A Failure to Educate

This week’s Capitol riots have been repeatedly described as “unthinkable.” Yet happen they did, so how do we start to think about them? Many academics have an answer: the humanities.

January 8, 2021
 
Spencer Platt via Getty Images
Rioters storm the U.S. Capitol Wednesday.

There’s no shortage of lenses through which to examine this week’s Capitol riots: politics, history, race, gender, economics, media studies and more. Perhaps the through line in all these perspectives is education, and the liberal arts in particular. And many scholars say that education is at the heart of what went wrong in Washington -- as well as the tunnel through which the U.S. can exit a dark place.

“If we needed a reminder of the fragility of our democracy, we got one,” said Andrew Delbanco, president of the Teagle Foundation, which promotes liberal arts education, and Alexander Hamilton Professor of American Studies at Columbia University. “In the long run, the only force that can save democracy is an educated citizenry -- citizens, that is, who know enough to resist the kind of lies and incitements spewed out by the current president and his enablers.”

Quoting President Madison, who told the U.S. Congress some 200 years ago that “a well-instructed people alone can be permanently a free people,” Delbanco said the idea is truer than ever.

‘A Desperate Necessity’

“The only protection against demagoguery is education,” Delbanco said, not “ideological indoctrination, not technical training, but humane education that helps people grasp the experience of others different from themselves.”

This kind of education has a name, Delbanco said: the humanities.

Despite the beating the humanities repeatedly take from some critics, Delbanco said they’re “not a luxury” but a “desperate necessity.”

Early Thursday, the Association of American Colleges and Universities issued a statement saying its pro-liberal education mission took on new urgency following the Capitol attack. “The task of an education allied to democracy is not simply to help students gain knowledge and skills,” the group said. “It is also to assist students in forming the habits of heart and mind that liberate their thinking and equip them for, and dispose them to, the creation of a more just and inclusive society through civic involvement.”

Lynn Pasquerella, AAC&U’s president, later told Inside Higher Ed that if colleges and universities are to develop the “independent and critical thinkers necessary to ensure that democracy is more than a tyranny of numbers,” they must affirm that a liberal education helps students -- citizens -- discern the truth, recognize and digest narratives, and promote “an understanding that the world is a collection of interdependent yet inequitable systems,” among other aims.

If nothing else, Pasquerella said, “the current culture wars being played out on the national stage highlight the inextricable link between a strong democracy and liberal education.” Citing economist Anthony P. Carnevale’s research on the inverse relationship between liberal education and authoritarian tendencies, Pasquerella said higher education must play a leadership role in confronting the day’s most pressing issues. That requires colleges and universities to serve as “anchor institutions,” demonstrating that their success is “intertwined with the economic, social, psychological, physical and educational well-being of the communities in which they are located and those they seek to serve.”

At the same time, the historic mission of educating for democracy is being “challenged by attempts to reduce the value of a college education to employability” or “tuition in exchange for jobs,” Pasquerella added. “In the end, the question we are facing in the aftermath of [Wednesday’s] riots is, ‘What is college for?’”

Viji Sathy, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said Wednesday’s riots are about “every level” of education, from the lack of support for and “constant erosion” of K-12 instruction on up. Teachers are undervalued, teaching to the test is rampant and too many schools and districts are underresourced while too many students drop out or otherwise fall through the cracks. Curricula, in general, are missing essential work on justice and equity, she said, and “I wince at the way certain historical events were portrayed to me in K-12.”

Context, Nuance and Care

Jennifer Darling-Aduana, assistant professor of learning technologies at Georgia State University, said many students do report that their undergraduate education is “one of the first places where they were exposed to nondominant perspectives on history, institutional systems and current events.”

Too often, the K-12 system presents “uncontextualized history that looks more like mythology,” she said. And without interrogating the “narratives of those whose came before us, students don’t learn critical skills or how to be a part of identifying and enacting change to dismantle structural inequities and institutional failures.”

Ideally, Darling-Aduana said, students learn how to grapple with all this in a “supportive, safe space. But if there’s no one to support that learning or clarify misunderstandings in your community … we’ve seen how requests to reflect on and improve our current institutions has led to fear, hate and violence.”

The national AASA, School Superintendents Association condemned Wednesday’s rioters, who, it said, challenged the “herculean efforts being done by school district administrators, building leaders, teachers and parents to educate our young learners regarding what’s right and what’s wrong.”

Daniel Domenech, executive director of the association, said that racial unrest and the Black Lives Matter movement have “begun to influence the need for a curriculum in our schools that emphasizes, at the administrative level, the need to recognize inequities that are caused by denying opportunities to many student of color and the economically disadvantaged.”

At the classroom level, he said, “there is a need to expose students to the history of racial inequity that has been in existence in our country, to expose the false science that suggests that people of color are intellectually inferior, and to learn to uncover the hidden prejudices that we all have and face up to them.”

The goal, Domenech said, is “awareness that systemic racial injustice exists and that we can all work together to eliminate it.”

‘Education Is Our Core Mission’

In higher education, meanwhile, Sathy said that “there’s a lot here that we can improve upon, including acknowledging that education is our core mission.”

Sathy said she’s always considered her job as an instructor at a public university to include “educating our citizenry by equipping them not just with knowledge, but the skills to be able to navigate their lives ahead of them and hopefully to help them pursue giving back.” Yet she’s keenly aware of those people, who, for varying reasons, never made it to college at all.

When Sathy hears interviews with people who participated in events like the riots, she feels “we have failed as a country to properly educate our citizenry.” Yet she said she knows they’d say “they are the ones who are not thinking like sheep. What a mess.”

Musa Al-Gharbi, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Columbia University and research associate at Heterodox Academy, which promotes viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement, said it can be valuable to give students readings and resources to contextualize the present moment. It’s also “critical to make sure students are given a rich and nuanced understanding, rather than being provided with simplistic narratives that feel good to us but don't explain much, and that primarily serve to caricature or condemn the actors whose behavior we are ostensibly trying to understand or explain.”

More than anything, Al-Gharbi emphasized “reflexivity,” or helping students understand this week’s events by looking at how their actions and others’ “fit into the picture -- the role they play, good and bad, both in terms of contributing to the present moment, and to constructively moving forward.”

Alex Chevrin Venet, a consultant on trauma-informed teaching who has written about teaching in Wednesday’s aftermath, said she advised professors to “think about being proactive as we plan classes. How do we create routines that are responsive so when stuff comes up in the world we have space already built in to class to talk about how we're doing and to be responsive to current events?”

“How do faculty want to be proactive about tying their curriculum to the world?” Venet continued. “If faculty are feeling despair today about where we are as a country, how can they channel that into their planning in a proactive way, getting ahead of the next crisis? And how can we work together instead of feeling hopeless in our individual silos?”

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