Discover more from Systematic Hatreds
There Oughta Be a Class
Electives didn't cause the crisis of democracy. Gen-eds won't save us
A pair of Stanford scholars committed an op-ed in The New York Times this weekend, arguing that we need to bring back civics education to save democracy. Specifically, they argue, the “intolerance of ideas” that is percolating in American society results from “the failure of higher education to provide students with the kind of shared intellectual framework that we call ‘civic education.’” In particular, they point to the demise of shared intellectual frameworks as the cause of our current wickedness, and specifically to the replacement of core Western Civilization courses with global civilization distribution requirements.
I’m going to pause here for a second, because on typing that summary—which is somewhat but not really unfair—I realized just how breathtakingly reactionary the essay is. There was a golden age, and then the wicked neoliberals introduced the elective, and now people are unable to live in a diverse society. To fix our society, we need this one weird trick that will save us from our depredations. Simple as!
A genre that flatters academia under the pretense of critiquing academics.
This is a genre of writing that flatters academia under the pretense of critiquing it. Yes, on the one hand, their argument blames the previous generation of universities for bad choices, but on the other hand the entire pitch is that wise and far-seeing administrators can save us. Fix the curriculum, save the democracy!
There are many reasons to take this solution unseriously. God knows that academic egos need no inflating, so we certainly don’t need to pretend that the rise and fall of civilization depends on modest shifts in curricular requirements.
For another, the essay only tenuously establishes its points. The thrust of its argument is that eliminating requirements weakened a shared curriculum. It’s true, as historian Gilbert Allardyce wrote, that the elective was “the guillotine of this revolutionary process”—except that this particular set of tumbrils traveled in the late nineteenth century, and called forth the general education movement in response during the early twentieth century. If having a shared curriculum produces the shared intellectual framework for democracy, then it’s miraculous that having just a semester or two could have accomplished the sorts of benefits for American society that its progenitors claimed and that the op-ed authors believe.
The easy vision that the article puts forward seems hard to square with experience. It’s an especially miraculous vision to those of us who actually teach these sorts of courses in schools that serve democracy. To those of us who toil in trenches less glamorous than those of Stanford, it is remarkable to learn from Allardyce that general education courses—“gen eds”—are the product of a reform, or that discussion sections were invented rather than springing forth from some bored Athena, assistant dean. Everything has a history, it turns out, even giving quizzes in recitation.
Gen eds are service courses, bread-and-butter courses, courses that one teaches with exaggerated eagerness or dread—but they don’t feel like sanctified labor when one is looking at course evals filled out by business majors complaining that they didn’t know your class would be, like, hard. Students, at best, sign up for them out of resigned acceptance, and at worst enter into them with an attitude of resentment that becomes difficult to overcome, no matter what bag of tricks an instructor has to kindle enthusiasm for the subject.
The gen-ed classroom is not an atmosphere obviously propitious for saving democracy.
The gen-ed classroom is, in other words, not quite the sort of atmosphere propitious for saving democracy. It is more the sort of atmosphere in which one tries to convey the importance of one’s course, the necessity of reading the syllabus, the necessity of reading anything. To assume away the resistance of students who don’t naturally see the value in courses outside of their major, for which they’re paying tens of thousands of dollars a year, is pretty much to assume that every campus is like Stanford.
One catches more than a hint that authors do, in fact, assume that only campuses like Stanford count, which is why they spend so much time on the elimination of core courses at Stanford and its peer schools but comparatively little time trying to assess whether other universities have followed suit. You would not know, for instance, that Texas already requires six credit hours of American government and history—a requirement frequently met, as I understand it, by a course in Texas politics. Nine other states have similar but less extensive requirements.
I think it’s more than fair to say that rather more students are affected by the Texas law than have been affected by curricular changes at Stanford or peer schools, like most of the Ivies. But I also think that reflecting on Texas in particular suggests the limits to the Stanford approach.
Coincidentally, before I read the Times op-ed, I’d been considering writing a post called “There Outta Be a Class”. It would have tackled the fallacy that a lot of policy entrepreneurs, reformers, and concerned citizens subscribe to—the idea that we can fix problems in society by just having people take a course. It would have mentioned
the enormously long lead times that courses have from implementation to impact. Let’s say that you’re trying to solve a problem about how policymakers behave by launching a class that targets 20-year-olds. It will take, at a minimum, decades before the people who took your course become policymakers, and then a decade or more in addition before alumni represent a majority of your target population.
the horribly uncertain effects of your intervention, coupled with the difficulty of designing your intervention. So you want to save democracy. Do you know what books work? Do you know what assessments work? Do you know who will teach it, and how it will be funded? How can you be sure anyone will pay attention in class? Whose ox are you going to gore to get time in the curriculum to teach this? (If we are going to put in a neo Western Civ course, for instance, does that mean that all the humanities departments currently offering gen-eds will suddenly see their credit hours plummet?) How will you measure effectiveness? What would effectiveness even look like?
