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Democracy. A word and an ideology that have spawned revolutions and wars ever-lasting. And yet, as July 4th rolls around, even someone as jaded as I can admit there is something quite extraordinary about the idea of democracy. A place where informed citizens are given the chance to both represent themselves and pursue happiness, at least in its property-acquisition form. The shift from "subjects" to "citizens" that heralded the French and the American Revolution was a promise, not a reality, but nonetheless a compelling one that for the first 150 years seemed increasingly possible. And who was this citizen? At first, a property-owning white male, but as time went on, all white men, then all men, then women. And these citizens were different from subjects. Subjects bowed to the authority of the state; citizens were the state. Subjects behaved in courtly ways in front of the king; like barbarians when out of the court. Citizens, highly disciplined by new forms of power, were always civil.
These promises of democracy sound quaint these days in the US, with a populace so uninformed that they are easily misled by demagogues and charlatans into acting in the most undemocratic of ways. And what is to blame for the breakdown of civility and citizenship in America? I'd like to blame it all on Fox News and the likes of Glenn Beck and Rush LImbaugh, but the truth is the erosion of American democracy predates the appearance of fascism. America the Undemocratic began with the destruction of equal opportunity that was contained in the educational system. As the 20th century progressed, education became the engine of American democracy. Taking children and young people out of factories and mandating public high school educations lifted an entire generation of Americans out of sweatshop labor. After World War II, the GI Bill sent tens of thousands of working men into universities. By the 1970s, the American educational system was increasingly open to women and/or Black and Latino Americans.
And then a little revolution called Neoliberalism came along and democracy came to screeching halt. We didn't realize it at first. The seeds were planted, but it was only decades later that the undemocratic impulses of Neoliberalism would bear fruit. Today, your chances of going to college if your parents didn't are lower than they have been at anytime since before World War II. To make matters worse, if you go to college, you will probably have to take on large amounts of debt and the poorer you are, the more likely you are to drop out of school before you even finish your degree. In fact, half of all student loan recipients never receive a degree.
The result: a population that believes that Evolution is just a theory as is global warming, but whole-heartedly embraces the belief that space aliens and illegal aliens are here to destroy our lives.
And what is to be done? Unlike two centuries ago when France followed America in a democratic revolution, now the US would do well to follow France's lead in fostering democracy. Instead of Rousseau, our leaders should read the latest government decree on democratizing higher ed. At this point, fewer than 10% of the students at the top universities in France, the Grandes Ecoles, are from the poorest strata of French society. In the near future, nearly 30% of the Grandes Ecole students will be from Frances poorest families. This will radically shake up France's ruling elite, which is both overwhelmingly white and from bourgeois backgrounds.
Imagine such an experiment in the US. Suddenly places like Harvard and Stanford or even Middlebury College where I teach, would not be primarily for young Americans with so much privilege that they spend thousands of dollars on elite SAT tutors, go to private high schools that cost more than my annual salary, and spend their summers doing prestigious internships. Instead, university students would be the smartest among us, not necessarily the best prepared. Although elite schools like mine would have to do more basic instruction to get students ready to study- more writing classes, research instruction, etc.- the student body would be more dynamic, more diverse, and yes, far more DEMOCRATIC.
And then, when American students left these top universities and went on to take jobs in finance or education or medicine, to take over as America's ruling elite, they would be there not because their parents could afford the time and money to groom them for leadership, but because they were smart and hard-working enough to merit such a role. That would be a truly democratic revolution.