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Higher Education and the Crisis of Democracy

What started as abstruse arguments in the ivory tower have now fully consumed American politics, and not for the better. Without a return to basic principles and traditional liberal curricula in higher education, America's days as an open, tolerant, well-functioning democracy could be numbered.

SEATTLE – “Higher education is broken,” wrote historian Niall Ferguson in a November 8, 2021, Bloomberg commentary. To help fix it, he has helped to create the University of Austin, a new institution that is supposed to be free of the growing leftist intolerance found at too many universities nowadays. According to Ferguson, that intolerance is evident not only among faculties, but, more ominously, among administrators at elite universities such as MIT and Harvard. As politically centrist faculty members at any major public university can attest, the situation appears no better there, either.

The heart of the problem identified by critics such as Ferguson is that universities have been abandoning the ideal of what used to be called a “liberal education.” It was once accepted that a good education included more than just technical subjects. An appreciation for history, literature, and the arts was considered essential to prepare the young for the professional and other roles they aspired to fill. This was also important in secondary and even primary schools as well, where students should be exposed to a simplified form of the same program as part of creating informed and democratic citizens.

The study of foundational classics was central, because they formed the basis of Western civilization. The point was not to teach any fixed dogma, but to introduce students to essential debates and insights about the complexities of human experience. A liberal education would also show students where we came from, what there was in our traditions that should be valued and retained, and what needed to be improved.

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