What Threatens the Liberal Arts Is Democracy’s Decline

To the Editor:

Online learning is not the enemy of a teacher/student-engaged classroom so long as the liberal-arts-and-science orientation of higher education remains in place. A good liberal-arts-and-science education demands nothing less than a Socratic classroom in which faculty and students can ponder together the important questions pertinent to the discipline at hand. In a university where the liberal-arts culture is alive and well, online learning will never be a threat to the Socratic classroom.

Currently, the emotions for or against online learning may blind people to the actual threat to the liberal-arts-and-science-based classroom: the demise of democratic life in the larger society. As democracy becomes less secure, the liberal-arts-and-science education, and the classroom setting in which it thrives, will inevitably be viewed as a costly luxury that society can do without.

But none of this is likely to happen if democracy is a centerpiece of our society. And it is clear why. Democratic citizens learn, as a condition of making reasoned judgments about public issues, that they need to acquire the capacity for enlarged thinking through which they compare their own views to the many others that make up the political environment. The liberal-arts culture fosters enlarged thinking by upholding the following core principles: enabling students to understand many things from many points of view, facilitating students’ ability to discern from what is known the best that can be known, and encouraging students to use this knowledge to improve human flourishing the world over. To uphold these principles, the educational enterprise must nurture students’ capacities for reason, creative imagination, and empathy.

Both the principles of enlarged thinking and the capacities needed to maintain them are fostered best in a liberal-arts classroom. It is in this context that Michael Sandel’s JusticeX MOOC—a recent target of a letter raising the concern that online learning will displace faculty in many institutions—must be seen (“Why Professors at San Jose State Won’t Use a Harvard Professor’s MOOC,” The Chronicle, May 2). Mr. Sandel’s book Justice embraces the liberal-arts contribution to the enlarged thinking of a democracy and that is why it is so popular. But at the same time, what is taught in this book can be best conveyed only in classroom dedicated to the principles of enlarged thinking fostered by genuine liberal learning.

If this environment is lost for many students in higher education, it will not be because online learning is responsible.  No, this circumstance will occur because our democracy has fallen into disrepair and in consequence the liberal arts which helps to renew it would be seen as less necessary. And so too the classroom setting upon which it rests.

The dangers to a liberal-arts classroom are the recent challenges to democracy, such as loss of civil liberties due to government actions against terrorism, or a deadlocked Congress incapable of adjudicating critical issues, or efforts at voter suppression of minority groups. All of these experiences create a general loss of faith in our democratic institutions by the public.

Once democracy loses its significance it is not long before the liberal arts will as well, with the result that the classroom in which it thrives will be no more. Is the emphasis on the online-learning debate taking our collective eye off this critically important concern? I think it is.

Steven M. DeLue
Professor of Political Science
Miami University
Miami, Ohio

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