Education, Information and Democracy

Fretting about the health of democracy has recently moved from being an esoteric activity of academics to a widespread preoccupation across much of the developed world. We treasure the ideal of democracy for good reason. While there are many forms of democracy, some more direct than others, some more secular than others, some with broader franchises than others, with widely varying constitutional frameworks and checks and balances, they all are forms of collective decision making.

The fretting is understandable, as we observe low voter turnouts, cynicism about political choices, and oversimplification or outright misrepresentation of important issues of public policy by both elected representatives and media.

We know that democratic forms don’t always produce the right decision, and they frequently fail to take timely decisions, but at least we’re masters of our own fate, and we do continue to hope that the choices made by the majority have a reasonable chance of being good decisions for the great majority. And they probably will be, if that majority has a clue. But there are challenging forces at play.

Meanwhile, the issues get more difficult. All politics may be local, but the last century of scientific and social change has guaranteed that the problems to be solved are neither local nor simple. Indeed, even the issues highlighted in a single election usually span most of human knowledge, including both the scientific and technological disciplines and the humanities and social sciences.

Now we need to mine the past a bit, to understand the present. Since the end of World War II, North Americans have witnessed an explosion in higher education. Once the province of a privileged few who were either wealthy or especially talented and determined, university attendance steadily grew to the present state of affairs, in which it has become a near-normal expectation for those who finish high school well.

Along the way it went through phases. In the 1950’s, degrees were few enough that possession of one, regardless of field of study, was usually a ticket to a better than average economic future. But during the 1960’s we saw the first signs of a clear shift towards a noxious mythology that holds sway in many quarters today. It appeals particularly to folk who describe themselves as “pragmatic”.

Thus it has become alarmingly fashionable to know a great deal about a single field, but quite unfashionable to have a solid basic grounding in many. This fashion rests on five false assumptions made by governments, and by many parents and students about the taxonomy and purpose of higher education.

The five false assumptions are:

1. A specialized technical, commercial or professional education which provides immediate access to a good job is the main reason for going on to higher education.

2. Such specialized education is more desirable than a less marketable one, but is also inherently more difficult.

3. For those who feel especially driven towards one of the other less practical disciplines, intense specialization in it may be acceptable, as one can always work as a teacher and scholar in that discipline, in which case the rest of society will support you, albeit grudgingly.

4. A liberal education consists of a buffet style selection of the humanities and social sciences. It is good for something, in that it makes you a well-rounded person so you can enjoy the world around you more and think beautiful thoughts during your leisure time.

 5. Since a liberal education is not good for getting a job, it is a good choice only for the slightly less energetic children of the well-to-do whose families can afford to support those beautiful thoughts. Others, however, may pursue a liberal education while still finding themselves, provided that they then move on.

The holder of a so-called liberal education is therefore viewed as rather a dilettante, and the primacy of specialized, professional education as the real higher education is reinforced.

But the myth of the impractical, beautiful, self-indulgent liberal education is persuasive only to those who know little of the past and think little about the future.

In the Middle Ages, the pillars of liberal education were the subjects of the trivium and the quadrivium. The trivium of three logical and linguistic disciplines, which were grammar, logic (usually called dialectic) and rhetoric, formed the basic platform, sort of the BA of medieval times. The quadrivium of four mathematical disciplines, which were arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy was the advanced program, more or less the MA of its day. These more advanced subjects were not viewed from a theoretical perspective at all, but rather were taken as descriptive of and explaining the actual world.

There was an eighth core subject implied but not stated, and that was the second language requirement, a concept familiar to Canadians. In the Middle Ages, that second language was Latin, as all instruction, spoken and written, was given in Latin. University students were required to speak Latin when not in class as well, with penalties for failing to do so.

These were the “liberal arts”; they were so heavily laced with mathematics that it makes one chuckle to think of the occasional modern student who flees to the mistaken modern notion of the liberal arts because of a fear of math. The trivium and the quadrivium were called the liberal arts because they were viewed as the minimum suite of subjects necessary for “liberi” – “free men”. This is an important concept, that there is a broad educational requirement for those who would be free, and that there is a way of defining what that reasonable minimum might be.

