Why democracy needs higher education

The defunding of public higher education currently underway across the country is troubling for many reasons. It is more than just bad policy: gutting public higher education weakens the democratic principles upon which our society is founded—specifically, liberty, equality, and civic participation.

Democracy thrives on liberty, and liberty requires free minds. This is one reason why education is so central to democracy: it provides citizens with the knowledge, skills, and habits of mind that promote independent (and critical) thought, without which democracies wither away. For all their faults, universities are some of the few spaces in our society that remain dedicated to free inquiry, questioning prejudice and authority, and open debate between competing perspectives.

A recent Pew poll found that in Eastern Europe, the staunchest defenders of democratic liberties were those with a university education: “more highly educated people consistently place greater importance on freedom of speech, the press and religion, and honest elections than do those with less education.” This is what Thomas Jefferson was getting at when he wrote that taxes paid towards public education are “not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests & nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.” Ensuring that as many Americans as possible can cultivate their intellectual autonomy at public universities is vital to our democracy’s health.

Another cardinal virtue of democracy is equality. At a time of unprecedented income disparities, this is something that many public officials overlook. Higher education has long been a pathway to equality for historically excluded and oppressed groups. The strides made by African-Americans towards greater equality have always marched in lockstep with greater access to education, particularly higher education. The Civil Rights movement made possible such critical watersheds as Brown vs. Board of Education, Hawkins v. Board of Control (launching desegregation in higher education), and the Higher Education Act of 1965 (which provided aid to low-income students and minority institutions). Though complete equality in access to higher education remained elusive, the number of African-Americans attending universities—particularly public universities—increased significantly from the 1960s until the mid-1970s.

In many ways, the storyline of higher education in the United States has always been one of increasing access (and thus equality), particularly through public universities. The 1862 Morrill Act, in creating a uniquely American system of public universities funded by federal land grants, made education available to large swathes of the population for whom elite East Coast institutions were not an option. The 1944 GI Bill provided over two million veterans with a college education to honor their service overseas. Title IX, passed in 1972, made major strides in reducing sex discrimination on college campuses. The current efforts to defund public higher are bringing this progressive trend to a grinding halt.

Finally, higher education encourages civic participation. Political scientist Edward Glaeser found that “[e]ducation raises the benefits of political participation and draws relatively more people to support democracy.” The college educated vote at a higher rate than the general population: in 2010, for example, 61% of Americans with a college degree cast a ballot, compared to 35% of those with a high school diploma or less. Investing in higher education, in short, means encouraging political participation.

The defunding of higher education is occurring at a moment when the democratic character of our institutions is under assault. Consider these disturbing trends: the gerrymandering of legislative districts, the adoption of voter suppression laws (particularly targeting college students), and the massive influence wielded by billionaires and corporations in campaigns (due to the Citizens United decision). These national trends are also very present in North Carolina. A reasonable person can wonder whether we still live in a functioning democracy. The politicians attacking higher education are the same ones who are attempting to undermine our democracy. This is no coincidence.

In 1947, President Truman’s Commission on Higher Education declared: “Education is the foundation of democratic liberties. Without an educated citizenry alert to preserve and extend freedom, it would not long endure.” It was once second nature for our leaders to invoke democracy when justifying public support for higher education (however much our democracy fell short, in practice, of these lofty ideals). Clearly, we need public universities that are better funded. But just as importantly, we need to renew with of tradition of making the preservation of democratic values central to our justification of higher education. Our democracy depends on it.

Dr. Michael C. Behrent is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Appalachian State University.

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