Educate to Liberate

Open Societies Need Open Minds

The planet Earth painted on the face of a female participant to protest against climate change. (Getty)
The planet Earth painted on the face of a female participant to protest against climate change. (Getty)

Educate to Liberate

A populist wave is sweeping the Western world. In Austria, Hungary, Italy and Poland populist parties and candidates have entered the government. In France, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, they have won record levels of support and reshaped the political landscape. What makes these victories so disturbing is the characteristic that unites all populists: their rejection of liberal values. If the world once seemed to be moving inexorably toward greater political and economic freedom, human dignity, tolerance, equality, non-discrimination, open markets, and international cooperation, all are now under threat. That is bad enough, but the decline of liberalism will have consequences beyond a few individual countries. Because the countries that uphold the liberal international order are turning against liberalism, they risk undermining the order they built, ushering in a more antagonistic and dangerous world.
Politicians and pundits have suggested many different responses to the populist phenomenon: reducing inequality, protecting major industries from international trade, curbing immigration. But these are all indirect solutions. The best way to counter the populist trend is to address the underlying problem head-on, by fostering more liberal attitudes. There is a lot of evidence that the best way to promote liberal values is by giving more people more education. In every place where populism is surging, the main determinant of whether someone holds liberal values is his or her level of education. Higher education emphasizes equality, tolerance, and critical thinking; those without access to it are far more likely to oppose liberal values and practices. 
Since the 1990s, American college graduates have held more liberal positions than non-graduates on a wide range of issues. But simply sending more people to college is only the first step. To truly instill liberal values throughout society, universities will also have to live up to those values themselves—rooting out discrimination, overturning traditional academic hierarchies, and breaking up networks of power and patronage that too often keep the connected in and the deserving out. 


That means focusing on education. Although the educational divide started to matter in national politics only recently, researchers have long found that the more educated a person is, the more likely he or she is to adopt liberal social views.
What accounts for that correlation is less apparent. Some argue that more liberals go to college in the first place, although there isn’t much evidence for that. Others emphasize education’s direct role in teaching rational thinking and changing attitudes. What’s clear is that higher education militates against simplistic thinking, undermines stereotypes, opens people up to other points of view, and encourages them to tolerate social differences. 
In the United States, according to polls by the Pew Research Center, a college education increasingly correlates with sympathy for the Democratic Party. According to those polls, in 1994, 39 percent of those with a four-year college degree identified with or leaned toward the Democratic Party, and 54 percent identified with or leaned toward the Republican Party. Today, those figures are reversed. Given the Democratic Party’s growing association with liberal values, the partisan effect of education goes some way toward demonstrating universities’ liberalizing effect. 
Attending college does more than increase people’s tendency to affiliate with the Democratic Party. It also makes people more likely to tolerate different political views. College-educated liberals have warmer attitudes toward conservatives than non-college-educated liberals do. The same is true of conservatives’ attitudes toward liberals. More education could possibly ease the current crisis of polarization. 
On top of its liberalizing effect, higher education also seems to lead people to support the economic policies, such as free trade and high levels of immigration, that form the foundation of the global economic order. There’s also some evidence of a correlation between higher education and direct support for the liberal international order. In a 2013 survey of nine countries (not including the United States), people with college educations were between 24 percentage points (in Turkey) and ten percentage points (in the United Kingdom) more likely to support the UN than those without college degrees. Regardless of whether overall support was high, as in Germany, or low, as in Pakistan, the educational divide persisted. 
It’s possible that’s in part because a college education equips people for jobs that aren’t subject to competition from foreign workers, immigrants, or robots, so college graduates have less reason to oppose international flows of goods and people. But that would not explain why graduates hold more liberal positions in areas unrelated to the financial benefits of the liberal international order, such as freedom of speech, which, according to polling by Gallup, is supported by 73 percent of American college students but only 56 percent of all American adults.
Given education’s liberalizing effect, the first step in promoting liberal values should be expanding access to education. Countries should dedicate more resources to their universities and give more people access to them. The U.S. government spends less than one percent of GDP on higher education, putting the United States 21st on that score within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2015. It lagged behind not only European countries, such as Norway (1.7 percent), but also emerging economies, such as Costa Rica (1.6 percent) and Turkey (1.2 percent). The United States makes up for its lack of public spending by having the highest level of private spending on higher education. But it still ranks only fifth in terms of the share of adults with college degrees. (Canada, where in 2017, 57 percent of adults had attended college, ranks first.)


