Democracy Needs to be Taught


The March issue of Harper’s magazine offered an article “America’s Best Idea” which turned out to be a defense of public universities. The sad part, of course, is that they need any defense. One of the great things about the United States is that it not only has some of the finest universities in the world, but some of these schools are state universities. When US News ranked Best Global Universities, their top 4 slots went to American private universities, and then Oxford slipped in at number 5 and Cambridge at 6. But what was impressive was that UCLA made number 8 and the University of Washington #11. Looking at the rankings it seems as if the people doing the rankings have a strong preference for English speaking universities, but it seems safe to generalize: some of the best universities in the world are in the United States, and some of those schools are state schools. Or were. There’s something chilling about the fact that the highest ranked public universities are all part of the University of California system. Other traditional public ivies seem to have slipped.

In past years state universities were very much like private universities with better football teams or at least bigger football players. Then, in 2010, many state governments flipped from Democratic to Republican, and the attitude of the state government towards the state university turned around. The University of Wisconsin has made one of the fastest reversals of any public university with elimination of tenure and changes in faculty control of the school. The faculty of the University scheduled a vote of no-confidence in university leadership, which State Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, (R-Kukauna) described as evidence of the arrogance of the faculty. “It’s a clear example of the complete disconnect between UW-Madison faculty who seem to expect their job to come with a forever guarantee and the average Wisconsin family struggling just to make ends meet.”

Tenure is far from a guarantee of job security, but it is intended to make it a bit more difficult to fire tenured faculty than adjunct. And Mr. Steineke’s comments sound like a clear threat to anybody who might want to express an unfavorable opinion of Gov. Scott Walker (R) and his friends. When Gov. Walker dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination for president, after apparently receiving a no-confidence vote from the Koch brothers, he spoke about “basic conservative principles of limited government and a strong military ...” It’s not quite clear how the principle of limited government fits in with Gov. Walkers elimination of faculty input into university management and transferring all responsibility to committees that report to the Governor.

Another example was Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) recommending that state colleges train more electrical engineers and fewer French literature scholars. Rick Scott. Republican governor of Florida, used anthropology as his choice of academic subjects that the state shouldn’t spend money on. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) objects to gender studies. Schools have been cutting back on programs in the humanities, and while the red states have been mean spirited about it, just about every state has had to look at programs from the viewpoint of expenses. According to the web site, “Earlier this summer, the University of Minnesota announced plans to turn away many Ph.D. applicants who would receive financial assistance such as university fellowships or teaching positions. The humanities were hit the hardest, with over a 100 fewer students admitted in literature, language and the arts. Spots were not reduced for students who could pay their own way, or applicants for high-demand research areas such as the biomedical sciences.” State University of New York at Albany announced drastic cuts in programs, with most of the cuts aimed a the humanities.

The spring 2016 issue of Humanities (published by the National Endowment of the Humanities) reports a link between study area and participation in democracy. Verbal ability, whether inherent or trained, is directly related to participation in democracy. Students with higher verbal SAT scores were more inclined to participate in politics. Liberal arts and humanities majors are significantly more likely to vote, sign a petition, attend a rally, write a letter to a representative or run for office than STEM majors. Natural ability, a high verbal SAT score, predicts participation in mass democracy, but natural talent, people with high SAT scores, aren’t enough to maintain a vibrant society – we have to teach democracy to make it work.

Political indifference can be linked to weakness in the economy, which could be easily fixed by more public activism. Economic revival calls for more spending on vital infrastructure programs on bridges and roads. What we get is more austerity, cutbacks in the name of small government. Where we need more citizen activism, we get Right to Work laws to weaken unions, and tightening in voter eligibility. Where we need social activism we get indifference and people trained to believe that Napoleon is always right. Democracy works, but it has to be taught.

Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist living on Long Island, N.Y. Email

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2016

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