Our students don’t understand what it is, so how will they defend it?
by Roosevelt Montás
In this first year of the Trump administration, colleges have emerged as sites of resistance. Many academic leaders have denounced Trump’s presidency as a threat to American values and the future of the university. The combative posture in response to a hostile administration is appropriate — but it will prove hollow unless academe also turns inward and examines the degree to which it has been complicit in the rise of Trumpism.
Consider the response from our community in the immediate wake of the election. Many students and scholars declared that the president-elect was “not our president” and circulated petitions urging Electoral College electors to cast their ballots against Trump, no matter who won their states. It was not uncommon to hear commentators lament that Trump’s victory was a failure of democracy. The painful fact, however, is that our democratic process worked. On November 9, 2016, we woke up to a democratically elected president chosen according to the quirky procedures established by America’s 18th-century founders.
But if the 2016 election was not a failure of democracy, it was a democratic groundswell that threatens liberal democracy. The pervasive conflation of those two ideas — democracy and liberal democracy — points to how higher education has helped create this political moment.
Our students, even at elite institutions, seem to know little about the kind of democracy established by the founders. Most of them probably don’t know that political philosophers before the 18th century condemned democracy as a dangerous idea. They might be shocked to learn that Plato thought it was a one-way road to tyranny; that Thomas Aquinas described it as a degenerate form of government in which the poor oppress the rich; that Thomas Hobbes believed it would stoke the worst passions of human nature. They have probably never read the Federalist Papers and their warning about democracy’s tendency “to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens,” or considered Alexis de Tocqueville’s chilling warnings about the “tyranny of the majority.”
Well aware of the vulnerabilities of democracy, the American founders engineered a system designed to check the democratic power they were unleashing. They designed not simply a democracy, but a liberal democracy — a democracy with emergency brakes against the force of democratic consensus and hedged against itself by constitutional guarantees of freedom, even when the exercise of this freedom goes against popular opinion.
Liberal democracy is now under siege. But unless our students understand what it is, they will be ill-equipped to defend it. Liberal democratic societies depend on the open flow of ideas, goods, and people; transparent government adhering to the rule of law; respect for diversity; tolerance of difference; concern for vulnerable members of society; an independent judiciary; a free press — values that are all under threat in our political climate. And there is a case to be made that universities have been not only negligent but complicit in the deterioration of these values and in the parlous state of our public discourse.
Roosevelt Montás is Director of the Center for the Core Curriculum, at Columbia College. Heholds an A.B., Columbia College (1995), and an M.A. (1996) and Ph.D. (2004) in English, Columbia University. Montás specializes in Antebellum American literature and culture, with a particular interest in American citizenship. As Director of the Center for the Core Curriculum he speaks frequently on the history, meaning, and future of liberal education.