The Democratic Mission of Higher Education

Newly published: Peter Levine, The Democratic Mission of Higher Education: A Review Essay, Political Science Quarterly, 2023;

Abstract: Controversies about speech on college campuses attract intense popular attention. Three recent books analyze campus speech as one of the ways that academia affects American democracy. In The Channels of Student Activism, Amy J. Binder and Jeffrey L. Kidder argue that college-student activists respond to incentives. Progressive students have opportunities to engage closely with their universities but often end up frustrated, while conservative students get support from national organizations to work off-campus and endorse conservative visiting speakers as a way of influencing their own institutions. Among other recommendations, Binder and Kidder suggest that universities should promote democratic values by adopting more persuasive positions about controversial speech. In Cancel Wars, Sigal-Ben Porath defends one such position: universities should avoid censorship and punitive responses to speech while actively ensuring that all members of their community are valued. In What Universities Owe Democracy, Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels argues that higher education affects democracy in many ways beyond explicit political speech, and he presents recommendations that involve admissions, curricular reform, and research. Levine finds many helpful insights and suggestions in these books but adds reasons to doubt the democratic potential of prestigious colleges and universities. He advocates serious public investment in democratic education for children and for adults who are not students.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.