The belief that if people only were better educated, they’d engage


A few hours after the horrifying attack by Trump supporters on the U.S. Capitol, I received a text from a friend noting, with distress, the picture of Republican senator Josh Hawley pumping his fist in support of the mob just a few hours before the attacks. “But Hawley went to Stanford,” they wrote. “He was a history major! Shouldn’t he know better than to encourage this?”

That is a common sentiment. Since the attack, many of my fellow progressives, especially those who, like me, are educators, have sought to reaffirm the importance of learning based on a very straightforward conviction: a better-educated populace produces a better society.


But this line of thinking has two categorical errors. For starters, it overlooks the fact that encountering a given text, event or idea doesn’t necessarily result in a specific behavioral outcome. A student who reads Plato’s Republic may well conclude that Thrasymachus, Socrates’s interlocutor who argues that “justice” means simply the advantage of the stronger is right, and then concur with President Trump’s entreaty to his supporters on Wednesday that “you’ll never take back our country with weakness, you have to show strength.” 


Further, the belief that a better-educated populace will in itself strengthen democracy overlooks the fact that education is but one of the many social, political and economic influences on a person’s worldviews. People don’t stop learning or thinking after they graduate from college or even after they read a “syllabus” intended to render them more woke. Rather, they continue to encounter experiences that may well lead them to reject the ideas they previously encountered. —Asheesh Kapur Siddique, Inside Higher Ed