To preserve our democratic freedoms, let's cultivate service-minded, thoughtful citizens
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The work of the future will demand that people hone their human traits and capabilities to distinguish their work from that of smart machines. We’re long used to robots welding on the factory floor and ATMs dispensing cash. But with advances in automation, technology and artificial intelligence, machines will soon do most jobs and aspects of jobs that are repeatable.

Human traits – such as empathy, ethics, and compassion – and related human capabilities – creativity, communication, and the like – are sure to be in greater demand in the future. Machines can’t duplicate our human characteristics.

And those attributes are precisely what is needed to expand narrow viewpoints and cut through misleading information to make sense of complex issues – the very same characteristics we need to secure our democracy.

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For better or worse, mostly for the worse, a growing number of Americans no longer believe in the value of expertise and authoritative voices.

The ongoing COVID-19 disaster in the U.S. is a painful illustration. The faith traditionally placed in the voices of scientific reason and analysis, such as Dr. Anthony FauciAnthony FauciOvernight Health Care: CDC reverses controversial testing guidance | Billions more could be needed for vaccine distribution | Study examines danger of in-flight COVID-19 transmission Trump claims enough COVID-19 vaccines will be ready for every American by April Gates says travel ban made COVID-19 worse in US MORE, has been challenged, leading to a haphazard application of social distancing and mask-wearing policies. The politically-charged debate about scientifically indisputable facts about viral transmission has accelerated a public health crisis that many other nations have managed to control.

Extremes in our political parties and parts of media have actually worked to systematically undermine these authoritative voices. And this has opened the door wide to charlatans and despots. Too many people now live in information bubbles – where the only viewpoints they hear conform to what they already believe. Intentionally distorting truth is a hallmark of authoritarianism.

Authoritarianism, particularly in the form of populist nationalism, has returned to Russia and parts of Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America. Russia’s Putin and China’s Xi – among others – have taken steps to cement their power. China appears resolute in maintaining state control over political and cultural expression. And it’s now clear that not even the United States and Western Europe are immune from authoritarianism’s allure.

Of course, much of that allure is based on fear — fear of change, fear of loss of advantage, fear of the other. Authoritarian leaders and wannabes exploit this fear by appealing to group identity and cohesion and by defining those who appear different as a threat.

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With its preference for conformity, authoritarianism is a clear threat to liberal democracy, which is designed to protect diversity of expression, belief, and ways of living.

But there’s hope. Education is an effective weapon against authoritarianism. Today, nearly a third of Americans who haven’t gone to college believe that having a “strong leader” is good for the country, compared to only about 13 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree. Meanwhile, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center study, about a quarter of people with a high school diploma or less say “military rule would be a good way to govern our country.” Only 7 percent of college grads support that view.

The same education system that prepares people for work can play a role in protecting our democratic way of life. Numerous studies – going back decades and conducted throughout the world – have shown that higher levels of education are inversely correlated with authoritarianism.

Why does education thwart authoritarian attitudes? At its best, higher education enhances human traits such as empathy and ethics, ultimately making people more compassionate toward others and more likely to act accordingly. Education also helps us develop human capabilities such as independent thought and critical examination of established orthodoxy, not to mention inquisitiveness and curiosity. All this stands in stark contrast to the blind acceptance of information and opinion from authorities.

Higher education also exposes people to diverse ideas and cultures, showing that differences are not as bad or as dangerous as people may have been conditioned to believe. Education helps people to better understand abstract principles of democracy and equality and how accept, even embrace, complexity and difference.

Indeed, U.S. college graduates display a remarkable consistency in their support for civic processes. More than four of every five people with master’s degrees or higher and two-thirds of those with any college education voted in the 2016 election compared to about half of high school graduates and one-third of dropouts. 

College grads also give more to their communities. Nearly 40 percent of those with at least a bachelor’s degree volunteer, compared to 16 percent of high school graduates and just 8 percent of high school dropouts. College graduates also contribute more to charity and are more likely to participate in community organizations such as schools and service and religious organizations.

So what we need to do is cultivate more empathy, ethical decision-making, analytic reasoning, and other democracy-enhancing human traits and capabilities in vastly more people. That’s why more and better higher learning is so essential to the development of more service-minded, thoughtful citizens.

The nation’s Founding Fathers insisted that an informed citizenry was vital to the health of democracy. And it’s clear that authoritarianism can thrive in societies whose members are unable or unwilling to learn all the facts and consider alternative viewpoints. This makes higher education – and the critical-thinking skills it fosters  – more vital than ever.

Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation, an independent, private foundation in Indianapolis committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all. He also is author of HUMAN WORK IN THE AGE OF SMART MACHINES, which will be published in October.