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

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.

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Critical Thinking: A Free Course

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

A Chilling Time-Lapse Video Documents Every COVID-19 Death on a Global Map: From January to June 2020

A Chilling Time-Lapse Video Documents Every COVID-19 Death on a Global Map: From January to June 2020

in Current Affairs, Health | July 8th, 2020 3 Comments


The story of the Coronavirus, at least in the US, has swung between a number of rhetorical tics now common to all of our discourse. Called a “hoax,” then given several racist nicknames and dismissed as a “nothing burger,” the pandemic—currently at around 3 million cases in the country, with a U.S. death toll over 130,000—has now become the “new normal,” a phrase that pops up everywhere you look.

“This framing is inviting,” writes Chime Asonye at the World Economic Forum. It conveys “the idea that our present is okay because normal is regular,” and we’re all supposed to be getting back to regular life, according to the powers that be, who don’t seem particularly troubled by the dead, sick, and dying or the continued threat to public health.

But pretending things are normal is simply a form of a denial, a maladaptive and unhealthy response to trauma as much as to disease. “Allowing ourselves to cope means not normalizing our situation,” writes Asonye, “but giving ourselves the time to truly process it.” We are all living in the midst of profound loss—of loved ones, livelihoods, future plans and present joys. Asonye adds:

Psychologists advise that it’s important to identify the losses we are feeling and to honour the grief surrounding us through methods like meditation, communicating our struggle, and expressing ourselves through art or by keeping a journal. In uncertain times, the ‘new normal’ frame reinforces an understanding that the world and our emotions should by now have settled. Surrounded by uncertainty, it’s okay to admit that things are not normal. It’s okay to allow ourselves to grieve or to be scared. It’s okay not to be comfortable with what is going on.

How do we process if we cannot admit that there is a problem—a massive problem that requires our lives to change, even if we’re feeling fatigued and worn out? Though we may have grown cynically accustomed to the callous, corrupt response of certain governments to human suffering, the “overwhelming scale” of the pandemic, as James Beckwith writes on YouTube, marks the coronavirus as decidedly not normal. It may be the kind of catastrophe the world has not witnessed in over a century.

Inspired by artist Isao Hashimoto’s “Time-Lapse Map of Every Nuclear Explosion Since 1945,” which we’ve previously featured here, Beckwith used the same visual presentation to map the over 500,000 lives lost to the virus since the first January outbreak in China. “The virus grows, continuing to work its way throughout the world until the end of June—where this piece ends but the real virus has not,” he writes. “It is likely a sequel will need to be made.” Though he admits the animation “may be upsetting to some people,” Beckwith, like Asonye, recognizes the importance of admitting the full scope.

Watching the virus spread, and kill, over the past six months hits much harder than reading the dry facts. The video is dedicated to “every person that tragically lost their lives to COVID-19.” Beckwith would like it “to be understood and seen by as many people around the world as possible,” so that we can all have a shared understanding of what we’re facing together (and maybe come to an agreement that this cannot be the “new normal”). “Sometimes there are no words for terrible events like this,” Beckwith writes, but he would like help translating the video description into other languages. You can contact him via his YouTube or Instagram channels to volunteer.

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

The Ayn Rand Institute Takes a Loan from Paycheck Protection Program: Like Rand Herself, Her Followers Don’t Walk the Talk

The Ayn Rand Institute Takes a Loan from Paycheck Protection Program: Like Rand Herself, Her Followers Don’t Walk the Talk

in Current Affairs | July 7th, 2020 9 Comments



Image via YouTube, 1959 interview with Mike Wallace

Finally bowing to public pressure, the Trump administration has revealed which companies received loans from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) created to support small businesses during COVID-19. To no one’s surprise, the published list reportedly includes a host of privileged entities: the shipping business owned by Mitch McConnell’s wife Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao; businesses associated with members of Congress (from both parties); the law firm of David Boies; elite private schools like Sidwell Friends and Saint Ann’s; Grover Norquist’s Anti-Tax Group; the law firm run by Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, Marc E. Kasowitz; billionaire Kanye West’s company, Yeezy; the fine art studio for millionaire sculptor Jeff Koons, a venture that raises money for Trump’s campaign and the RNC, etc.

Add to the list the Ayn Rand Institute–an organization named after Ayn Rand, the Russian writer who exalted the self-reliant individual and criticized social welfare programs that support the vulnerable. As she wrote in The Virtue of Selfishness, “The right to life means that a man has the right to support his life by his own work (on any economic level, as high as his ability will carry him); it does not mean that others must provide him with the necessities of life.” In short, if you can’t make it, you’re on your own.

