Can a Shot of Higher Education Immunize Against Authoritarianism? More thoughts on the purpose of an education

Steven S. Volk

In a radio interview on March 11, Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson (R) said of those who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, killing five people, assaulting 125 Capitol police and injuring 70 of them in the process: “I knew those were people who love this country, that truly respect law enforcement, would never do anything to break the law, so I wasn’t concerned.” Not content to stop there, he pressed on, “had the tables been turned and President Trump won the election and tens of thousands of Black Lives Matter and antifa [sic], I might have been a little concerned.” Other than the unmistakable racism animating his statement, what Johnson has done is not just replace facts with fantasy, but remake reality to conform to his imagination. In his world, since the insurrectionists were respectful and law abiding, the violence is shifted to the “Black Lives Matter and antifa” protestors — who, of course, were only present in Johnson’s own counterfactual reality, which he is more than happy to share. Fintan O’Toole, a brilliant writer who reports regularly in the New York Review of Books, saw this coming. Former president Trump lied “prodigiously” and was able to successfully “obliterate for his supporters the distinction between the fake and the genuine,” O’Toole argues. But this alone couldn’t have created the strong bond which continues to glue his base to him. “What he managed to do,” he writes, “was simultaneously to erase the distinction between the valid and the bogus and to remake it…What is real is not what is going on. It is who ‘we’ are.” If “we” are peaceful, law abiding white people, than the insurrection couldn’t have been led by “us”!

I continue to ponder the role of higher education in responding to the epistemological and democratic crises on full display in Johnson’s interview which I considered in my last post. If the democratic crisis was most terrifyingly visible in the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, an invasion bent on overturning a democratic election (and a Democratic victory), no less so is the epistemological crisis which paved it way by fashioning a “reality” in which two-thirds of Republicans think Biden’s victory was illegitimate and one-third say the claim that “Donald Trump has been secretly fighting a group of child sex traffickers that includes prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites” is either mostly or completely accurate. This is more than troubling even if, as a colleague who works on these issues pointed out, Republicans still represent less than 30% of registered voters.

If I seem obsessed by this topic, it is largely because, as I observed in earlier posts and as emerging data continues to indicate, education is increasingly becoming an important predictor of party preference, more so than income, and increasingly since 2016. “At the subgroup level,” David Shor, the head of data science at OpenLabs, a progressive nonprofit, argued recently, “Democrats gained somewhere between half a percent to one percent among non-college whites and roughly 7 percent among white college graduates.” That, he added, “is kind of crazy.” A voter’s level of educational attainment — whether they had a college degree — became even more predictive of which party they voted for in 2020 than it had been in 2016, while a voter’s racial identity became less predictive.

As the Republican Party sails deeper into anti-democratic waters, as it persists in lashing its future to an individual (and a remarkably flawed one, at that) rather than to any ideas or legislative program – see, among many others, here, here, here, and here – one begins to wonder whether a bachelor’s degree can offer some kind of immunity to the authoritarian virus. Yet even were this the case, the “vaccination” rate remains too low (less than 35% of persons 25-29 hold a bachelor’s degree) and the “efficacy rate” of today’s college education in preventing “smart” people from anti-democratic cravings is not robust (the margin between Trump and Biden voters with a college degree is actually quite narrow). By now we all are aware that Ted Cruz’s office is papered with his Princeton and Harvard diplomas, that Josh Hawley boasts degrees from Stanford and Yale, and that Louisiana Senator John Kennedy attended Vanderbilt, the University of Virginia, and Magdalen College (Oxford). Yet none of what they learned at those august institutions stopped them from attempting to halt a democratic election in a Senate vote taken a few short hours after insurrectionists roamed the Senate floor and rifled through their desks. Ninety-six percent of the members of the 116th  Congress had a college education, two and a half times more than the population as a whole. Yet, according to Gallup polling from December 2020, when asked about honesty or ethical standards, only 8% of respondents rated members of Congress as “very high” or “high.” (And yes, If you’re wondering, that puts them at the bottom of the heap, even below the proverbial used car salesman.) The chasm between morality and intellect is not new, but it is troubling. We have agonized for decades trying to understand why learning and knowledge didn’t safeguard the Germans, well-educated students of Goethe and Kant and other humanistic giants, against murderous hatred. How is it that schooling (and higher education in particular) has become so alienated from ethics? Should we try to reverse that alienation? Can anything be done to reverse that movement?


