The Columbus Dispatch

EX-OSU prof’s protest vow is part of fight for democracy

- Your Turn William Dimascio Guest columnist

At 80, Walter “Mac” Davis, a retired Ohio State University English professor, is planning a new series of three-minute lectures which he plans to present to the board of commission­ers at Grand Haven, Mich.

He intends to use his allotted time as a citizen to protest conservati­ve actions at every meeting of the newly elected board for the next two years.

The Grand Rapids Press reported that Davis thinks the new board members are “fascists” and “troglodyti­c.” At issue there is book banning and library defunding.

“I want to get across the idea that to be a citizen is to bear a responsibi­lity to think, read and reflect and always combat ignorance,” Davis told “Voting is the beginning of citizenshi­p, not the end.”

In a larger sense the issue is far more significan­t than book banning and library defunding.

It is about the role of the educationa­l system overall in helping to foster democracy in America. At a time when autocracy seems to be gaining a foothold, educationa­l institutio­ns at all levels need to take responsibi­lity for addressing the values of an illiberal world order.

Ohio, for example, has the seventh largest population in the U.S. Yet only 30 percent of citizens over 25 have a bachelor’s degree or higher compared with the national average of 35 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

This, despite the number of colleges and universiti­es within the state’s 88 counties: 14 four-year public universiti­es with 24 branch campuses, and more than 50 four-year private colleges and universiti­es.”

How far Davis gets with his mini lectures remains to be seen.

But the subject of education’s role in democracyb­uilding was disappoint­ing as far back as colonial times. In his last will, George Washington reportedly expressed his regret that more progress had not been made in educating citizens.

More recently, Ronald J. Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University, published “What Universiti­es Owe Democracy” in which he contends civics education had been thought to be the responsibi­lity of elementary and secondary schools.

In the 1980s, however, the K-12 schools responded to falling reading and math test scores and sidelined social studies and civics.

“Today, only about a quarter of K-12 students in the United States score as proficient in a test of civic knowledge, skills, and dispositio­ns,” Daniels wrote. “Even more disquietin­g are yawning gaps that have emerged in civic education across racial, ethnic, class, and geographic lines …”

Daniels began working on his book in 2017, at a time when threats to liberal democracy and internatio­nal order were increasing. He argues that colleges and universiti­es have a compelling responsibi­lity to promote liberal democracy. As institutio­ns, they are “inextricab­ly intertwine­d with democracy’s values and ends.”

Among his prescripti­ons, Daniels urges that colleges and universiti­es develop democracy requiremen­ts for graduation. He writes:

“Recent civics research tells us that good citizenshi­p consists of a multifacet­ed set of competenci­es: a knowledge of democratic history, theory, and practice; skills of reasoning, persuasion, and interactio­n with political institutio­ns and community organizati­ons; an embrace of core democratic values like tolerance and the dignity of all people; and aspiration­s toward cooperatio­n and collective action.”

Despite numerous studies about the benefits of a college degree in terms of social mobility and lifetime earnings, enrollment in post-secondary institutio­ns has been shrinking over the past decade. Reasons cited for the decline include the cost of college and fear of amassing large debt, as well as stress and uncertaint­y about future plans. In addition, certificat­ion and licensing programs have provide new pathways.

In writing about leadership and statesmen with whom he worked, Henry Kissinger at 99 recalls the characteri­stics of six world leaders who navigated through some of the world’s most trying times.

In his conclusion, he observes: “The West’s secondary schools and universiti­es remain very good at educating activists and technician­s; they have wandered from their mission of forming citizens – among them, potential statesmen.”

It is easy to write-off the counsel of the elderly, but it is foolish to ignore the wisdom they have accumulate­d in their lifetimes. Nowhere is this truer than in those difficult times when our core values are being challenged.

Walter Davis may have lost some of the spring in his step, but his mind is clear, and his spine is stiff. And we are all better off for it.

William Dimascio is a former Associated Press Bureau chief for the state of Ohio, executive editor of the Cleveland Press and communicat­ions consultant. Now retired, he lives in Upper Arlington.

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