Rand’s political theory collapses when it confronts everyday reality. At the end of her own life, Rand, suffering from lung cancer, had to grudgingly rely on social security and medicare to make ends meet. Now, reports Reuters, the institute bearing her name has requested (and apparently received) “a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan of up to $1 million.” All while showing no gratitude to the American taxpayer. The Ayn Rand Institute deemed the loan “partial restitution for government-inflicted losses.” (Also see their latest justification here.) Some will consider that spin–a way to justify accepting government largesse.

Watching Ayn Rand talk below, it seems like a principled Randian would have gone, hat in hand, to a private charity instead.

via Lithub

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The Simpsons Take on Ayn Rand: See the Show’s Satire of The Fountainhead and Objectivist Philosophy” target=”_blank”>The Simpsons Take on Ayn Rand: See the Show’s Satire of The Fountainhead and Objectivist Philosophy

After MLK’s Assassination, a Schoolteacher Conducted a Famous Experiment–“Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes”–to Teach Kids About Discrimination

After MLK’s Assassination, a Schoolteacher Conducted a Famous Experiment–“Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes”–to Teach Kids About Discrimination

in Current Affairs, History | June 12th, 2020 5 Comments


Getting history across to young students is challenging enough, but what should a teacher do when actual history-making events happen on their watch? They have to be acknowledged, but to what extent do they have to be explained, even “taught”? Of the teachers who have turned history-in-the-making into a lesson, perhaps the most famous is Jane Elliott of Riceville, Iowa. On April 5, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, she divided her classroom of third-graders along color lines: blue-eyed and brown-eyed. On the first day she granted the brown-eyed students such special privileges as desks in the front rows, second helpings at lunch, and five extra minutes of recess. The next day she reversed the situation, and the blue-eyed kids had the perks.

What brought serious attention to Elliott’s small-town classroom experiment was the resulting article in the Riceville Recorder, which reported some of what her students wrote in their assignments responding to the experience. The Associated Press picked up the article and soon Elliott received a call from The Tonight Show inviting her to come chat with Johnny Carson about her “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” exercise on national television.

“I didn’t know how this exercise would work,” Elliott tells Jimmy Fallon on the clip from the current Tonight Show at the top of the post. “If I had known how it would work, I probably wouldn’t have done it. If I had known that, after I did that exercise, I lost all my friends, no teacher would speak to me where they could be seen speaking to me, because it wasn’t good politics to be seen talking to the town’s only ‘N-word lover.'”

Elliott’s family also experienced severe blowback from her sudden fame, but it didn’t stop her from furthering the clearly resonant idea she had devised. She continued to perform Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes in class: the third time, it was filmed and became the 1970 television documentary The Eye of the Storm. (Some of the language used by her students surely wouldn’t make it to the air today.) Fifteen years later, PBS’ Frontline reunited Elliott’s third-grade class of 1970 for its Emmy Award-winning episode A Class Divided, and a decade thereafter German filmmaker Bertram Verhaag would again film Elliott performing her signature exercise for the documentary Blue Eyed. In a variety of settings across America and the world, Elliott continues, in her late eighties, to make her point. It isn’t always well received, as she reveals in this Frontline follow-up interview, and at times has even drawn threats of violence. “I can be scared, but I won’t be scared to death,” she says. “Or, at my age, of death.”

via Boing Boing

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Revisiting The Wire During 2020’s Black Lives Matter Movement

Revisiting The Wire During 2020’s Black Lives Matter Movement

George Floyd’s murder while under arrest for allegedly passing a counterfeit bill of small denomination sparked massive worldwide demonstrations against police brutality and in support of Black Lives Matter.

It also led to the abrupt cancellation of television’s recent hit, Live PD, and its longest-running reality show, Cops.

As Amanda Hess recently observed in The New York Times, public opinion has turned on any show that promotes an image of police officers as universally decent forces for good, “lovable goofballs,” or anti-heroes whose rough edges make a play for viewers’ allegiance by suggesting the characters are realistically flawed and thus, relatable:

The “good cop” trope is a standard of both police procedurals and real-life police tactics, and now crowdsourced video of the protests has given cops a new stage for performing the role. In recent days, supposedly uplifting images of the police have spread wildly across the internet, competing for views with evidence of cops beating, gassing and arresting protesters. In Houston, an officer consoled a young black girl at a rally: “We’re here to protect you, OK?” he told her, enveloping her in a hug. “You can protest, you can party, you can do whatever you want. Just don’t break nothing.” In Nashville, the police tweeted a photo of cops kneeling next to a black boy with a “Black Lives Matter” sign, smiling from behind their riot helmets. And in Atlanta, a line of National Guard soldiers did the Macarena. On the final rump shake, a black rifle slung over one soldier’s back swung to the beat.