As the costs of higher education, both public and private, have soared and the gaps between those with and without a bachelor’s degree have become monstrous fissures, the debate over what many call the “value proposition” of higher education – a term which alternately infuriates and saddens me, and which I much prefer to call the purpose of higher education – has sharpened. For simplicity sake, we can suggest three reasonable propositions, to which I’ll add a fourth. To flog the vaccination metaphor a bit more, the addition of each one to a student’s education should add to its ultimate efficacy in protecting against demagoguery and the authoritarian temperament.  

The first argument posits that the purpose of a higher education lies in its function as an economic (and, hence, social and cultural) multiplier, stressing the “earnings premium” provided by a college degree. In this view, a college degree, and the training it provides, opens the doors of a globalized economy to its recipients. [This argument, of course, is greatly simplified here. You might consider reading Robert Putnam’s Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again (Simon and Schuster, 2020).] In the late 1970s, those with bachelor’s or higher earned, on average, 40% more than workers who left school with a high school diploma. By 2000, the “earnings premium” had doubled, to 80%. Those without a college degree – the “diploma divide” – not only found themselves severed from economic security but socially humiliated and therefore at greater personal risk for what Anne Case and Angus Deaton call “deaths of despair” (Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism (Princeton University Press, 2020). Since early 1990s, the death rates of those with less than a bachelor’s degree rose by 25% while mortality dropped by 40% for those with a bachelor’s degree. For Americans without a college diploma, as Case and Deaton argue, it is increasingly difficult to build a meaningful and successful life. (Figure 1, below, shows adult life expectancy, the expected years of life at age 25.)

Given the obvious benefit of a college credential, many have argued that the fundamental purpose of higher education is to prepare young people to compete in a global economy. President Obama stressed this in his 2016 State of the Union address, announcing a “Computer Science for All” initiative that would make students “job-ready on day one.” Given the disastrous outcomes for those without a post-secondary degree, one can hardly challenge or ignore this line of argument. But should the transactional proposition – the diploma as a means of accessing a more prosperous future – be the only one to guide what we do in higher education?

A second position views higher education as providing students with the skills and readiness, as well as the disposition to access, evaluate and, ultimately, comprehend the world based on evidence derived from empirical reality. This deepens the first argument by suggesting that the diploma, in itself, may provide for greater personal success, but for an education to serve not just the individual but society, it needs to be based on something other than the passive acquisition of facts or information. Students need to have acquired and practiced the capacity to think critically, to question and evaluate, to analyze and synthesize, to create not just consume. It’s not enough, in other words, simply to be “job-ready on day one.”  Such training seems ever more necessary as, according to Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts writing in Network Propaganda (Oxford, 2018), we have progressively “lost our capacity to agree on shared modes of validation as to what is going on and what is just plain whacky” (p. 6).  Michael Patrick Lynch agrees, arguing that “a striking feature of our current political landscape is that we disagree not just over values (which is healthy in a democracy), and not just over facts (which is inevitable), but over our very standards for determining what the facts are.” As with the COVID-19 pandemic, we should have been better prepared for this epistemic crisis, given the enduring allure of conspiracy theories which date back to the Revolutionary War period. “In the face of complicated events, bewildering new technologies, and sometimes contradictory information,” Richard Friedman writes, “the explanatory power of some occult yet totalizing narrative easily overmasters more prosaic explanations of the world.” But it still remains “hard for the liberal imagination to imagine fanaticism adequately,” as Adam Gopnik recently observed. Nevertheless – or maybe this is also a conceit of the liberal imagination – there is good reason to believe that education has a role to play here.

