Teaching American Democracy in the UNC System

Implemented correctly, the “Foundations of American Democracy” requirement can provide a democratic remedy to a democratic disease.

I would like to say something you don’t often hear from UNC-System faculty these days: I agree with the Board of Governors. At its February 28 meeting, the Board’s Committee on Educational Planning, Policies, and Programs approved a proposal to “ensure undergraduate students acquire a shared foundation in American democracy.” The full BOG passed the measure earlier this month. The resulting courses must be designed in a way that “emphasizes academic rigor and freedom of inquiry” and that can be implemented at “all UNC-System universities.” The justification for the new policy is data indicating that “Americans of all ages lack basic knowledge about the function and foundations of American government, from the role of different branches to the five freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment.”

Carried out well, such a policy will be a significant educational achievement and a major public service. Democracy was once something that American higher education took for granted. Now, it has become yet another point of contention in our never-ending culture wars. Indeed, the conflicts in contemporary American society—often magnified by controversies surrounding college campuses—would hardly have shocked early theorists of democracy or even the Founders. In Federalist 10, James Madison reflected on the “propensity” of “popular government” to the “violence of faction.” He defined “faction” as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest” that is contrary to the desire or interests of the rest of the population. Madison would have had little difficulty recognizing our current state of political polarization as a textbook case of that unfortunate propensity. Liberals and conservatives, woke progressives and MAGA Republicans, see one another as menacing factions driven by a wild and nefarious desire to impose their will on the entire country.

Education may have its own role to play in tempering the factional impulse.For Madison, the solution to the problem of faction was that the Constitution and the basic characteristics of the American republic—for instance, its size and representative government—would dilute such divisions. In this way, Madison famously observed, “we behold a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government.” Yet, while it is less hardwired into the institutional structure of our society, education, too, may have its role to play in tempering the factional impulse. What if there were consensus not about what democracy is or should be but that it is worth talking about? And what if higher education, rather than being regarded by either side as a beachhead to be conquered, could be the institution that fostered this conversation?

Unfortunately, the odds of this policy succeeding are slim. There is a significant risk that a course on the foundations of American government will become just another flashpoint in the education wars, like previous controversies over campus free speech and critical race theory and the current protests over the Israel-Hamas war. It is even more likely that the course will be just another dreary requirement in the ever-more-bureaucratized, general-counselized, and compliance-obsessed landscape that higher education has become. But maybe—just maybe—this policy can play a role in renewing universities’ civic mission and enhancing public trust in academe. For this to happen, it seems, the following principles will have to be followed.

1. Be sure the course avoids ideology and orthodoxy. Recent history includes many examples of higher education being used brazenly for ideological indoctrination. As someone who attended college in the 1980s, I remember students who, prior to 1989, did study-abroad programs in the German Democratic Republic (i.e., communist East Germany), where they often sat in on the mandatory Marxism-Leninism courses. Those courses taught students the basics of “dialectical materialism,” how to apply the framework to an analysis of contemporary affairs, and the official history of the Communist Party.

While the Marxism-Leninism curriculum appeared rigorous—it was taught by professors and even had its own academic department—its intentions were transparently propagandistic. East German students were accustomed to banners brandishing a quote from Lenin: “The Marxist doctrine is omnipotent because it is true.” The courses also served as recruiting grounds for party elites—what we might call political hacks. Most of all, while many of these classes were no doubt taught by committed faculty dedicated to socialist “student success,” they had a reputation for being extraordinarily dull. After all, as ideology courses, they made little room for dissident opinion and contrary evidence. As one professor explained after the Berlin Wall went down: “This department had long ago ceased to be current. We emphasized the good parts of East Germany but didn’t say what was bad. We didn’t talk about the fact that our economy didn’t always work.” (An interesting CIA report from 1950 on an East German ideology course is available here.)

If an idea can be shriveled down to an orthodoxy, it has become stale and lifeless.The line between imparting a society’s core values and propaganda is a fine one. Choosing which values, which foundational documents, and which historical events to prioritize always involves making choices that some will contest. Courses of this kind must assert that some ideas are more important than others, knowing full well that academic environments breed mindsets that are keen to challenge such decisions. The decisive factor is less choosing a curriculum than resisting the urge to declare an orthodoxy. The fundamental problem with Marxism-Leninism courses was not that they brainwashed students but that they bred a deep and poisonous cynicism. If an idea can be shriveled down to an orthodoxy, it has become stale and lifeless. True education stimulates and surprises.

2. Make sure the course allows for complexity. As most of us realize, our polarized politics are fueled by simplification. This reduces all issues to a handful of recognizable and emotionally charged ideas that admit no nuance: injustice vs. betrayal, victimhood vs. “victimhood.” While it is, at times, necessary to think in terms of such clear-cut alternatives, this disposition rarely yields genuine understanding—the kind that universities must aspire to cultivate.

Unfortunately, the study of one’s own country’s history, institutions, and culture can often encourage simpleminded thinking. Too often, students think they already know about American history and government. They have encountered it throughout their schooling; it is celebrated at holidays; it pervades the media, popular culture, social media, and advertising. This cultural backdrop contributes little to the task of education. Education should not trade in the familiar. It is rare for genuine learning to occur without the experience of defamiliarizing.