These images show cops engaging in a kind of pantomime of protest, mimicking the gestures of the demonstrators until their messages are diluted beyond recognition. They reframe protests against racist police violence into a bland, nonspecific goal of solidarity. These moments are meant to represent the shared humanity between officers and protesters, but cops already rank among the most humanized groups in America; the same cannot be said for the black Americans who live in fear of them. Cops can dance, they can hug, they can kneel on the ground, but their individual acts of kindness can no longer obscure the violence of a system. The good-cop act is wearing thin.

According to Hollywood Reporter critic Inkoo Kang, almost any portrayal of cops on TV right now rankles, even one that was lauded for its realistic portrayal of corruption and abuse on the force, HBO’s critically acclaimed The WireBarack Obama’s avowed favorite.

Kang writes:

In the first season of The Wire, just about every on-the-ground cop participates in police brutality — often as a kind of professional prerogative. Their violence is meant to add darker streaks to the characters’ otherwise heroic gloss, but it also has the effect of normalizing police brutality as a part, even a perk, of the job.

Her comments touched a nerve with actor Wendell Pierce, whose character was based on a Baltimore homicide detective, Oscar Requer, who achieved his position at a time when black officers routinely faced racial harassment from within the force. Pierce published his response on Twitter:

How can anyone watch “The Wire” and the dysfunction of the police & the war on drugs and say that we were depicted as heroic. We demonstrated moral ambiguities and the pathology that leads to the abuses. Maybe you were reacting to how good people can be corrupted to do bad things.

If The Wire did anything right, it depicted the humanity of the Black lives so easily profiled by police and the destruction of them by the so-called war on drugs; a deliberate policy of mass incarceration to sustain a wealth disparity in America that thrives keeping an underclass.

The Wire, if anything, was the canary-in-the-mine that forecasts the institutional moral morass of politics and policing that lead us to the protests of today. “The bigger the lie, the more they believe” was a line of mine that is so salient and profound in today’s climate.

“The Wire” is a deep dive study of the contributing variables that feed the violence in our culture: in the streets and at the hand of police. Classism, racism, destruction of public education, and moral ambiguity in our leadership all feed this paradigm of American decline.

I know I sound defensive and I probably am, The Wire is personal for me. The Wire is also Art. The role of Art is to ignite the public discourse. Art is where we come together as a community to confront who we are as a society, decide what our values are, and then act on them.

The critique here is that television seems to follow behind the current events of the day. I would ask that you consider that maybe The Wire was a precursor to the discussion that is mandatory now. It was an indicator, a warning light, of the implosion we are feeling today.

At a time when the world is called upon to listen carefully to what black people are saying, and much of the world has shown themselves ready to do so, Pierce’s words carry extra weight.

His assertion that the show, which ran from 2002 to 2008, accurately depicted a system so rotten that collapse was inevitable, is echoed in interview clips with creator and one-time police reporter, David Simon, above.

The video essay was put together by aspirant screenwriter Nehemiah T. Jordan whose Behind the Curtain series aims to provide insights on how celebrated scripts for both the big and small screensFight Club, Uncut Gems, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad—come by their aesthetic quality.

Simon’s ambition for The Wire was that it truthfully convey what he had observed as a reporter, as well as the lives of the people he interacted withboth Baltimore cops and those they mostly failed to serve.

In a 2015 White House conversation with then-President Obama, Simon remarks that an emphasis on drug-related offenses led to an epidemic of presumptive police work, and a decline in “competent retroactive investigation of felonies.” A disproportionate number of young black and Latino men were incarcerated during this time, and upon their release, their felony histories meant that few of them were able to secure meaningful employment. America’s problems were compounded.

Whether or not you are moved to watch, or rewatch The Wire, we heartily recommend Where We Go from Here, a recent New York Daily News op-ed by actor Michael K. Williams, who played fan favorite Omar Little, and whose real life counterpart Simon discusses with Omar-fan Obama.

New York native Williams, who has worked to end mass juvenile incarceration, foment collaboration between police and at-risk youth and serves as an ambassador for The Innocent Project, possesses a deep understanding of the New York Police Department’s structure, chain of command, and day to day workings. Stating that tangible action is needed to “shift police culture” and “transform the relationships between law enforcement and communities of color,” he makes a case for six concrete reforms:

  1. Overhaul CompStat, the NYPD’s crime tracking mechanism.
  2. Eliminate plainclothes units.
  3. Create an independent body to investigate “use of force” incidents at the time they occur.
  4. Reimagine the duties of civilians within the department tasked with community-building.
  5. Implement ongoing trauma-centered training, education and activities for officers, executives and the communities they serve.
  6. Make racial justice a core component of NYPD training and education.

Read Michael  K. William’s Op-Ed here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.