Illus. from Puck, v. 35, no. 887, (1894 March 7), centerfold

Considerable research has indicated that higher education levels predict a decreased likelihood that people will believe in conspiracy theories [see, for example, Douglas et al. (2016) and Van Prooijen et al. (2015)]. Exactly why that is the case is more difficult to discern. Researchers have explored such issues as cognitive complexity, the acquisition of social skills needed to influence one’s social environment, and self-esteem. Nonetheless, in this proposition, higher  education holds out a promise that, when done properly, students will better be able to  differentiate fact from fiction and therefore be less likely to believe that Jewish space lasers caused California’s forest fires. As an added benefit, these students might also be able to build a “civically healthier internet” which can promote democratic engagement.


Is the primary purpose of an education, then, the means to an economic end (proposition 1) or the means to enable individuals to think clearly, analytically, and expansively (proposition 2)? Since this is not a zero-sum game, it should, of course, be both, even though a lot of emphasis continues to be placed exclusively on the first. Still, a number of scholars have argued that by themselves, these two purposes do not sufficiently define all that an education should do. In this view, an education must also provide the means by which a democratic citizenry can be fostered or, to use Danielle Allen’s more encompassing term, it is a means towards “civic agency.” Education should provide its subjects with the capacity to act in concert so as to collectively create a way of life and repair the world.  As Hannah Arendt would put it, education must afford students with the “architectonic” skills needed to co-create the social world. As with the previous argument, we can cite a substantial amount of empirical support for the argument that higher education leads to more democratic politics, although, as with the relation between higher education and conspiracy theories, it’s not always clear why this is the case. In “Why Does Democracy Need Education?”, for example, the economists Edward L. Glaeser, Giacomo A. M. Ponzetto, and Andrei Shleifer found that education prepares people for democratic engagement by cultivating not just the skills that facilitate participation (skills such as reading, writing), but a disposition to participate, as well, something that is often generated through the practices of collaboration and interaction. (Expanded to a social level, this is the essence of Putnam’s Bowling Alone argument.) o the extent that democracy relies on “people with high participation benefits for its support,” education can strengthen democracy.

Yet an important element still seems to be missing as we clarify how education might inoculate against the growing democratic distemper. Deborah Meier, a K-12 educator, secondary school administrator, and educational scholar, touched on it in a 2016 forum from which I have drawn some of the arguments cited above. Meier lamented that our current educational paradigm “has lost more than the civic agency that every citizen needs in a democracy: it barely recognizes, in the most fundamental sense, what being a person is about.” What being a person is about. Of course, many progressive educators (from Dewey to Freire to hooks to Parker Palmer) have stressed this aspect, as well as many who come from a more conservative tradition. They suggest that what has been severed from the educational endeavor is the imperative of providing students with the capacity to think morally and ethically, to “help us understand,” as the philosopher Claes Ryn put it, “who we are.” Education should “attune us to the real world and prepare us for acting within it.”

This is, of course, an also old debate. In 2003, Anne Colby, Thomas Ehrlich and their co-authors argued, in Educating Citizens: Preparing America’s Undergraduates For Lives Of Moral And Civic Responsibility (Jossey-Bass, 2003), “If a college education is to support the kind of learning graduates need to be involved and responsible citizens, they must go beyond the development of intellectual and technical skills and … mastery of a scholarly domain. They should include the competence to act in the world and the judgment to do so wisely.” Stanley Fish, never one to mince words, dismissed their argument as a “mish mash of self-help platitudes, vulgar multiculturalism (is there any other kind?) and a soft-core version of 60s radicalism.… Respect for the other,” he plowed on, “may or may not be a moral imperative — you can get quite an argument going on that one — but it is certainly not an academic imperative.” A few years earlier, John J. Mearsheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, alerted the school’s first-year students that, “The university… makes little effort to provide you with moral guidance. Indeed, it is a remarkably amoral institution. Today,” he continued approvingly, “elite universities operate on the belief that there is a clear separation between intellectual and moral purpose, and they pursue the former while largely ignoring the latter.”

