How Teaching a Liberal Education Will Help Our Students Move Past Prejudice and Embrace Our Common Humanity

Mar 23, 2017 12:00:00 AM

by Steven F. Wilson

In 1952, as the world continued to take stock of the devastation wrought by authoritarian regimes, a coalition of prominent universities and preparatory schools called for a renewed general education in America—an education that would provide young people with “vision and trained intelligence, a sense of the whole, and the ability to make valid generalizations from facts.” “The ideal democratic society…would see to it that its specialists were liberally-educated,” their joint report argued. “Liberal education and the democratic ideal are related to each other in a thousand ways. It is not too much to say that they stand and fall together.” In these dark days of fake news and “alternative facts,” I find myself returning to their manifesto, which inspired Ascend’s own curricular model. The ideal of the educated person it conjures is no less compelling today. We hold it for every Ascend student, and wish it for every American. The liberally educated person, the report said, “thinks rationally, objectively, and knows the difference between fact and opinion.” He or she is curious, articulate, versed in history, and “at home in the world of quantity, number and measurement.” The liberally educated person “is tolerant about the beliefs of others” because he or she “respects sincerity and is not afraid of ideas.”

Think of Where We Are Now

The new administration has invoked the threat of terrorism by “radical Islam” to justify the closing of our borders. But in the 15 years since the 9/11 attacks, there have been fewer than 100 deaths in the United States from attacks by radicalized Muslims. And in the last four decades, there have been no attacks by terrorists born in the six nations of the most recent travel ban. In the same period, as Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times has noted, more than 1.3 million Americans have lost their lives to gun violence. We hope our liberal arts education will equip our students to reject appeals to fear and prejudice, to distinguish between one of the world’s great faiths and the murderous ideology of ISIS, to rationally evaluate comparative statistical risks, and to evaluate the merits of public policy. We hope our students, having read from across cultures and times, will recognize our common humanity and know that [pullquote position="right"]diversity is a strength to be cherished.[/pullquote] The new administration has promised the return of coal mining jobs and the president has called global warming a hoax invented by the Chinese. The White House has proposed the relaxation of target automobile fuel efficiency standards set by the Obama administration. The newly appointed Environmental Protection Agency administrator denies that the burning of fossil fuels is driving climate change and has expressed sympathy with those who wish to abolish the agency. Our students, we trust, will respect the scientific consensus: manmade warming is an urgent, existential threat that requires international action to avert. We hope they will engage mankind’s shared predicament of climate change and join other ingenious Americans in building the renewable energies economy. The administration has promised to defund the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. But if we succeed, our students, made “perceptive, sensitive to form, and affected by beauty,” as the report urges, will recognize that these programs enrich all our lives at an infinitesimal cost. The administration has declared war on the media, calling it “the enemy of the American people” and has sought to intimidate and discredit the courts (“a so-called judge”). Our students, though, will have traced the origins of our democracy and studied the separation of powers, and they, we expect, will be prepared to defend a free press and an independent judiciary as safeguards against tyranny. “Education designed to free individual human beings from the limitations of ignorance, prejudice, and provincialism makes sense only in a free society and can flourish only in a free society,” the report warned. “When totalitarian dictatorship triumphs in the modern world, truly ‘liberal’ education is the first object of attack, since it is one of the most obvious bulwarks against the brutalization and atomization of the individual.” If we are to safeguard the future of America’s children, we must commit to providing them an expansive general education—an education that arouses curiosity, stimulates doubt, cultivates compassion, and upholds reason. The very future of democracy may depend on it.
An original version of this post appeared on Ascend's blog as Liberal Education Has Never Mattered More.

Steven F. Wilson

Steven F. Wilson, founder and chief executive officer of Ascend Learning, is also a senior fellow at Education Sector, a Washington think tank, and formerly, the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He is the former CEO of Advantage Schools, an urban school management company that enrolled nearly 10,000 students, and a former executive vice president of Edison Schools. Earlier, Wilson was special assistant for strategic planning for Massachusetts Governor William Weld and co-executive director of the Pioneer Institute, where he wrote the Massachusetts charter school law. He is the author of two books: Learning on the Job: When Business Takes on Public Schools and Reinventing the Schools: A Radical Plan for Boston. He is the board president of Building Excellent Schools, a national training program for aspiring charter school founders, and a graduate of Harvard University.

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