the challenge of making interventions similar. Does your intervention require everyone to get the same curriculum? Best of luck doing that with university professors, a group of professionals that make cat herders despair.
the comparatively narrow scope of most curricular interventions. Getting required courses in an already-crowded high school curriculum is difficult; it’s only a little less so for university, but of course college (two- or four-year) targets a more restricted audience—not everyone goes to college.
the fact that your intervention may have already been tried. If you’re trying to get a common experience at university, for instance, have you looked up how first-year seminars or common reads have gone? Sorry to say, but when every other university in America had their first-year students read The Kite Runner, it didn’t produce a wave of activism to solve Afghanistan. (Well, actually, maybe it did, but uh not for the better.)
the generational inequity of the proposed remedy. After all, if there’s a problem in society now, then that means the people who caused it aren’t in college now, so why are we making today’s teenagers suffer through some lectures? (The answer is, as always, that this is more about doing something rather than doing something useful.)
the fact that no class is identical: no two students take the same lessons away from a lecture, no two instructors cover the material in the same way, no two semesters are exactly the same. I’ve taught the same course on the same day back-to-back and had incredibly different outcomes. Assuming that giving a class a course number will result in the same, strong, and consistently transformative outcomes semester after semester is peak administrator brain.
So you can imagine that, when the Times op-ed came out, I was pretty well prepared to talk about this. It’s precisely the sort of thing I had in mind: a vague, noble-sounding initiative that can’t possibly work except on a massive, generational timeline even if its theory of the case is correct.
And I don’t think its theory is correct. I’m rather downbeat on the feasibility of estimating causal effects in social phenomena most of the time, but if you were going to ask me to suggest causes for the decline in democratic sentiment and quality of democratic institutions over the past several decades, I’d be much more likely to appeal to perceived threats coming from the upset of established social orders (that is, whitelash), economic factors like the rise in income inequality and the decline in employment and financial security, and the absence of a great-power ideological rival binding elites to some sort of democratic pact and norms. College curricula would be last on the list, not least because these are general phenomena affecting way more countries than the United States. Re-run the past few decades but keep Western Civ intact and I think the results from the fall of the Berlin Wall to January 6 would be exactly the same.
That’s why I think this proposal, however well-meaning, is not only flawed but dangerously narcissistic. I will never relent in thinking that what universities do matters, but I will never for a second believe that what universities do is decisive or separable from the broader trends in society. And assuming that a single course can change the country—folks, I don’t even believe that a single course can change an undergraduate major program.
And this brings us back to Texas. The underlying belief of the Times op-ed is that universities are the central point at which respect for freedom of speech is inculcated, and that the decline in common values is playing out in universities more than anywhere else.
Is it, though?
When libraries are threatened, censored, or closed because of local and state politics, that doesn’t seem like something that involves universities. When Florida rewrites its history curriculum, that doesn’t seem like something that involves universities. When Texas literally bans a whole form of civic engagement teaching in high school—it’s illegal to have students contact state legislators as part of a Texas school course!—that doesn’t seem like something that involves universities. When faculty members can be censured for criticizing public officials, or when trustees interfere in the hiring of personnel, or when the Florida government sabotages New College, that does sound like something that involves universities—but not in any way you’d recognize from the Times op-ed.
In this environment, the notion that mandatory civics education will save us seems willfully blind to the stakes, scope, and urgency of the crisis. Indeed, at this point, any proposal to centralize curricula and impose new requirements on all students had better be ready to think about the failure modes associated with such a move, such as by right-wing media targeting a lesson plan for being too woke or ideologues (yes, of either side, but probably of one stripe) hijacking the course for their own ends in a couple of years.
And then there’s the substance of the proposal. Those of us who believe in democracy, and there’s still a few left, didn’t come to it because we took a course. Experience, reasoning, exposure to ideas (not all of them Western)—these all played a part. So, too, does self-interest (and if that confession makes you squeamish, maybe it’s time to read Federalist 10 again). And even if I had taken such a course, would it have really prepared me for the multifarious crises of liberalism since then—everything from gender and racial politics to grappling with Indigenous politics to thinking about what the liberal international order is, or could be?
Designing a course to recapitulate any of our treks toward intellectual support for democratic institutions would be a daunting task. It’s a much safer bet that whatever imposed curriculum would come out would be a tepid brew unable to rouse any strong opinions whatsoever. (There’s something just a little off-putting in the Times op-ed’s equation of anything that looks like choice with free-market ideology: lots of valuable activities and traits are the product of choices that have nothing to do with markets, like conscience, honor, and fealty.) A prescribed course for inculcating correct democratic ideals seems likelier to instill Gen Z with contrarian vibes, anyway.
Where does that leave us? Instead of imposing faux-democratic syllabi, it means building institutions that infuse activities with a democratic ethos: discouraging dishonesty, soliciting opinions, and engaging in meaningful dialogue around truth. These are the root of the mission of universities, but they could probably use some watering.
Systematic Hatreds is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.