Education for a Democracy
In other words, the founders understood that a liberal education was important to the democratic-republic they were building.
Now I realize that all of this might sound rather elitist. As the product of a working class family, it has always sounded elitist to me. I am the first person in my family to get a four-year degree. I have thus long appreciated and respected those who work with their hands. Our society needs carpenters and history majors, mechanics and sociologists. My brother is a plumber. My other brother is an interior trim contractor. My father was a general contractor and now, in his retirement, he is about to start working at Home Depot. Indeed, Santorum and Obama are right when they say that not everyone should get a four-year college education. In order for our economy to function we need people who are trained in professional schools, vocational schools, community colleges, and apprenticeships.
But is the kind of training necessary for a service-oriented capitalist economy to function the same kind of training necessary for a democracy to flourish? It would seem that the study of history, literature, philosophy, chemistry, politics, anthropology, biology, religion, rhetoric, and economics is essential for producing the kind of informed citizen necessary for a democracy to thrive. Democracy requires what the late Christopher Lasch called "the lost art of argument"—the ability to engage unfamiliar ideas and enter "imaginatively into our opponent's arguments, if only for the purpose of refuting them." The liberal arts teach this kind of civil dialogue. The founders knew what they were talking about.
Here's a thought: What if all Americans were required to take two years of post-secondary liberal arts training? Many high school teachers do excellent work in teaching liberal arts subjects, but others do not. The incivility of our culture wars and the toxic nature of our public discourse suggest that more training in these fields is needed. Our students need information, but they also need to learn how to critique an argument, speak clearly and with respect to those with whom they differ, and entertain opposing beliefs in a benevolent fashion. I would even suggest that this training should take place after a person reaches the age of 30, when citizens are more aware of the practical benefits of the liberal arts in their daily lives.
But let's not stop there. What if we also required American citizens (who are able) to do two years of physical labor—on a construction site or a road crew or a farm or someplace else? Such a requirement would give us all a deeper respect for the virtues of work. It would connect us to the land. It would teach us humility. It would be good for our bodies. It would teach us to work—literally—together. Jefferson, the same founding father who called for an informed citizenry, also said that "those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God."
We should be worried about our democracy. We have replaced reasoned argument and debate with shouting matches. We need education—a liberal arts education rooted in the social sciences, hard sciences, and especially the humanities—to help cure our societal ills. We have proven that we can educate people for a capitalist economy, but we may have lost the founders' original vision of education for a democracy.
John Fea chairs the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, PA, and is the author of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction (Westminster John Knox Press, 2011). He blogs daily at philipvickersfithian.com.