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William Stimson: Education, as always, is democracy’s savior

By William Stimson For The Spokesman-Review

American democracy is in a crisis, it is true, but then it almost always is. Any process that depends upon millions of human beings coming to agreement is bound to have its bumpy periods.

A century ago, at the opening of the supposedly halcyon 1920s, the age of “normalcy,” 4 million workers across the country went on strike, which many of the rest of the millions of Americans interpreted as the opening of a Communist revolution. A bomb sent to the U.S. attorney general blew off a portion of his house. Federal agents rounded up and arrested 6,000 people, more or less randomly, as a precaution against further plots.

That was just the calm before the storm of the 1930s, when tens of thousands of Americans were so frustrated with democracy they were convinced they might be better off following the example of Russia under Comrade Stalin (whose solution to the problem of political instability was to murder 20 million of his countrymen).

People who should have known better despaired for democracy. Carl Becker, a renowned historian who wrote about the origins of democracy, said in a 1932 magazine article: “The intellectual freedom which we so highly prize is of little concern to the average man. … Give him bread and circuses, bacon and automobiles – and he will not clamor for those political and intellectual liberties which we so desperately cling to.”

Fortunately, others managed to retain their faith in the American system. The same month that Becker registered his despair, Washington State College President Ernest O. Holland delivered a speech on the topic to the Association of American Land Grant Colleges. “The ugly visage of revolt on a national scale will never appear in America,” Holland declared, because everyone in America had an avenue to success through education. “The men and women of America, members of our great middle class, are dreaming dreams for their children.” As long as education promoted the success of its children, Americans simply had no need for another revolution.

That was the faith of nearly all American educators in Holland’s time. People can learn their way out of conflict. Virtually any course of college study ends up making the point that “Truth” is not the product of one’s attitude that day. (It is no coincidence that it was Benjamin Franklin, the scientist, who advised the nearly deadlocked Constitutional Convention to “doubt a little of your infallibility.”)

Holland, typically in his era, ran his college as a virtual academy of democratic behavior. Tuition was free – recognition that educated young people were a benefit to the whole society – but in return the presumption was that students owed something to society. Holland’s constant message, in weekly talks to assembled students and elsewhere, was that they were not being educated merely to enrich themselves. They were being prepared to take on the sacred responsibility of leading a nation.

Perhaps the message had an effect. Two decades ago the scholar Robert Putnam made an exhaustive comparison of civic behavior in the 20th century. He compared things like voting records, volunteering, donating, and other signs of citizenship. He concluded that the generation that came of age just prior to World War II, Holland’s era, had set the standard for civic behavior. The most civic-minded of all were college graduates.

One of the most discouraging facts to come out of the recent presidential election was a poll that found that only 38 percent of Republican-leaning voters were willing to vote for candidates who showed a willingness to compromise on public questions. Democracy cannot exist if there is no compromise.

But the same poll showed that among Republican-leaning voters who were college graduates, 52 percent would support voters who compromise. The figure for Democrat-leaning voters was 58 percent. A solid majority of college graduates support candidates who will compromise.

Holland had the answer.

William Stimson is a professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University and author of “Instilling Spirit: Students and Citizenship at Washington State, 1892-1942.”

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