The events of January 6 represent an inflection point for our democracy and, in truth, for our concept of civil society. Much has already been written about the political and cultural tides that swept our nation toward these events —and a real understanding of their significance will not be possible for some time, in part because the reactions and responses to these events are still unfolding as I write.
Even in the early days of the aftermath of such an upheaval, educators bear a significant duty to offer perspective and to model civil discourse as society —and especially our students— endeavor to make sense of these events and to understand how to meet the challenges they present. Liberal arts education in general, and the Catholic intellectual tradition in particular, provide a lodestar for this task in their emphasis on the search for truth and on the dignity of every human being.
As Timothy Snyder so aptly wrote in the New York Times, “truth defends itself particularly poorly when there is not very much of it around.” This shortage of truth represents both a root cause of the difficulties we face and an affirmation of the critical role education plays in democracy.
Thomas Jefferson, our nation’s third president, believed unequivocally that education is the foundation of democracy. In a 1786 letter to George Wythe, a law professor, judge and fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote that education was critical for the preservation of freedom and happiness.
He was realistic, too, adding, “Although I do not, with some enthusiasts, believe that the human condition will ever advance to such a state of perfection as that there shall no longer be pain or vice in the world, I believe it susceptible of much improvement … and that the diffusion of knowledge among the people is to be the instrument by which it is to be effected.”
The complexities of a connected world, rife with repositories of false and misleading information, add to the challenges of making rational, factually informed decisions. This is further complicated by a tendency to be drawn to data and narratives consistent with our own beliefs and preconceptions. Part of the remedy to these unfortunate but very human tendencies is a mix of self-reflection and the cultivation of critical thinking skills. The ability to think critically, to distinguish fact from fiction or opinion, to identify and evaluate the sources of information; these are the most valuable fruits of education, from which all other skills, both practical and abstract, derive.
What we have witnessed in our society over the past five years, in the realms of truth and civil discourse, is akin to death by a thousand cuts. Each time a lie goes unnoticed or unchallenged, it adds weight to an already extant body of lies undermining the fabric of our democracy. This culminated in seditious behavior motivated by such a body of lies: a coordinated, violent, intentional effort to trample our Constitutional processes and discard the results of a fair election.
Critical thinking and self-reflection have always been fundamental to higher education. A clear message of this month’s unrest, however, is that educators must appreciate as vital and immediate the direct connection between these fundamental capacities and the very survival of our society. This calls for us to reaffirm publicly and in unequivocal terms that one of our highest responsibilities is to ensure that our students —and by extension our citizenry— are equipped to distinguish truth from falsehood. This is fundamental not only to education but to democracy.
John J. Petillo, Ph.D., is president of Sacred Heart University in Fairfield.