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From the December 19, 2003 / January 5, 2004 issue: Robert David Johnson on "The Arts of Democracy."

Dec 29, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 16
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School for Scandal

This fall, twelve colleges featured a program called "The Arts of Democracy"--with funds from the federal Department of Education.

It's an interesting curriculum the nation's tax dollars have bought. At Albany SUNY, for example, students in "The Arts of Democracy" focus on the African diaspora. Pacific Lutheran teaches democracy with classes in theater, women's studies, and environmental studies. At John Carroll University, instruction comes through courses on globalization and cultural diversity. Going beyond the classroom, Beloit College features "action-oriented activities" in women's studies, while at the University of Delaware, freshmen in common dorms enroll in such course clusters as "Caribbean Steel Drums" or "Globalization and Gender." Heritage College has courses that stress "cross-cultural community" and "global awareness."

Meanwhile, the Rochester Institute of Technology announced that the money will allow the school to hire a "cadre of new, multidisciplinary faculty" to develop courses skeptical of "globalization." The program already contains several offerings organized around the "Western veil of ignorance" and the "apartheid" of globalization. Students are graded in part through journal entries "about involvement in social-advocacy groups."

Then there's my own Brooklyn College, where "The Arts of Democracy" has no courses related to democracy or international relations in political science, history, economics, or philosophy. Students learn, instead, that democracy entails support for a "community of diversity," with courses on such topics as literature and cultural diversity and global cinema.

The school's administration admires this approach so much that it wants to expand the program into a major called "Global Studies." Indeed, declaring "The Arts of Democracy" the model for making "an understanding of global perspectives an integral part of the general education curriculum," Brooklyn College hopes to use it to replace the college's nationally respected core curriculum.

The provost, Roberta Matthews, termed the idea that colleges should focus on transmitting knowledge "a very outdated notion." That, perhaps, explains why the instructors in Brooklyn's "Arts of Democracy" include the dean of student life--who notes that before the attacks of September 11, few understood the nation could be targeted by "those referred to as 'terrorists' or by other American citizens." The new curriculum will help students answer such questions as, "Was September 11 contrived?" and "What did the United States government know and when did it know it?" and "Whose rights would be violated now?"

Underlying the "Arts of Democracy" project is a fascinating attempt to redefine college education. The group coordinating the program--the Association of American Colleges and Universities--holds that middle- and working-class students enter college deeply sexist and racist. Such students need "education for the 21st century" to abandon their hostility to "diversity." The association's project director describes "The Arts of Democracy" as "one small way of beginning to work toward another kind of global community rather than the fractured, violence-ridden one represented by the kind of heinous acts committed on September 11th." The program will create "knowledgeable, empathetic members of society" who would "help ensure enlightened policy decisions."

The association seems unable to understand that different people may, in good faith, define "enlightened policy decisions" in different ways. Nor has the organization explained why or how a college curriculum should promote specific policy decisions--even those related to the "heinous acts committed on September 11th."

By underwriting the "Arts of Democracy" project, the federal government has used Americans' tax dollars for a program that views the entire modern democratic project as a sustained effort to suppress and marginalize in the interests of power, privilege, and profit--in fact, for a program that not only fails to inform students about their civic foundations but undermines respect for the American achievement.

--Robert David Johnson