The Liberal Arts by Themselves Will not Save Democracy, but Teaching Them More Effectively Might

In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. […]

It is not surprising that the banking concept of education regards men as adaptable, manageable beings. The more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world. The more completely they accept the passive role imposed on them, the more they tend simply to adapt to the world as it is and to the fragmented view of reality deposited in them.

The capability of banking education to minimize or annul the students’ creative power and to stimulate their credulity serves the interests of the oppressors, who care neither to have the world revealed nor to see it transformed.

Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (50th Anniversary Edition), 72-73

In the days since January 6th’s violent insurrection at the Capitol, higher ed has been puzzling over its role in preventing disasters like this from happening in the future. Because of the fundamental role played by conspiracy theories and misinformation in radicalizing the mob that threatened the cradle of American democracy, some have posited that we need to help students develop better critical thinking skills. Others have suggested that more exposure to the Humanities, or the liberal arts more generally, is necessary to give students historical context, to train them to navigate nuance and ambiguity, to assess competing sources, to cultivate empathy, to highlight the importance of diverse perspectives.

As someone who has been trained in the Humanities and who leads a critical thinking initiative at my university, I am sympathetic to these claims, but I also think they warrant a closer look. Certainly, all of these ideas have the *potential* to be true, but they require further action on our part for them to reach this potential. We cannot, in other words, rest on the laurels of the mere possibilities presented by these disciplines; we must do the work of teaching them effectively for them to have any effect whatsoever on our civic life.

It is not enough to teach only through what Paolo Freire called the “banking model” of education–that is, an approach to teaching where faculty provide (or deposit, if we are following the metaphor) information, and students withdraw this information for exams. In this model, teaching and learning are purely transactional. There is no room for the kind of engagement with difficult, complex ideas that would allow a student to develop the kind of skills that would allow them to assess competing narratives and commit to ethical purposes and democratic ideals. Indeed, Freire notes (in the passage I used as an epigram above) that such teaching runs counter to the cultivation of democracy, because it envisions students as mere receptacles (at best) and instruments of oppressive ideologies (at worst).[1]

Rather than focusing on rote memorization and deposits of information, then, we need to give students in the liberal arts ample opportunities to wrestle with ambiguity, to use primary sources as a way to make sense of nuanced issues, to tackle questions that have no easy answers (or no established answers at all), and–most importantly–to offer their own interpretations of these ideas by marshaling evidence that they have credibly evaluated.

Here is an example: A student in an introductory American history course may hear in a lecture that FDR signed an order to establish internment camps for Japanese-Americans, but without further engagement with the subject, it would be easy for that same student to adapt this information into the mental model they already have about FDR being a highly regarded president. “Maybe it was someone else’s idea,” the student might think. Without exploring the primary sources for him or herself, a student can easily fall back on defense mechanisms for this model and focus more on the information about FDR that confirms their existing impression of him.

Here’s another: Remember Washington Irving’s short story “Rip Van Winkle?” The plot of the story is pretty well known–ol’ Rip falls asleep one day and when he wakes up he realizes that decades have passed by. This is true, but reading the story itself reveals a complex political allegory about the American Revolution. The pub that Rip frequents before he falls asleep (and before the Revolution) has a picture of King George III on it. After he awakens, the sign is repurposed to feature George Washington without changing much at all. Likewise, he finds the people of his town relatively unchanged except for the aging that has happened. It raises important questions about the impact of the American Revolution on the everyday lives of people in small towns and about how much it really changed their viewpoints. Students need to be given the opportunity to think through these shades of grey meaningfully, though, if they are going to challenge their pre-existing ideas about American history and about our democracy and to realize that literature and art and music and theater have always been the sites of resistance and competing narratives.

In short, the role of the liberal arts in helping to maintain and bolster a healthy democracy is substantial, but only if they are taught well. We need to place much more attention on effective teaching practices at both the K-12 and college levels so that we can ensure students know how to ask the right questions, to challenge conspiracy theories by marshaling evidence, and to advance our collective purpose through seeing our institutions continually through new lenses.[2]


[1] This is not to say that lectures are never useful teaching tools. Far from it. The major takeaway here is that sole reliance on the banking model is detrimental to students and to democracy.

[2] I have focused on the Humanities side of the liberal arts in this post, but this kind of thinking and teaching and learning is equally possible in STEM courses. There are many faculty in the sciences who use liberatory, anti-racist pedagogies to challenge the dominant narrative about the meaning of science and the uses to which it is put in the world.


3 thoughts on “The Liberal Arts by Themselves Will not Save Democracy, but Teaching Them More Effectively Might

  1. Pingback: The Liberal Arts by Themselves Will not Save Democracy, but Teaching Them More Effectively Might – atthecenters/attheedges

  2. Thanks so much for this. What’s a starting point you would recommend for liberal arts educators? In STEM we have clicker questions, small group whiteboarding, project-based learning, just-in-time teaching, etc. – Do you think those can translate over? Or do the humanities need to start somewhere else?

    • Thanks for your response! I think clicker questions can work (although they need to be altered slightly to focus more on possible interpretations that can be supported by evidence), but I think the Humanities need to start with primary sources and allowing students to try out ways of understanding these sources to answer particular questions we have in the disciplines. This needs to be done in class, guided in some cases, so that it can be a lab of sorts for pushing ideas forward and wrestling with ambiguity. Project-based learning definitely can work, too, once the foundation is laid.

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