There is, certainly, a danger in equating an education in morality and ethics as either the transmission of mainstream religious traditions or an appeal to return to a time when colleges were responsible for shaping the “character” of its (white, male, upper-class) students. At the same time, it is more than dismaying to think that as we educate future doctors, we dismiss any concern for their ethical formation. We’ve been there and it didn’t end well. Equally for lawyers. (I found myself recently embroiled in a conflict with an area lawyer running for public office who argued in the press and on social media that “Marxist” protesters who approached a nearby city hall should be “mowed down and stacked like cordwood.”) Equally for any corporate executive, hedge fund manager, legislator, teacher, Fox News or CNN host, Instagram influencer, social activist or, for that matter, any graduate.

How do we fashion an education that can encourage students to, at minimum, reflect on whether their actions in the world are moral and ethical, understanding that these are neither easy questions nor is there a guarantee that, once considered, they will chose an ethical path? I can’t say I have an answer, but I can offer a few suggestions.

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Hand-Drawn Infographics of African-American Life (1900)

A moral education, in the first place, must be an honest education, one which does not shy away from difficult subjects, shameful histories, or hard conversations. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, for too long, we have done just that (and, that, when considering the so-called “1776 Project,” many would like to continue along those lines far into the future). A survey of high school seniors in 2018 found that only 8% knew that slavery was a primary cause of the Civil War, while nearly 70% had no idea that a constitutional amendment was required to outlaw it. In 2013, the author Rhonda Fink-Whitman asked students at Ivy League universities basic questions about the Holocaust, including when it happened (1800 was one response), and how many Jews were murdered (guesses ranged from 3 to 300 million). Even less was known about the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s or the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, let alone the history of indigenous genocide in the Americas. There can be no moral education without an honest reckoning with the past.

Secondly, if a moral education is to be transformative and more than a tiresome transmission of lessons about what it means to “be moral,” it must engage a certain kind of pedagogical intimacy and reach for an emotional connection. Ariel Burger, a teacher, artist and rabbi who served as Eli Wiesel’s TA at Boston University and maintained a live-long friendship with the Nobel Prize winner, recently observed: “In order to transform, moral education must entail more than a transaction exchange of information. It is not only the content of what is taught – the history, the data – but the context that defines impact. It is the emotional relationship between student, teacher, and subject. It is the implicit Why? at the heart of learning. People are morally ignited less by the cognitive processing of learning information than by visceral experience, less by the intellect than by the nervous system: moments of gooseflesh, chills up the spine, the welling up of tears. This is why moral education struggles to find a home in typical university settings…Yet this is the only way a student can become a witness” [(Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018).] This might be more easily accomplished in a history class than in calculus, you’re likely thinking, and it’s certainly true that more doors are open to a kind of powerful storytelling in the one than the other. But we’re all capable of bringing ourselves into our teaching. “We teach who we are,” Parker Palmer once remarked. We, our whole persons, are always present in our teaching, as obvious as this may sound. “Deviating from the role of the impersonal instructor can feel like a risk,” David Gooblar observed. But, as Parker Palmer argued, “a strong sense of personal identity infuses” the work of good teachers who are able to “join self and subject and students in the fabric of life.”

To talk about creating an emotional relationship between student, teacher, and subject, as Burger suggests, is to find education’s ethical framework in how we teach, more so than in what we teach. There are two aspects of this, both of which are rooted in the idea that a respect for the dignity of all persons is an educational, as well as a moral, imperative. The first is a call for an education co-created by teachers and learners. Many mistake the idea of a co-created classroom as a displacement of the teacher’s expertise, a “passing of the buck” from experts to novices. But the classroom as an ecosystem built by teachers and students alike recognizes that students learn from our expertise, while we learn from their questions, doubts, confusions, and insights; we derive energy from their curiosity. This can’t happen if we ask students to follow our authority in the classroom uncritically or deny the varied experiences and numerous strengths that they bring.

