The True Foundation of Civil Liberty

by |May 20, 2019

Over the doorway of James Madison High School in Brooklyn there is a quote from James Madison which states, “education is the true foundation of civil liberty”. That is as true today as it was when I graduated from that place in 1970 and as true as it was when Madison wrote those words. James Madison also warned us of the “mischiefs of faction”, but I’ll leave a discussion of America’s battle with extreme partisanship and checks and balances for another day. When I was a senior in high school, I was a leader of the James Madison High School Coalition to End the War (the one in Vietnam) and I was active in our school’s civil rights movement. At graduation I won an award named for Martin Luther King, Jr. that had been established by the Class of 1968, the class that graduated in the wake of Dr. King’s murder. Even during the tumult of the late 1960s, Madison’s teachers continued to teach, and we learned both inside and outside the confines of our classrooms. I was only sixteen years old when I graduated, but even at that age I knew that I had received an education that prepared me to be a participant in this great American democracy.

This past weekend, nearly half a century after I graduated from Madison, I participated in two of Columbia’s professional school graduation celebrations. On Saturday I took part in the ceremony for the School of Professional Studies, where I serve as senior vice dean and direct the master’s program in Sustainability Management. On Sunday I had the honor of participating in a ceremony held by Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, where I am a professor of practice and director of the Master of Public Administration program in Environmental Science and Policy. I teach sustainability management and environmental policy analysis to both groups of students, and though they are different in some ways, they and all the students at both schools share many admirable traits.

Characteristic of these students is their desire to learn and to make the world a better place. Don’t get me wrong, they all want good, well-paying jobs and they are nearly all professionally ambitious. But they want to do more than make a living; they want to have a positive impact on the world. They are global and tolerant of their distinctions, and though some are prone to the politically correct mantra of the moment, most, in my experience, are willing to learn from people that think differently than they do. People come to graduate school these days for many different reasons and at many different stages in life. Some know exactly what they want to learn, and some are still exploring. My job and the job of my colleagues is to try to guide our students toward the people, ideas and resources they need to meet their professional goals. One of my reflections over the past year is to more explicitly draw out the views of those who do not think the way I do and treat them with the respect that they deserve. Civil liberty requires civility and the ability to listen. Our political dialogue has become infected by efforts to demonize those we disagree with. For education to be the foundation of civil liberty, we educators must enable free speech to the degree it is feasible and safe.

Like many, I worry about the cost of education and a system of educational finance that allows and even encourages students to take on huge loads of educational debt. Columbia is a very expensive place to go to school and New York City is an expensive place to live. I respect, but also fear, the sacrifice I see many students and families undertake to go to school. It is not simply money, but time away from loved ones and missed little league games, recitals and family events. I see this first hand and understand how difficult it is and always try to balance the high educational standards I live by with the tolerance and compassion I must live with. The finance system is another matter; we need to develop more public and private sources of funding for education. In today’s brain-based economy, our nation’s future depends on education and too much education is financed by debt often incurred by young people who see no other way to enter into mainstream economic life.

And that is why at the two ceremonies I attended this week, and at the scores I’ve attended over my decades as a professor, I am always deeply moved by the spirit, emotion and meaning of these events. I look at the faces of our graduates and watch them wave to their families. I hear our student speakers choke up as they thank their families for the support they needed to study and graduate. Over the weekend thousands of individual students are called by name to shake our hands and have their photos taken. This Wednesday they and their families will gather outdoors with the entire Columbia Class of 2019 and hear our university’s president, Lee Bollinger, speak and then officially confer their degrees. All week long the faculty dress like players in a medieval theatrical event. We dust off our caps and gowns and try to provide the sense of permanence and tradition that our institutions represent. Our students and their families pose for photos all over campus, flowers are everywhere and the joy and pride are impossible to miss.

Graduation is a rite of passage, but when it is done well the fundamental value of education is that it creates habits of mind: the idea that learning should never end and that curiosity and questioning should be a way of life. Education is the foundation of civil liberty because democracy requires learning, knowledge, concepts and facts; and not simply belief, values and bias. We need to be capable of change in response to new information about how the world works. In my field of environmental sustainability we are constantly learning new facts about how the planet functions: from climate change to biodiversity to the impact of new human technologies on our planet’s natural systems. On an ever-shrinking planet, all of us are learning about cultures, religions and belief systems that are different than our own. Given advances in the technology of destruction, it is obvious that we must learn to live alongside of people who live differently than we do. They must also learn how to live with us. To some degree our shared humanity must be used to ensure that some part of we and them becomes “us”.

Education is the foundation of both civil liberty and modern economic life. Educational institutions have a moral responsibility to create an environment where new knowledge can be developed and understood and then taught to students. One of the reasons I am optimistic about the future is that I work in an institution that takes this responsibility seriously. While we make many mistakes, we learn from them and I believe the university I work at today is better than the one I first worked for in 1981. In some small way we have lived up to the Madisonian ideals I was first exposed to in the late 1960s.

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