The Forum | General Education

The Role of Liberal Arts Education in a Democracy

July 17, 2019

A democracy is a system of government that grants citizens political power to choose their own representatives. Each citizen, when legally eligible, can freely participate in government through elections, choosing representatives who will advance America’s democratic principles. Being charged with such an immense task, American citizens have a responsibility to be informed, engaged members of society in order to safeguard and foster our democracy. College and universities that provide students with a robust liberal arts education are an essential part of ensuring that American citizens are capable of such an important job.

A democracy, governed by free individuals, requires a certain degree of education to develop an informed citizenry who can meaningfully contribute to society. The best way for citizens to become informed about the history and principles behind our democracy is through a collegiate liberal arts education. Explaining his thoughts on the purpose of institutions of higher education, John Henry Newman, a 19th century theologian, wrote, “If then a practical end must be assigned to a University course, I say it is that of training good members of society. Its art is the art of social life, and its end is fitness for the world.” A comprehensive liberal arts education allows students to become experts in their specific field, but also to gain knowledge in multiple areas of study. Studying a broad range of disciplines such as history, politics, economics, and science allows individuals to become informed citizens and competent voters who can foster a healthy democracy.

“A democracy, governed by free individuals, requires a certain degree of education to develop an informed citizenry” 

With over 3,000 four-year colleges and universities to choose from, it can be extremely difficult to determine which ones offer students a worthwhile liberal arts curriculum that will prepare them for both career and citizenship. ACTA’s “What Will They Learn?” report helps to solve this challenge by allowing students and families to evaluate over 1,100 colleges and universities on whether they require their undergraduate students to complete courses in seven designated core subjects: Composition, Literature, (intermediate-level) Foreign Language, U.S. Government or History, Economics, Mathematics, and Natural Science. Unfortunately, the 2018-19 What Will They Learn? report revealed that less than half of the schools surveyed require their students to take courses in Literature (34%), Foreign Language (12%), U.S. Government or History (18%), or Economics (3%). Courses in these areas may be offered as part of a general education curriculum, but are optional rather than required. Students are presented with a plethora of niche, miscellaneous classes with little intellectual value, and they must pick and choose which courses to take.

The results are alarming for the future of our democracy. The inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are the cornerstone of democracy. A curriculum that exposes students to these principles that girded the American Founding, as well as to the literature, history, and ideas of both our country and those of other countries, is essential to building an informed, free citizenry. Dr. Peter Schramm in his book Education in a Democratic Republic, wrote, “Liberal education has to do with educating free men. The term liberal, derived from the Latin liberi, means, literally, ‘pertaining to freedom or to the free.’” But this type of robust education is threatened at many colleges and universities. A worrisome 2018 Knight Foundation poll found that 53% of college students believe that diversity and inclusion are more important than free speech rights. Colleges and universities must train students with a better understanding of the most cherished principles of our democracy—such as the First Amendment right to freely speak and discuss a wide range of ideas without fear of censorship—in order for our democracy to continue to flourish.

“Liberal education has to do with educating free men”

The great essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote, “He that is once admitted to the right of reason is made a freeman of the whole estate.” A unique benefit of liberal education is its ability to enrich and expand the mind through exposure to a wide range of beliefs, ideas, and viewpoints. While U.S. Government and History courses are especially important for understanding America’s democratic legacy, a curriculum that incorporates all seven of the core subjects evaluated by What Will They Learn? will help students to responsibly question, contemplate, and understand the world around them from multiple viewpoints. This training is invaluable because it equips students with the skills to engage with their fellow citizens from all walks of life. Students who graduate with a rigorous education in the liberal arts and a willingness to collaborate with their peers through the free exchange of ideas will be well-prepared to contribute meaningfully to our democracy and engage constructively with their fellow citizens.

Joseph Schoffstall is a curricular improvement intern at ACTA and a rising senior at Ashland University. 


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

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