We speak easily of living in a free society, but have given little thought to what the citizenry of a free society need to know to meet their obligations. Indeed, society is so free that individuals are free to know nothing, while still having an equal vote and an equal say in our affairs of state.

So what risks do we run by accepting the primacy of specialized, professional education? In some ways we don’t know, as we haven’t run the experiment all that long. The scientist was also a natural philosopher and often an artist not only in Leonardo Da Vinci’s time, but right up to the dawn of the 20th century. Until that point, we placed a very high value on knowing a reasonable amount about almost everything. The idea of the Renaissance man or woman as the epitome of education did not end with the Renaissance, but it may have died on the battlefields of the First World War.

Now it may be that we will be lucky, and can just barely muddle through as a free society with a citizenry that often hasn’t a clue, except in a narrow domain. After all, during the SARS crisis of 2003 the World Health Organization survived Toronto mayor Mel Lastman’s surprise at its existence, and the Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day was ultimately unsuccessful in reversing the flow of the Niagara River. And so far the U.S. has survived the spectacle of prominent politicians misplacing various foreign lands, or thinking that in Latin America one speaks Latin, and is coping moderately well with countering a leader who routinely repeats as fact any number of easily verified falsehoods, especially in the area of science.

Furthermore, people like to learn broadly, and will do so on their own, given half a chance. They take pride in knowing something that others may not, and the popularity of the television show “Jeopardy” is not just because of one slightly jug-eared contestant who had a winning streak of 74 games, but because an enormous fraction of the viewers try to beat the contestants to the answers. Somehow, viscerally, knowledge matters.

This natural desire to know things, right down to the smallest detail, is enormously valuable in a democracy, a society committed to collective forms of decision-making. For any collective decision-making process to produce good decisions, many of those participating need to have a reasonable grasp of the facts of the matter at issue, and at least some of those who are knowledgeable need to have access to the tools used to communicate with and persuade others.

But, despite (or perhaps because of) the communications revolution, in some ways the flow of real information in Canada and the US on questions of public policy is drying up. This is a grave threat to any functioning democracy. And it’s related to some disturbing trends in dissemination of news.

There are multiple causes for the remarkable dumbing-down of news dissemination in Canada over the past 40 years. The process has gone through two distinct stages. The first stage was the growth of television news, which saw the need to compress complex issues into 10-30 second sound bites. The higher visibility of the reporters and news readers also created a bit of a news celebrity culture, leading to a sort of journalistic narcissism of portions of the media who report incessantly on themselves.

The print media, struggling with declining market share, especially in the period before they went heavily on line, tried to imitate television by trying for the print version of attractive sound bites and a gradual underweighting of news in favour of opinion columns, some of which became infected with the same narcissism as the TV news.

Interestingly, during this first stage decline in the handling of news in Canada a generation ago one effect was related to market size. As critical as we are of US media, during the stage one shift in technology, one could find some thoroughly brainy specialized commentary in the U.S. This was because it was a huge market, so that through syndication a journalist could then actually make a living understanding issues in economics, or science, or geopolitics. But not here in the smaller market of Canada, where you were the science reporter the week after you were the society reporter, and the week before you became the constitutional issues reporter. Generalist journalists know that they haven’t the time to learn enough to deal with the full complexity of the issues, and this pressure has only gotten worse. Thus they have little choice but to fall back on the double-barrelled stock in trade of any articulate journeyman writer under time pressure, human interest and scandal. Hence almost all Canadian news has for decades been covered as human interest or scandal.

Then came the second, and more destructive stage of the decline in news dissemination: the rise of social media. Social media enable the immediate mass distribution of images and text without any accountability. While some responsible disseminators use these tools, they are generally overwhelmed by a flood of unedited, mislabelled, silly or malicious drivel which often has the effect of countering or diluting actual knowledge. As a source of news, it erases the middle ground and leaves many users going exclusively to sites that they are comfortable with, greatly amplifying confirmation bias, stoking divergence and crushing the middle ground. Amongst the greatest victims is science, which is often being politically distorted or misconstrued to an extent not seen since Galileo’s time. The notion of free speech was always attended by the assumption that the speaker would be known and could be held accountable. It was never imagined as free speech wearing a disguise, and that’s what much of social media activity has become.

