The Liberal Arts Can Make People Less Susceptible to Authoritarianism, a New Study Finds

“Cor­re­la­tion does not equal cau­sa­tion” isn’t always a fun thing to say at par­ties, but it is always a good phrase to keep in mind when approach­ing sur­vey data. Does the study real­ly show that? Might it show the oppo­site? Does it con­firm pre-exist­ing bias­es or fail to acknowl­edge valid coun­terev­i­dence? A lit­tle bit of crit­i­cal think­ing can turn away a lot of trou­ble.

I’ll admit, a new study, “The Role of Edu­ca­tion in Tam­ing Author­i­tar­i­an Atti­tudes,” con­firms many of my own bias­es, sug­gest­ing that high­er edu­ca­tion, espe­cial­ly the lib­er­al arts, reduces author­i­tar­i­an atti­tudes around the world. The claim comes from George­town University’s Cen­ter on Edu­ca­tion and the Work­force, which ana­lyzed and aggre­gat­ed data from World Val­ues Sur­veys con­duct­ed between 1994 and 2016. The study takes it for grant­ed that ris­ing author­i­tar­i­an­ism is not a social good, or at least that it pos­es a dis­tinct threat to demo­c­ra­t­ic republics, and it aims to show how “high­er edu­ca­tion can pro­tect democ­ra­cy.”

Authoritarianism—defined as enforc­ing “group con­for­mi­ty and strict alle­giance to author­i­ty at the expense of per­son­al freedoms”—seems vast­ly more preva­lent among those with only a high school edu­ca­tion. “Among col­lege grad­u­ates,” Eliz­a­beth Red­den writes at Inside High­er Ed, “hold­ers of lib­er­al art degrees are less inclined to express author­i­tar­i­an atti­tudes and pref­er­ences com­pared to indi­vid­u­als who hold degrees in busi­ness or sci­ence, tech­nol­o­gy, engi­neer­ing and math­e­mat­ics fields.”

The “valu­able bul­wark” of the lib­er­al arts seems more effec­tive in the U.S. than in Europe, per­haps because “Amer­i­can high­er edu­ca­tion places a strong empha­sis on a com­bi­na­tion of spe­cif­ic and gen­er­al edu­ca­tion,” the full report spec­u­lates. “Such gen­er­al edu­ca­tion includes expo­sure to the lib­er­al arts.” The U.S. ranks at a mod­er­ate lev­el of author­i­tar­i­an­ism com­pared to 51 oth­er coun­tries, on par with Chile and Uruguay, with Ger­many rank­ing the least author­i­tar­i­an and India the most—a 6 on a scale of 0–6.

High­er edu­ca­tion also cor­re­lates with high­er eco­nom­ic sta­tus, sug­gest­ing to the study authors that eco­nom­ic secu­ri­ty reduces author­i­tar­i­an­ism, which is expressed in atti­tudes about par­ent­ing and in a “fun­da­men­tal ori­en­ta­tion” toward con­trol over auton­o­my.

The full report does go into greater depth, but per­haps it rais­es more ques­tions than it answers, leav­ing the intel­lec­tu­al­ly curi­ous to work through a dense bib­li­og­ra­phy of pop­u­lar and aca­d­e­m­ic sources. There is a sig­nif­i­cant amount of data and evi­dence to sug­gest that study­ing the lib­er­al arts does help peo­ple to imag­ine oth­er per­spec­tives and to appre­ci­ate, rather than fear, dif­fer­ent cul­tures, reli­gions, etc. Lib­er­al arts edu­ca­tion encour­ages crit­i­cal think­ing, read­ing, and writ­ing, and can equip stu­dents with tools they need to dis­tin­guish reportage from pure pro­pa­gan­da.

But we might ask whether these find­ings con­sis­tent­ly obtain under actu­al­ly exist­ing author­i­tar­i­an­ism, which “tends to arise under con­di­tions of threat to social norms or per­son­al secu­ri­ty.” In the 2016 U.S. elec­tion, for exam­ple, the can­di­date espous­ing open­ly author­i­tar­i­an atti­tudes and pref­er­ences, now the cur­rent U.S. pres­i­dent, was elect­ed by a major­i­ty of vot­ers who were well-edu­cat­ed and eco­nom­i­cal­ly secure, sub­se­quent research dis­cov­ered, rather than stereo­typ­i­cal­ly “work­ing class” vot­ers with low lev­els of edu­ca­tion. How do such find­ings fit with the data George­town inter­prets in their report? Is it pos­si­ble that those with high­er edu­ca­tion and social sta­tus learn bet­ter to hide con­trol­ling, intol­er­ant atti­tudes in mixed com­pa­ny?

Learn more at this report sum­ma­ry page here and read and down­load the full report as a PDF here.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

How a Lib­er­al Arts Edu­ca­tion Helped Derek Black, the God­son of David Duke, Break with the White Nation­al­ist Move­ment

20 Lessons from the 20th Cen­tu­ry About How to Defend Democ­ra­cy from Author­i­tar­i­an­ism, Accord­ing to Yale His­to­ri­an Tim­o­thy Sny­der

Why We Need to Teach Kids Phi­los­o­phy & Safe­guard Soci­ety from Author­i­tar­i­an Con­trol

Crit­i­cal Think­ing: A Free Course

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • Tom says:

    But what does it teach them about the zoo at the British Muse­um?

  • Taylor A Kulp says:

    This seems to be a nar­row inter­pre­ta­tion of“authoritarian”. The oth­er can­di­date in 2016 want­ed to take more mon­ey away from peo­ple and use it to fund more pro­grams. How is big­ger gov­ern­ment not, by def­i­n­i­tion, more author­i­tar­i­an than less gov­ern­ment with few­er reg­u­la­tions? I am not com­ment­ing on which approach is right or wrong, just not­ing the incon­sis­tent def­i­n­i­tion.

  • Rob-bear says:

    I’m puz­zled by both the ques­tion and the answer.
    I’m puz­zled by the rel­e­vance of the ques­tion, Tom.
    I can­not under­stand the sig­nif­i­cance of the com­ment. The fact that a gov­ern­ment, par­tic­u­lar­ly an elect­ed gov­ern­ment, is being called author­i­tar­i­an because it promis­es to do things hard­ly makes it any sense at all. Gov­ern­ments get elect­ed on the basis of their plans to do good things for the nation and its’ peo­ple.
    Author­i­tar­i­an is when a total­ly unelect­ed gov­ern­ment decides to spend mon­ey on, say, set­ting up a secret police orga­ni­za­tion.

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