The second aspect is that the an ethical education must be an invitation to a conversation, not the intention to foreclose discussion. This latter can happen when faculty insist on “the power of blind tradition and authority,” when state officials attempt to shape campus affairs and influence what can and cannot be taught, or when students (or teachers) decide that certain topics are out of bounds or too difficult to discuss. The ethics that shape these discussions are rooted in a model of arguing “for the sake of the other rather than in order to defeat or silence the other.” Respect for the other, respect for the dignity of all persons, is indeed an academic imperative as well as being an moral imperative.

One would hope for a time when a bachelor’s degree will no longer be the most significant predictor of partisan preference, when both (all) parties will appeal to voters on the basis of reasoned, reality-based policy differences. In the meantime, it becomes ever more essential that we increase the “vaccination” rate of higher education as well as its “efficacy,” insuring that a college education is not closed off to millions who want it, and that higher education not only prepares its graduates to succeed in the world, but gives them the skills to evaluate it critically, the disposition to participate in it democratically, and the wisdom to engage in it morally and ethically.

2 thoughts on “Can a Shot of Higher Education Immunize Against Authoritarianism? More thoughts on the purpose of an education

  1. Thanks for this excellent and thought-provoking discussion. I was interested to hear, at an academic conference a few years ago, that propagators of Blood Libel tended to be the semi-educated–those with technical educations–which seems to parallel the educational attainments of most QAnon adherents.

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  2. A few years ago, I was introduced to Perry’s scheme of intellectual development (https://www.jmu.edu/geology/_files/willperry21.pdf) in a wonderful crash-course for part-time college instructors at Kennesaw State University’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. The stages from dualism, to multiplicity, to contextual relativism, to commitment make so much sense when applied to my own intellectual journey, and I credit my Oberlin education with helping me get through the hairier spaces within multiplicity and relativism. However, I think that many people get left behind somewhere in one of those middle stages. They attain enough education to lose their trust in certain paradigms and sources of authority, but they don’t get past that stage where everything seems equally valid, so why not succumb to cognitive and psychological biases masquerading as alternative facts. History and other humanities and social sciences have a particularly prodigious task in the necessity of helping people understand subjectivity and power dynamics in the production and preservation of knowledge, while also maintaining a (mostly) agreed-upon notion of what constitutes valid evidence and necessary corroboration across sources. In my own work as a public historian, I struggle with the role I can play vis a vis my intended audiences.

    I don’t know what they already know. I do want them to understand that historical interpretation is a process, and that critical thinking based on the evaluation of primary sources is essential. Yet, I also feel that I have an ethical responsibility to share diverse, often previously marginalized, stories and to approach storytelling from a place of respect and support of human dignity. That is more of a moral imperative than an intellectual imperative, but I hope that my efforts bear fruit in spreading that kind of moral approach to democracy. Still, it is very difficult to know whether that is accomplished. There is a great deal of self-selection bias in terms of who visits public history sites or views exhibits, but having some sense of my audience in advance seems necessary when determining what to include and how to talk about it. Knowing how divided “the public” is politically right now, I’m aware that even the ways in which we talk about the past can set people up for having the kinds of strong reactions that might close them off to the larger truths they can encounter by engaging with the breadth and depth of content in context. And if our narratives are not strong enough in their condemnations of injustice, then we risk seeming like we’ve made peace with injustice. Designing education as “inoculation” is tough business.

    Still, it’s heartening as an educator to occasionally hear comments like this one received from one of my students in an honors class based on an exhibit about immigration history: “I was honestly a little worried taking a class with this kind of content, but she made an excellent space for students to talk about it safely.” Oberlin’s history department is the model on which I hope to continue to base my teaching style. 🙂

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