Can Universities Save the Enlightenment from Populism?

The main challenge for higher education in 2017 is to discern how to educate citizens in a world in which the political philosophy of liberalism, the cornerstone of modern universities, is increasingly challenged by populist and nationalist movements.

Universities are a relatively recent invention in the 200,000 or so years in which humans, in forms we would recognize today, inhabit the planet. The oldest universities such as Bologna and Oxford date back ten centuries and along with other medieval universities were first established to transmit religious dogma and support a world order in which most people would endure a stagnant life of misery in hopes of eventual salvation in the afterlife. Those were indeed times in which societies were ruled by very small elites, nobles and religious leaders, whose legitimacy was predicated on claimed links to divinity or prophets. The Italian Renaissance, borne out of the extraordinary convergence of talent from multiple disciplines and areas of human creativity which the House of Medici sponsored in Florence in the fourteenth and fifteenth century, would begin a process of examination of the powerful ideology of the Middle Ages which condemned most humans to a life of servitude to nobles and preachers. Products of the Italian Renaissance were the Renaissance and Humanism which would, over the following two centuries, lay the foundation for an extraordinarily powerful alternative set of ideas. The ideas that ordinary people had rights, and the capacity to improve themselves and their communities. These ideas are central to liberalism the political philosophy founded by John Locke which gave preeminence to the ideas of liberty and equality, and which is the foundation of the freedoms on which democratic societies are founded: freedom of speech, of press, of religion, free markets, civil rights, democracy, secular government, gender equality and international cooperation.

Three products of liberalism are democracy, public education and the modern university. All of them based on great hopes in human reason, assisted by science, to interpret and transform the world. All of them designed on the premise that the aspiration of salvation should be replaced by the aspiration to improve the world. At its core, the liberal project is cosmopolitan, a global project of humanity advancing together towards a world of greater freedom and justice. Each of these creations of the enlightenment is interdependent with the two others: democracy enables public education, and depends on high quality public education for all, modern universities support effective government and enlighten the public to hold governments accountable to people and to the facts, modern universities depend on good public education, and can in turn contribute to the improvement of education.

Globally, access to public education expanded significantly with the consolidation of nation states and the expansion of liberalism in the 1800s, and again after World War II as a result of the creation of a global architecture to promote the values of freedom and equality, liberal ideas, around the world, reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the United Nations system and other global institutions to advance such rights.

Under liberalism it was assumed that public education could serve democratic political and economic goals with limited trade offs between them. Additional goals such as advancing human rights and modernization were also seen as convergent with political and economic goals. For this reason, most governments advancing education as part of liberalism saw limited trade offs between the goals of education.

The challenges to liberalism from communism and fascism brought alternative goals for public education, challenging the notion that individuals could be free to choose which education to pursue, and emphasizing political and economic goals, as well as downplaying human rights and modernization goals.

The modern research university, chartered by Wilhelm Humboldt in Berlin in 1810, was a product of the liberal project designed to advance truth, through scientific research, the development of rational and critical thought, through education, and the enlightenment of the larger public, through extension. Most universities built since have embraced, to varying degrees, these three goals.

Since the fall of the Berlin wall, the main political challenge to these liberal views came from populism. Populism posits that ordinary people are exploited by elites and challenges the notion of representative democracy with direct participation by the masses. Since direct participation by large numbers in complex societies is impractical, too often populism results in autocratic rule by a leader, who claims to be communicating directly with the masses, unobstructed from intermediary institutions such as political parties, elected representatives to Congress, organizations of civil society, the judiciary or the Press. This notion of direct links between the autocrat and the people undermines the normal division of power and the checks and balances on which democratic government depends. Historically, some political scientists have argued that such autocratic rule of populist leaders can easily give rise to fascism.

