MORGANTOWN — “Democracy is the worst form of government,” Winston Churchill famously said of our current political system, “except all the others that have been tried.” I’ve been thinking about democracy a lot in recent months, and of something Churchill didn’t say about it, but which his quotation implies — namely, that democracy is a system which, for it to function properly, requires an informed and educated citizenry, capable of making wise and future- (not merely present) oriented choices for the generations to follow.
“Democracy is the rule of the people,” as the American philosopher and political scientist Jason Brennan recently wrote in Foreign Policy, “but the people are in many ways unfit to rule.”
There has been no time in my adult life, I am certain, when that educated citizenry has been more necessary... nor more absent. After some 35 years of teaching at American and other universities, I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that our democracy is in danger — not from a “basket of deplorables” or any other unfairly degraded group — but from the fact that, throughout our nation, the idea of the truly and widely educated individual is in grave jeopardy.
Too many of our students are largely ignorant of culture and the world at large, and, in terms of written English, verging on illiteracy (just before I wrote this, in all fairness, I read two excellently written papers by students of mine — there is hope!); many (though, gratefully, not all) of their professors seem devoid of any intellectual curiosity beyond their desperate efforts at tenure and promotion; our As and Bs often reward little beyond mere physical presence, and we spend a great deal more time celebrating and cheerleading about “excellence” while not doing much to create the quality it professes to describe.
It is therefore no accident, I would argue, that our country is currently being led by arguably the least educated, least intellectually curious, least cultured, least well-read, least knowledgeable chief executive in our history.
It’s no accident, but it is a tragedy.
Let me get this out of the way at the outset: I am not a conservative; I am a so-called liberal. I tend to be extremely liberal about women’s rights, minority rights, LGBT rights, gay marriage, abortion, assisted suicide, immigration and most of the rest, although I think that none of these issues are quite as simple or clearly delineated as some of my liberal brethren would like to think.
So where do I think this educational and intellectual downturn began, you might ask? Well, let me give you at least one soon-to-be-retired professor’s answer: It began with my own generation and our much-celebrated, well-intentioned, but occasionally misguided, movements, demonstrations and demands of the l960s and l970s. It began, to put it simply, with the idea that “love is all there is.”
In life, I would certainly agree: there are few things more important, or more contagious, than genuine love. But when it comes to education and informed citizenry, love, to spill a dirty little secret, is not all there is: Intelligence and knowledge, intellectual integrity, curiosity, openness to diverse opinions, facts and ideas — these are all there is. Truth and integrity are all there is — no matter whose truth, no matter how repugnant it may be to our own deeply-held convictions.
We don’t so much need to tell our students and colleagues that they are “excellent.” We need to show them examples of how to be so ... and make sure they remain in that state of preparedness for citizenship.
We don’t need more prizes for excellence; we need more excellence itself. We need to remind ourselves that excellence, like virtue, is usually — and should be — its own reward.
We don’t need schools and universities that offer an endless succession of prizes and awards and encomiums and praise. We need schools that truly educate, that prepare our young people to be informed and active citizens in an increasingly complex, and often befuddling, world. We need young people who know who Robert Frost was, what global warming is, why immigration is so complex, what Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is, where Burkina Faso is located, what a sonnet is, why the Rosenbergs were executed, and so on and so on. It would also be useful, for that matter, to have them speak another language than their own. And it is certainly useful, and helpful, to encourage and support them — but, for doing, not merely for being.
We need a world, and a country, where our citizens know enough to realize when someone is trying to put a fast one over on them — whether that “fast one” is the pipe dream of bringing back coal, or “fixing” Obamacare ... or Making America Great again by making it more intolerant and more cruel.
We need students — and, in order to educate them, teachers — who may know a lot about one thing, but who also know a little about many things — students who, simply because they are pre-law or pre-med or pre-information technology, do not know nothing about physics and global warming and cerebral asymmetry and stem cell research; faculty who, merely because they are specialists of one subject, are not also willfully ignorant of most others. If we are to be, and become, a wise country, we need to be a country populated, and taught, by wise, widely-educated, citizens.
Some recent surveys make explicitly clear just how grievous this lack of knowledge among our citizenry is. When Newsweek asked a thousand voters to take the official citizenship test a few years back, nearly 30 percent couldn’t name the vice president. More than 60 percent didn’t know the length of U.S. senators’ terms in office. And 43 percent couldn’t say that the first 10 amendments to the Constitution are known as the Bill of Rights. Only 30 percent knew that the U.S. Constitution is the supreme law of the land. In yet another study, by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, only 36 percent could name all three branches of the U.S. government. And here, let me remind you, the only subject tested was Civics.
Some 17 years ago, while teaching in California, I published an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “A Letter to My Students” which seems just as true to me today as it did then. In it, I wrote that the purpose of university life itself has increasingly become “the presentation of moments of self-gratification, little assurances and narcissistic stabilizers that confirm: yes, I am smart, I am creative, I am loved.
“Let me assure you,” I continued, “that I am not someone incapable of feeling that deeper, and perhaps loftier, emotion we call love. I love my son and my close friends. I have loved my wives in different ways, and others before and between them. But I was brought here... not to act as an oracle of love, but, because there is something I presumably knew a bit more about than you do — and in the hope that, with a bit of luck and application on all our parts, we might together learn something about that difficult and demanding subject.
“At this moment, at least,” I went on, ”I am well aware that you are under the impression that you have been “nurtured” and “loved” by certain teachers who have been far more popular with you than I have been during my short stay here. But let me let you in on yet another trade secret: You have been neither loved nor nurtured: You have been lied to and betrayed. The mother’s milk that flows from such breasts may temporarily satisfy your ravenous appetites for praise, but it is not, I assure you, a very nourishing brew.
“You have been told that the not good is good, that the unworthy is the worthy. Rather than being commended (when, that is, it was worth commending) on the hard work and noble intentions of your ambition, you have been prematurely praised for the beauty and rightness of its product. And — perhaps worst of all, to paraphrase the poet W.H. Auden — rather than being respected for wanting to learn how to play an instrument, you have been virtually handed — without either hard work or a genuine apprenticeship — a seat in the orchestra. This, today, is known as “nurturing”; once upon a time, it was called something else: lying. And to give you this, as a friend of mine — a long-tenured professor at Stanford and Johns Hopkins and, now, the University of Chicago — recently reminded me, ‘is not only to give [you] nothing at all, it’s to deprive [you] of the one thing we have to hold onto: real work and an objective correlative.’”
We — and we here in West Virginia possibly more than in most places — need smart, alert, broadly educated and curious students, faculty and citizens if we are to make progress on the pressing issues — developing a reliable and future-oriented employment base, making sure we have clean air and water, eliminating opioids and a sense of despondency from our young peoples’ lives, returning a sense of pride and hopefulness to our state, and drawing others to our unique natural beauty, to name but a few. We need to start doing so by demanding that our students — and their teachers — expect something of themselves and each other beyond recognition or prizes or raises or, for that matter, tenure itself. Many such persons are already present in this state and among my colleagues. But we can certainly use even more of them.
Michael Blumenthal is a visiting law professor at WVU.