Sending more people to college is important, but the influence of higher education matters beyond the raw number of students. Since elites in almost every section of society have college degrees, universities have an outsize effect on culture, politics, the economy, science, and public policy.
Throughout history, education has promoted liberal attitudes, but it hasn’t done so consistently. Independent thought and deference to authority have always coexisted uneasily in higher learning. From Plato’s philosopher kings, to the emergence of higher education under the influence of Christianity in the eleventh century, to the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to today, entrenched hierarchies and stale dogmas have always interfered with the search for truth. 
To cultivate an enlightened society, higher education needs to get serious about upholding liberal values. Many institutions of higher learning pledge to act as vanguards of liberalism in their mission statements. Beneath the surface, however, they look very different. 
For starters, although almost all universities in Canada and the United States commit themselves to non-discrimination, the academy is rummaging in the dark when it comes to understanding and fighting for it. Explicit racism and religious intolerance are now thankfully rare. But many people with higher levels of education show other racist tendencies, particularly toward blacks, such as making negative assumptions about them, discounting their expertise, excluding them from professional opportunities, and retaliating against them. Even when universities recognize the problem, rigid hierarchies can prevent them from holding people accountable. In some ways, the system is set up for failure. Universities and professional associations rely on fellow academics to adjudicate grievances. But it’s absurd to ask peers who may be seeking a research connection, publishing opportunities, or a job with the alleged perpetrator to determine wrongdoing. 
Problems also arise because discrimination is rarely public; rather, it takes place behind the scenes, making it hard to document. Most administrative activities in academic departments, such as assessments of scholarly work and the decisions of hiring and promotion committees, operate under codes of strict confidentiality, further complicating efforts to document bias. If academics truly want to fight discrimination, they shouldn’t look for a smoking gun; they should ask whether a similar person from a different race or religion would have suffered similarly.
Universities are also stiflingly hierarchical. Senior administrators reflexively stand by those below them, so academics who allow discrimination to persist are usually supported all the way up the chain. And they can easily take cover under the principle of academic freedom, which often comes into conflict with that of freedom from discrimination. There’s an easy fix for this: hold senior administrators accountable whenever lower-level officials fail to prevent discrimination. 
Finally, universities must put an end to the clubby attitude that excludes far too many people from professional opportunities. Exclusive networks, especially those within predominantly ethnically or religiously homogeneous groups, subvert norms of equal treatment and opportunity. They encourage their members to close ranks when challenged, making it nearly impossible to end discriminatory practices. Even scholars who are not trying to circle the wagons have a hard time imagining someone they know, like, and respect acting in a discriminatory way.
Things are moving in the right direction. Within the American Political Science Association, the leading professional organization of academic political scientists, for example, minority representation is far higher among those under 24 (34 percent) than it is among those over 75 (five percent). But there is still a long way to go. Lack of inclusion is not just a generational problem, and institutions cannot police diversity into existence. Academics, senior administrators, professional associations, and journal editors, however, can all do more to encourage it, by holding minorities to the same standards as everyone else.
By broadening access to higher education and living up to the liberal values in which they claim to believe, universities have a chance to help save those values in society at large. That will play a crucial role in preserving the liberal international order. It’s not enough for citizens and policymakers to defend democracy and economic openness. The order cannot survive in societies that allow discrimination to go unchecked.

This article was originally published in the March/April 2019 issue of Foreign Affairs Magazine and on

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