate the policies and practices of the government and its leaders. Although unenlightened choice is still a choice, that kind of choice and the democratic character of the political system that it supports are not especially inspiring or worthy of our admiration.

The university plays an important role in the process of enlightenment that democracy presumes. Some branches of the university, for example, the departments of political science, sociology, and law, are dedicated to discovering and disseminating knowledge that has a direct bearing on public policies. These departments routinely study the promises of those running for office and the programs that the winners eventually implement. Other departments, like philosophy and literature, or the humanities in general, are concerned with the formation of the moral and political values that will guide citizens in the exercise of their choices. Even the hard sciences play a vital role in informing this process of self-determination. Scientific knowledge is essential for evaluating many government policies, such as those related to the environment, the development of alternative sources of energy, and bio-medical research. Even more, the physical and biological sciences, much like the other branches of the university, are responsible for the intellectual and cultural development of society and enhance citizens' capacity to understand themselves and the world around them.

Professors are the ones primarily responsible for the discovery and production of knowledge. Some of this knowledge is made available to the public through books, articles, public lectures, and the occasional op-ed. Most of it is imparted to students in their classes. Students enter the university at an early age and are enrolled in it for only a few short years. They should be viewed not as passive vessels but rather as active participants in the process through which opinions and beliefs are tested and knowledge revealed. They speak back in class, often challenging the day's lecture, and they also undertake research projects. Admittedly, students engaged in research are guided and supervised by their teachers, but this does not lessen the importance of their research and the discoveries that it may yield.

The contribution of the university to the nation's democratic life is not measured solely by the storehouse of knowledge that it produces. The university also enhances the practice of democracy by instilling in students and faculty a critical frame of mind. (2) Ideally, faculty members are hired and promoted not just on the basis of what they discover, but also on the basis of their capacity to sift through evidence, detect logical flaws, and distinguish a good argument from a bad one. The faculty teach these skills to the students, sometimes only by example, and these lessons are reinforced by the so-called informal curriculum of the university--the many activities and programs that students engage in outside of class, such as working on a student journal or participating in a debate society. Rational inquiry and independence of judgment are virtues that govern all facets of university life. …

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