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Educate to Liberate

Open Societies Need Open Minds

The old college try: at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, November 2015 SHANNON STAPLETON / REUTERS

A populist wave is sweeping the Western world. In Austria, Hungary, Italy, Poland, and the United States, populist parties and candidates have entered the government. In France, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, they have won record levels of support and reshaped the political landscape. What makes these victories so disturbing is the characteristic that unites all populists: their rejection of liberal values. If the world once seemed to be moving inexorably toward greater political and economic freedom, human dignity, tolerance, equality, nondiscrimination, open markets, and international cooperation, all are now under threat. That is bad enough, but the decline of liberalism will have consequences beyond a few individual countries. Because the countries that uphold the liberal international order, especially the United States, are turning against liberalism, they risk undermining the order they built, ushering in a more antagonistic and dangerous world.

Politicians and pundits have suggested many different responses to the populist phenomenon: reducing inequality, protecting major industries from international trade, curbing immigration. But these are all indirect solutions. The best way to counter the populist trend is to address the underlying problem head-on, by fostering more liberal attitudes. There is a lot of evidence that the best way to promote liberal values is by giving more people more education. In every place where populism is surging, the main determinant of whether someone holds liberal values is his or her level of education. Higher education emphasizes equality, tolerance, and critical thinking; those without access to it are far more likely to oppose liberal values and practices. 

Since the 1990s, American college graduates have held more liberal positions than nongraduates on a wide range of issues. But simply sending more people to college is only the first step. To truly instill liberal values throughout society, universities will also have to live up to those values themselves—rooting out discrimination, overturning traditional academic hierarchies, and breaking up networks of power and patronage that too often keep the connected in

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