Guest post by Caryn McTighe Musil
Russia’s military invasion into the sovereign democratic nation of Ukraine started slowly, albeit ominously this time around. First, Russian troops, tanks, and weapons gathered at strategic Ukrainian borders. Then there were several weeks of verbal sparring. Now, a daily printed map reveals how the shades of pink, representing Russian troops, have penetrated from the periphery to the heart of Ukraine. Instructively, one of the first war photos was not a military target, but a bombed elementary school, soon followed by photos of decimated health clinics, apartment buildings, communication centers, and parks. Public shared citizen gathering spaces.
Fixated as Americans are on the anguishing scenes unfolding in Ukraine, we can also learn how democratic structures can be assaulted here without using tanks. The attack on our soil also began slowly, on the edges, but it, too, has moved deep into the U.S. psyche and everyday political practices. The trend is a global one. The Economist’s Democracy Index, IDEA’s Global State of Democracy, and Freedom House’s Nations in Transit 2021, all refer to democratic backsliding, including in the United States, and the tilt toward authoritarianism around the world. Gathering like Russian troops en masse at the boundaries of U.S. democracy are the extreme right-wing vigilantes, the white supremacist and anti-Semitic groups, and the dark money flowing to support anti-democratic policies and groups. This malignant growth, in turn, is left unchecked by those whose political and economic power is secured by complicity or silence, even about the January 6 insurrection on the Capitol to overturn a national election.
Instead of bombing hospitals, the attack in the United States is waged against providing health care to all who need it and promoting movements to undermine public health mandates designed to keep Americans from dying during the pandemic. Instead of tanks firing against a building, the Brennan Center reports, “Between January 1 and December 7, at least 19 states passed 34 laws restricting access to voting [and] at least 152 restrictive voting bills in 18 states will carry over” into the 2022 legislative sessions. Putin has signed a law making it a crime to use the word “war” to describe his actions and has shuttered any opposing voices. Meanwhile, shutting people up in the United States takes another form. Sarah Schwartz in Education Week writes, “Since January 2021, 41 states have introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism.“ More repression of free inquiry is found in Texas’ bill that demands “a ban on teaching that a student should feel guilty because of their race.”
If the Ukraine invasion offers how to detect what a war looks like against U.S. democracy when no military weapons are used, we can also learn some strategies to protect our democracy. The Ukrainians responded with a collective concern for the welfare of their people as a guiding compass, a passionate conviction that having a democratic state mattered, and a belief that their fight was a global one that could inspire other nations to be allies in protecting people, the planet, and democracy. How might U.S. higher education play a significant role as one of the uncontested sites for educating informed, justice-minded, engaged citizens, committed to making democratic structures and habits flourish?
First, collective concern for the people’s welfare. Higher education needs to pivot dramatically to make education in the service of social responsibility and the public good a central value and practice. Without abandoning individual rights, the balance has tipped dangerously toward individual advancement, especially monetarily, as the measure of a college degree’s worth. It behooves us to reinforce the declaration of interdependence and educate students to ask regularly who is benefitting, who is not served well, and how might they contribute, through knowledge accrued in college, to the collective well-being of people and the planet?
Second, passionate conviction that democracy matters. Across general education, the major, and campus life, there needs to be a relentless focus on what democracy is and why it matters to live in one. What were the debates at the founding of the nation? What undemocratic structures like slavery, dispossessing Indigenous people of land, denying women’s rights, and accepting patterns of economic inequality influenced the initial structures of U.S. democracy? What has changed, or should be, since then? What democratic movements called the nation to live out its promise of equal opportunity, liberty, and human dignity? What forces undermined democracy in the past and do so today?
Finally, building global alliances for democracy. Pushing back against America-only isolationist impulses that stir nativist inclinations, colleges and universities need to educate globally responsible citizens committed to advancing the well-being of the world’s people. Constructive global alliances as represented by the UN Sustainable Development Goals, for instance, can lead to higher literacy rates, greater gender equality, a reduction in poverty, and cleaner water. What in the curriculum, student life experiences, and institutional policies contribute to working across differences locally and globally to advance such collective alliances and problem solving?
The anti-democratic invasion has already penetrated deeply into our country. We educators and citizens best not waste a minute to act.
Caryn McTighe Musil is an independent consultant and Distinguished Fellow at the American Association of Colleges and Universities where she formerly served as Senior Vice President of the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Global Initiatives.