In the absence of responsible and accountable editing and fact checking, citizens must do all the editing and verification for themselves. To do so one must already know quite a bit in order to judge which sources to trust or to be able to sniff out nonsense when one hears it. A broad liberal education is a crucial enabler of the good judgement needed to do that.

We now live under a constant waterfall of mere snippets of news, so that a complex subject never gets the comprehensive and reflective treatment it deserves. Even key televised political debates are nothing of the sort. They are joint news conferences, with snappy talking points. I’ve known quite a few political leaders, and, surprisingly, in private some of them are genuinely impressive.

One of my fantasies is to imagine a properly conducted election campaign debate not moderated by journalists putting a string of tendentious questions to the campaigners. Imagine the people we might elect debating each other in long enough blocks to be coherent, and on subjects which they think we might wish to hear about before we judge their fitness to govern. Contemplate the possibility of political discourse not broken up every minute or two by a new question from a moderator whose only real role ought to be to keep order and keep track of time.

We might get political discourse appropriate for a free people, and, by chance, some listeners would have the “liberal” education to assess it properly.

I was very fortunate to be involved in an interesting experiment about liberal education that began 22 years ago. In 1998 I was appointed to chair the committee charged with developing a renewed core curriculum for the Royal Military College. At the time I was still a VP at Queens’ University, about a year before I became principal at RMC. The college knew that it could not leave liberal education to chance. H. G. Wells described the history of humankind as “a race between education and catastrophe”.  Nowhere is this truer than for the modern profession of arms.

Today, a young officer may be called upon to be a skilled leader, a technical expert, a diplomat, a warrior, and even an interpreter and an aid expert, all at once. And while remarkable acceleration of technological change and the growth of knowledge are vast multipliers of the effectiveness of numerically small military forces, they also amplify the need for complexity of thought and maturity of judgement to avert catastrophe, and drive that requirement further down the chain of command than ever before. Complexity of thought and maturity of judgement are the products of a strong liberal education, and its application to the interpretation of experience. Indeed, while experience is important, experience without education is a form of tourism.

In September 1999 RMC implemented that new core curriculum of subjects deemed essential for officership in the 21st century, and specifically set certain minima in all programs for knowledge of: ethics, psychology, leadership, Canadian history, Canadian civics, politics, law, military history, international affairs, cross-cultural relations, mathematics, logic, information technology, physics, chemistry, English and French. This list was not arrived at in the customary university fashion, which is to say by assembling the collective biases of the members of a committee. Instead, and in the grand military tradition of rigor tinged with bureaucracy, we had returned to the then current version of the Officer General Specification (OGS), and tried to determine from the list of required competences what studies would get us there. 

On top of the core curriculum, students still had their chosen specialty, be it electrical engineering, French literature, economics or whatever. Of course, it caused the academic portion of an RMC degree to be a bit long; an RMC undergraduate degree has 10-20 per cent more course credits than the same degree at a good civilian university. This was unavoidable if the needed breadth is going to be there, while still getting the specialization that society has come to expect.

The RMC core curriculum that was implemented in 1999 was the modern equivalent of the trivium and the quadrivium, so much so that, for example, the minimum physics requirement in Arts could be met with a course on the physics of music. But the liberal education core was not nostalgia or someone’s pipe dream. No committee was captured by a philosopher with a hankering for the Middle Ages. We got there by working backwards from what we needed on the ground in the Balkans or Afghanistan, on ships engaged in blockade, and in air operations around the globe. Strange as it seems, the liberal education needed to be truly free is pretty much the same one needed to defend freedom in an ethical manner.

Liberal education is not just the humanities and social sciences. It is not just to think beautiful thoughts. It is not just for the idle rich. It is not second-class education. It is what helps people make good choices. And it is the collective making of those good choices that will determine our collective future, and our persistence as a free people. It is what makes democracy tick.