Education for a Democracy

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.

3/13/2012 4:00:00 AM
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  • John Fea
    About John Fea
    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