I had at least something approaching that experience this semester. My field is French history and the history of European thought. On several occasions, I have tried to connect these interests to American history by teaching a seminar on the political thought of the American and French Revolutions (a topic whose importance would have been evident to the Founders). Initially, most students took the American half of the course somewhat for granted. They were on familiar territory. Yet, while most, for instance, knew of Tom Paine, few had read Common Sense, the most famous pamphlet of the American Revolution. We had intriguing discussions unpacking Paine’s famous—but cryptic—assertion that “society is produced by our wants, and government by wickedness.” Some were surprised by the text’s radicalism—including its harsh criticism of British constitutional traditions that some colonists preferred to align themselves with (even if they regretted the crown’s violation of them). Most of all, I think Paine turned out to be someone different from whom they thought he was. Far from being another wordy patriot sporting a tricorne hat, Paine was a thinker who used his knowledge of the Bible to excoriate monarchism in Common Sense but also mounted a vigorous attack on Christianity in The Age of Reason. He could celebrate American commercial potential one moment while advocating a universal income the next. A hero of the American Revolution, he could become a bitter critic of George Washington.

We should help students see the choices our foundational texts made.The course that the BOG is mandating will be successful to the extent that it can encourage a similar attitude of complexity in its approach to the foundational documents of American government. The texts it already plans to include in its curriculum—the Federalist Papers and “Letter from Birmingham Jail”—were polemics. They advocated for certain philosophical choices over other philosophical choices—and defended their positions vigorously. We should help students to see the choices these texts made, the options they chose, and the options they foreclosed. This is one of any number of ways to cultivate an appreciation for the complexity that lies at the heart of our system of government.

3. Don’t trust administrators. I know I’m losing you here. “Why did he have to bring his professional dissatisfactions into this discussion?” I would submit that the problem of the university administrator has become an educational problem. If this were ever in doubt, the way top administrators have responded to recent controversies surrounding the Israel-Hamas war makes it all too clear. Fundamentally, the problem is rooted in context. Higher education finds itself in an epic crisis. University education is widely recognized as too expensive. Many institutions must either shut down or cut back. At the same time, universities have lost public confidence and have become the target of political attack. In such challenging circumstances, administrators are needed who can be all things to the multiple constituencies that define a university. While top administrators have traditionally risen from the ranks of the faculty, it has become a quasi-requirement that administrators no longer identify with the faculty, who, arguably, have become the least necessary and most disposable university constituency. To manage universities, you need administrators with no deep commitment to any one of the various constituencies whose interests they have to adjudicate.

Lyndon Johnson liked to tell the story of a schoolteacher who, during the Depression, applied for a job to a school board that was divided over whether the earth was round or flat. When asked his opinion, the “poor fellow needed a job so much, he said: ‘I can teach it either way.’” This attitude has become the mantra not of professors but administrators. Administrators will be “woke” and enthusiastic advocates of DEI when the situation calls for it and just as eagerly hunker down on free speech and neutral hiring policies when the winds change. The same administrators who initially viewed the Israel-Hamas conflict as a diversity issue writ large can, when the times demand it, shut down antiwar student protests. What surprises administrators about such controversies is the bizarre fact that people—particularly on campuses—seem to care about things. An actual belief is a far too inconvenient idiosyncrasy for any self-respecting university administrator in today’s environment to indulge.

A course encouraging students to reflect on the intellectual foundations of American democracy is a worthy task.One might even say that contemporary university administrators embody an interesting subplot in 18th-century thought with which many of the Founders would have been familiar: the eunuch as a political problem. As the philosophes understood, in a despotism, those who wield power must have different interests from those they govern. Those who rule autocratically must be missing something. Hence the problem of the eunuch among the harem, a theme, for instance, in Montesquieu’s The Persian Letters (the “celebrated Montesquieu” is frequently referred to in the Federalist Papers). In many ways, today’s university administrators resemble the eunuch as Montesquieu and others conceived him: Their power is rooted in a kind of necessary indifference to the concerns and interests of their constituents. Faculty and students are preoccupied, often obsessively, with ideas, beliefs, and values. In many instances, so are board members and politicians. University administrators, however, have achieved their position by severing their identities from such concerns. This is why they can manage modern universities. But it also makes them indifferent to the deeper mission.

Of course, the implementation of the BOG’s “foundations” course will depend on university administrators—as it should. The problem is that they are likely to bring to this task the same risk-averse, constituency-pleasing, and ultimately careerist strategies that define their professional outlook. The BOG may care about different things than faculty and students. But what they all have in common is they do care—they all believe higher education should be about something meaningful. The BOG needs to ensure that the pedagogical goals of its “foundations” course are taken seriously and to guarantee that they are not drained of all intellectual content. Board members need to ensure that administrators can’t tout their achievements in chirpy press releases that have only a tenuous connection to actual educational experiences.

While the cultural obstacles to the new policy’s success are considerable, a course encouraging students and faculty to reflect on the intellectual foundations of American democracy is a worthy task. As it is developed, all parties should show forbearance. Professors should give boards an opportunity to show that they are motivated by civic and educational concerns and are not simply trying to micromanage faculty. Boards should give faculty a chance to prove that they are professionals and not just partisan ideologues.

Fundamentally, our current political divisions, including those relating to higher education, arise from dynamics that are distinct to democratic societies. The fear that the United States is ruled by disloyal elites who are conspiring to destroy it is a modern iteration of classical republicanism’s fear that republics, as regimes founded on virtue, are fatally inclined to corruption. The outrage at the persistence of inequalities of race and gender is a latter-day manifestation of the “passion for equality” that Alexis de Tocqueville believed was the characteristic dynamic of democracies. A course on the foundations of American democracy will not cure American society of the tendency towards passionate faction that preoccupied Madison. But it could provide a productive space to bring them into dialogue—and renew public trust in higher education at the same time.

Michael C. Behrent is a professor of history at Appalachian State University.