Modern populists exploit the following ideas. The first that globalization, and liberal policies, do not benefit all, and that there are important groups of the population who are left behind, and without hope of seeing their conditions improve. They attribute this to elites that are not accountable to those groups, to a model of development that fails to envision a role for these groups which are left behind, and to a state that is captured by administrators and interest groups who advance their own interests at the expense of those of the people. Populists exploit also cultural divides among the population, deep differences in values and worldviews. In the recent presidential election in the United States, these divisions are between the political establishment, which since World War II followed the views of the Hamiltonians and Wilsonians with the older views of the Jeffersonians and Jacksonians. Hamiltonians embraced the cosmopolitan liberal project so that the United States would play a global leadership role in creating a global liberal order to contain the Soviet Union and advance US interests. Wilsonians also advanced a global liberal order in terms of values that would reduce global conflict and violence. They promoted human rights, democratic governance and the rule of law. Jeffersonians believe that minimizing the global role of the United States would reduce costs and risks to the country. Jacksonian populist nationalists, in contrast, believe that advancement in the conditions of American citizens would best pursued delinking from cosmopolitan enlightenment ideals and from the global liberal order.

Populism is therefore a serious challenge to the idea of a universal project to advance freedom, equality and human rights. It is a challenge to the project of globalization and perhaps also a challenge to the idea of representative democracy, with checks and balances that limit the freedoms of rulers. They are also a challenge to the institutions which were invented to advance the liberal project, public schools and the modern university.

What could the challenge from populism mean for public schools and universities?

It would be congruent with populist ideas to seek more power for local groups to define the goals of education, and less role for government and for inter-governmental institutions. Replacing global and national politics with local politics of course does not mean more consensus, as competing ideas exist in local communities as well about the goals of education. Local control may in fact mean more conflict, perhaps with less rules of arbitration. Given that the divisions between cosmopolitans and populists exist in local communities, how will these differences will be resolved? Will the rule of law and expertise continue to play a role? We should expect less trust in and recognition of the authority of governments, experts and elites, including scientists and academics. It is also predictable that we will see a renewed emphasis on identity politics and culture wars in education.

Universities, in so far as they exist to cultivate reason, advance truth and enlighten the public are at odds with the populist worldview. Science and expertise are a problem for populist autocracies that do not value reasoned deliberation or informed understanding of facts as essential to solving controversies.

There are some risks we can expect to emerge from a world of emboldened populism.

The first is a risk to the idea of human rights. If nationalism is the new organizing force, the notion of in group and outgroup is defined by citizenship, not by membership in humanity. Because one of the consequences of globalization has been migration, non citizens will be the first target for exclusion. If cultural wars define the politics of education we should expect to see battles over the rights of cultural and ethnic minorities and contention over ‘who belongs’ in America or in other nations were populism is emboldened.

A second risk concerns global challenges. The prospects for collective action diminish as the world moves towards national populism, and the goals of education move away from preparing students to understand global interconnectedness and globalization.

A third risk is a breakdown of the institutions that were created to protect freedom, democracy, the rule of law, and basic freedoms, and a breakdown of public education itself. The risk to these institutions of democracy is the risk that populism might evolve into fascism.

The risk of disorder. Lack of trust in institutions, elites and governments, will make the challenge of resolving conflict greater.

Can the institutions created to advance a liberal world order, such as public education and universities, save it?

Since modern universities were created because of the global liberal project to advance freedom and equality, as that project is challenged by populism Universities should renew their civic mission, embracing a new focus on education for democratic citizenship, including global citizenship. This means advancing human rights education, educating about shared global challenges, educating for engaged citizenship, contribute to build the civic sphere, renew their attention to the development of the dispositions and values of their students, as much as their skills and knowledge, boldly provide opportunities to access higher education to students from the most marginalized groups in society, double down on the extension mission to educate the public, and undertake unprecedented efforts to partner with K-12 schools and help improve them.

While these goals are within the reach of what Universities could do, they are not, at present, embraced as priorities by most universities. Whether universities step up in saving the liberal order which gave them life will depend on whether higher education leaders and faculty understand the grave risk facing the project of the Enlightenment itself.

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