Democracy and Education in America





Robert B. Willison (Committee on Degrees in Social Studies)
Freshman Seminar 72D    4 credits (spring term)     Enrollment:  Limited to 12

Cheerful illusions and wish fulfillment have dominated both popular and scholarly thought about democracy for two centuries. Democratic theory has sailed along as if no iceberg had struck and the engine room were not taking on water…Our view is that conventional thinking about democracy has collapsed in the face of modern social-scientific research.
(Achen and Bartels, Democracy for Realists, 2010)

Democracy is in crisis. The problems we face—pandemic, environmental destruction, economic and technological upheaval, global migration—are far too complex for the average citizen to grasp in detail. Meanwhile, the tools of disinformation and manipulation are more powerful than ever. Set aside, for a moment, any default faith in democracy you’ve grown up with: do you really believe you can trust your fellow citizens to make wise decisions about how to approach these issues? In this seminar, we’ll put to the test the most powerful answer to such worries that democracy’s defenders can offer: education. If we are not now the well-informed, open-minded, scientifically literate, engaged citizens that a healthy democracy requires, can our educational institutions be designed to bring us sufficiently close to that ideal? Or, as so often seems to be the case in contemporary America, are our schools doomed to reproduce the divisions and inequalities that they inherit? To address these guiding questions, we’ll attack philosophical questions about the very nature of democracy and human cognition, and draw on the best research contemporary social science has to offer. Our companions in inquiry will be some of history’s greatest theorists of education—Plato, Dewey, Freire—but also leading thinkers of today (many of whom are members of Harvard’s faculty): Susan Carey, Danielle Allen, Daniel Koretz. By the seminar’s end you’ll make your own original contribution to this collective intellectual effort by completing, in collaboration with your classmates, a project of your own design.

See also: Spring 2023