Education for a Democracy

GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum made news recently when he called Barack Obama a "snob" for saying that all Americans should get a college education. He supported his attack on the president with the now popular refrain, "college is not for everyone." Some Americans, he said, might be better suited for vocational training, community college, or apprenticeships.

It took only a few hours for pundits to figure out that Obama had basically said the same thing in a recent State of the Union Address, but in the world of presidential politics Santorum's remarks probably scored some points among the conservative faithful.

But let's consider the position taken by Santorum and Obama on this issue. Are the President and the former Senator correct in asserting that a liberal arts education is not for everyone? Maybe another lesson from the founding fathers is in order.

Most of the founders did not trust the uneducated masses. Many of them believed that common people, because of their lack of education, were not fully equipped for citizenship in a republic. Thomas Jefferson said that a "well-informed citizenry is the only true repository of the public will." When Thomas Paine published "Common Sense," a 1776 pamphlet that proposed a new American government based on the "common sense" of ordinary people, John Adams called it a "poor, ignorant, malicious, short-sighted, crapulous mass." Jefferson wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1782) that "government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone."

Were the founders right? The debate will continue, but the founders now have some psychological research on their side. David Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell University, and Justin Kruger, a former Cornell graduate student, have found that incompetent people are unable to judge the competence of other people or the validity of their ideas. And their study implies that most people are incompetent. Dunning and Kruger conclude that "very smart ideas are going to be hard for people to adopt, because most people don't have the sophistication to recognize how good an idea is." They add: "To the extent that you are incompetent, you are a worse judge of incompetence in other people."

Moreover, Dunning and Kruger have found that most people think too highly of their ability to understand complex ideas. They are self-delusional about their own knowledge. Even when they are judged by an outside evaluator as being poor at a particular task, they claim that their performance was "above average."

If Dunning and Kruger are correct, then what does this say about American democracy? Perhaps the founders were right after all.

The founders believed that because people were ignorant by nature, and thus incapable of understanding what was best for the common good, education was absolutely essential to the survival of the American republic. This is why Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, the nation's first public university. This is why George Washington, in his 1796 message to Congress, called for a national university that would teach the arts and sciences.

When the founders talked about education, they did not mean vocational training or apprenticeships. While this type of training was certainly important, they also wanted a citizenry trained in government, ethics (moral philosophy), history, rhetoric, science (natural philosophy), mathematics, logic, and classical languages, for these subjects made people informed and civil participants in a democratic society.

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.