by Drew Colvin
Freedom from ignorance is essential to the success of any democracy. If we value liberty and the principles of our democratic system, then education must be tasked with supporting the institutions that uphold it. The absence of a well-informed public is the greatest threat to American democracy that far exceeds anything foreign-born. James Madison, Founding Father and the 4th President of the United States, once wrote “Learned Institutions ought to be the favorite objects with every free people. They throw that light over the public mind which is the best security against crafty and dangerous encroachments on the public liberty.”
This threat on our liberty is pervasive today as large segments of the population view education and expertise with distrust and outright contempt. A recent report from Pew Research Center shows that the majority of Republicans believe that “colleges and universities have a negative effect on the way things are going in this country.” This sentiment has been developing over years and even decades, but seems to have accelerated with the rise of Trump and populism in America.
Before Trump, we have seen examples of distrusting experts from climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers, and even more shockingly, flat-earthers. During the campaign, Trump promoted this idea by saying “the experts are terrible. Look at the mess we’re in with all these experts that we have. Look at the mess.” Since inauguration, we have seen this position manifest itself as neophytes were chosen to lead critical government agencies such as the Departments of Education, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development .
Education is important for many reasons, not the least of which is the preservation of a government that serves its people. Without it we are prone to the degradation, corruption, and collapse of our institutions. A general lack of education makes us vulnerable to sliding into a dictatorship, or at the very least a corrupt oligarchy that serves the powerful few rather than the masses. The electorate must be educated to understand how the government is meant to function, to discern good ideas from bad, and to make informed decisions about who will represent them.
Founding Father and first Chief Justice of the United States, John Jay, stated the following:
“I consider knowledge to be the soul of a republic, and as the weak and the wicked are generally in alliance, as much care should be taken to diminish the number of the former as of the latter. Education is the way to do this, and nothing should be left undone to afford all ranks of people the means of obtaining a proper degree of it at a cheap and easy rate.”
In other words, those of us who are disadvantaged or feel left behind become natural followers for aspiring leaders with impure intentions. There will always be people in the world with bad motivations or with interests contrary to those of the populace. Therefore, the most effective way to undercut the power of these bad actors and strengthen the republic is by spreading education.
Part of what brought us to this point in which experts and education are derided is the growing inaccessibility of higher education. The exponential growth in the cost of higher education and the related stratification of social classes has caused an ‘us vs. them’ mentality. For those who feel that higher education is beyond their means, contempt of education is an understandable act of self-preservation.
For the good of the nation, we need to return to collectively valuing education. A good education should be accessible to everyone and continued education must not be a privilege of the rich. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in support of public education: “I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom, and happiness.”