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Professors Are Not “Priests of Democracy”

On Nov. 17, US District Judge Mark Walker struck down Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ signature Stop WOKE Act, which bars Florida’s higher education institutions from teaching critical race theory (CRT), and “prohibits school districts, colleges and universities from hiring woke CRT consultants.” Although the decision’s practical ramifications will attract the bulk of media and scholarly attention, the arguments behind Walker’s ruling, which make strong, normative claims about academia’s role in American politics, are worth further examination. 

Walker argued that “our professors are critical to a healthy democracy, and the State of Florida’s decision to choose which viewpoints are worthy of illumination and which must remain in the shadows has implications for us all.” He added that “if our ‘priests of democracy’ are not allowed to shed light on challenging ideas, then democracy will die in darkness.”

Regardless of whether one views the Stop WOKE Act as a necessary measure to halt critical race theory’s acceleration, or an unconstitutional violation of professors’ free-speech rights, Walker seems to view academics, and academia in general, through rose-tinted glasses, which the comparison of professors to priests makes clear. But Walker’s depiction of academics as holy saviors of democracy could not be further from the truth: Democracy is not a religion, and professors are not its priests. 

Walker is not the first to take this position. As early as the late 19th century, American democrats were already beginning to view civic education as a religious experience. In 1899, Scottish-American philosopher Thomas Davidson concluded “not only that Americanism is a religion, but that it is the noblest of all religions, that which best insures the realization of the highest manhood and womanhood, and points them to the highest goal — a goal which it is their task throughout eternity to approach without reaching.” The “ideal[s] of American democracy” ruled all else.

By the 1950s, this view had matured into the one Walker expressed. Professors, many of whom were being persecuted by the U.S. government for their refusal to disavow communist ideas, clung to their role as truth-givers in order to defend themselves. They were supported by Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who offered the “priests” label in a concurrence to Wieman v. Updegraff, writing that “to regard teachers — in our entire educational system, from the primary grades to the university — as the priests of our democracy is therefore not to indulge in hyperbole.”

But just because this perspective is old does not mean it’s right, and Frankfurter was definitely engaging in hyperbole. Any declaration that professors are democracy’s priests implies that democracy is an end in and of itself. And institutions that treat democracy as an end inevitably become destructive. 

In the American political tradition, the preservation of a society’s liberty and security is of paramount importance. Democracy, or in our system, a democratic republic, is considered by many to be the best institutional arrangement for doing so. In that sense, democracy is a means to an end, that end being liberty and security’s preservation. 

As Duke University’s Michael Munger observed in 2005, however, democracy deals with collective decisions as opposed to public decisions. Public decisions impact everyone, by nature (Munger offers the examples of defense budgets and water pollution). Collective decisions “affect us all only because the majority is empowered to force its will on everyone.” In other words, if democracy is an end, then society’s objective is to achieve simple majoritarianism. And there is no guarantee that the majority will be interested in preserving individual (or academic) liberty.

After all, academics are notoriously hostile to any perspective that contravenes established orthodoxy. The University of Oklahoma’s English Department encouraged professors to shut down any classroom discussion that was “rooted in the oppression and denial of humanity and someone’s right to exist.” The University of Central Florida tried (and failed) to fire a professor who committed the egregious crime of wrongthink on Twitter. And most recently, Phil Magness and Michael Makovi were lambasted for daring to argue that Karl Marx was a relatively obscure theorist prior to the outbreak of the Russian Revolution. 

If we take “democracy” in its pure, majoritarian form, then professors are its priests, if not its gods. Nobody embraces dogma and groupthink quite like an academic. But no system of government, no matter how effective or liberating, should be given religious reverence. Principles and people are what matter most.

If we ascribe qualities like academic freedom, free speech, opposition to censorship, and skepticism of government to American democracy, as Walker does, then we should avoid putting academia on a pedestal it does not deserve. If anything, academics have chilled the very intellectual marketplace that Walker seeks to preserve.