Liberal Arts Education, Democracy, and a Special Kind of Conversation

Activity: Talk or presentation / Performance / SpeechesTalk or presentation - at conferenceAcademic


For democracy to function well, citizens need to be able to have a special kind of conversation. In this special kind of conversation, citizens, and their representatives, seek to find joint answers to common problems, by exchanging perspectives, explaining their reasons, and proposing solutions that nobody envisioned, but which everyone finds acceptable. In the absence of this conversation, democracy regresses into an adversarial process, in which the loudest and most powerful voices drown out others, sometimes at the expense of minorities and the rule of law. Indeed, the recent rise of populism can be seen as a breaking down of this kind of conversation. Defeating it requires recovering our ability to have this special kind of conversation.
The essence of this kind of conversation is the skill of reflective judgment. Such a judgment is distinct from determinate judgment, which is judgment based on the application of fixed, predetermined rules. Rather, reflective judgment is judgment based on a weighing of different and contradictory rules, in which the central question is not: “What do the rules say?” bur rather: “Having considered all the different rules one might apply to this problem and their consequences, which set of rules should prevail in this particular case?”. Hence reflective judgment requires one to consider different ways of looking at problems, their consequences, and, based on one’s most deeply held values, weighing them against each other. This makes the skill of reflective judgement an important democratic virtue.
In a democratic society, one of the functions of education is to prepare future generations for active and engaged citizenship. After all, the ideal of democratic governance, that of conscious social reproduction over time, requires citizenship skills to be instilled in those who will partake in the governing of society. This requires enabling students to have that special kind of conversation and to make reflective judgements. As such, this should be at the heart of education and, in particular, at the heart of higher education. This is because higher education trains many future office holders, and it takes place at a time in an individual’s life when many students start thinking about political and social questions and form habits of thought. However, much higher education is ill-designed for this purpose, focussing instead on developing economically valuable skills. This is a threat to the future of democracy.
In this context, liberal arts education can be of particular value. Its emphasis on interdisciplinarity, academic community, active learning, student engagement with students from a wide variety of backgrounds, critical thinking and intellectual debate makes it particularly suitable for teaching the skill of making reflective judgements and hence of having that special kind of conversation. This paper will argue that Liberal Arts education can cultivate crucial democratic virtues, and that elements from this type of education can be used to improve citizenship education throughout the education system. It will do so by explaining the importance of reflective judgment for the democratic process, proposing a conception of liberal arts education in which this skill plays a central role, and showing how many of the central features of liberal arts education can contribute to providing a better democratic education.

Key references
Dewey, John. Democracy and education. Courier Corporation, 2004.

Gutmann, Amy. Democratic education. Princeton University Press, 1999.

King, Patricia M. "How Do We Know? Why Do We Believe? Learning to Make Reflective Judgments." Liberal Education 78.1 (1992): 2-9.

Nussbaum, Martha C. Not for profit: Why democracy needs the humanities. Princeton University Press, 2016.
Period7 Nov 2017
Event titleThe Purpose of the Future University
Event typeConference
Conference number1st
LocationAarhus, DenmarkShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational