In Defense of Facts and Expertise: On Ronald J. Daniels’s “What Universities Owe Democracy”

The project of reinvigorating the critical role of the public university has never been more urgent.

In Defense of Facts and Expertise: On Ronald J. Daniels’s “What Universities Owe Democracy”

What Universities Owe Democracy by Ronald J. Daniels. Johns Hopkins University Press. 336 pages.

FINALLY. HERE’S A BOOK that every university administrator should read. Every director of — every staff member at — a knowledge institution. Every teacher, curator, archivist. Everyone with a stake vested or vesting in education and culture.

The story that Ronald J. Daniels and his two co-authors, Grant Shreve and Phillip Spector, tell in What Universities Owe Democracy opens on three stages at once. In the preface, the curtain rises on March 1939, as the family of Daniels’s father is escaping from Poland. This is some six years into Adolf Hitler’s reign in neighboring Germany and six months before the Nazis would invade the country from the West and the Soviets on the same day from the East. During the 12 years between Hitler’s rise in 1933 and Germany’s surrender in 1945, Canada admitted only 5,000 of the millions of Jews fleeing the Holocaust. Antisemitism was rife in the Canadian government at the time: one immigration official, asked how many Jews would be considered for entry, gave a now infamous response: “None is too many.” Only five members of Daniels’s family were admitted.

In the introduction, a few pages in, the curtain also goes up in the heart of Eastern Europe — but now in January 2019, as Daniels is speaking with the great Hungarian archivist and historian István Rév. Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s bigoted prime minister, is in the final stages of closing and expelling Central European University, which will flee — if a thing the size of a university can flee — to Vienna that November. “Orbán has murdered my institution,” Rév tells Daniels. “He has ripped it from its historic and geographic context, and stripped it of its identity.” The CEU, founded by Hungarian émigré billionaire George Soros, is but one symbol of free speech and free inquiry now banished from the country. For more than 10 years, Orbán has been cracking down on the media, the academy, the judiciary — every bastion of independent thought — and has directed particular venom toward immigrants and minorities.

The reverberations of 1939 in 2019 are one thing. Daniels completed the book, as he states in the conclusion, “mere weeks” after the putsch organized by the American president and revanchist Republicans in Washington, DC, in January 2021. The soundtrack, if a book can have a soundtrack, is the shouting and breaking glass — the sound of flagpoles snapping and gallows for the vice president being hammered together — at our Capitol building, just 40 miles south of where Daniels serves as the 14th president of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. That soundtrack was being played over the television, radio, and social media networks of the American right as What Universities Owe Democracy went to press, broadcast and rebroadcast to the applause of Trump’s faithful followers and, increasingly, of Republican Party leaders, the newest antiheroes in our global timeline of deadly — even murderous — intolerance.

“None is too many” — Daniels quotes the line. His book is a call to action, written with an urgency that was originally “seeded,” he tells us, in 2017, a time “when so many of us were becoming increasingly concerned about the various threats posed to liberal democracy in America and beyond.” The “studious indifference” that his birth country showed to his father’s family and to the humanitarian crisis of the Holocaust — the time for accepting that sort of thing is over. The Trump name appears in the index only a few times, but the entire index could be named after him — the Trumpodex — just as university buildings are named after donors. The threat of Trump and his anti-democratic ilk hangs over Daniels’s book like the morning fog over the Danube.

There are about 4,000 institutions of higher learning in the United States. These liberal arts colleges, community colleges, public and private research universities, and online institutions teach approximately 20 million students and employ some 1.5 million faculty. They receive on the order $40 billion in research funding annually — and existential benefits from federal and state tax policies and subsidies. Indeed, as Daniels points out, almost all of these institutions have been nurtured over the long history of the United States as vital establishments where “reason and fact are venerated,” and in the course of their individual histories they have become “intimately — and ineluctably — bound to the project […] that is liberal democracy.”

Now it is time, as the threats to democracy proliferate, for them to give back. Daniels tells us how. Four of the key functions American higher educational institutions have been developing over time — “launching meritorious individuals up the social ladder,” “educating citizens for democracy,” “creating and disseminating knowledge,” and “cultivating the meaningful exchange of ideas across difference” — need to deepen and accelerate now. In some sense the book is a long memorandum on university letterhead (To: Society; From: Ron Daniels; Re: Avoiding the Next, Likely More Fatal Putsch) — and the calls to action come, correspondingly, in four sections. Each part gets its own chapter; each chapter addresses one of the essential functions the university plays (and must play more of) in civic life.

Daniels’s first chapter — “American Dreams: Access, Mobility, Fairness” — is a call for universities to end legacy admissions everywhere and to recommit, on a massive basis, to federal financial assistance to all students in higher ed. This is half what universities owe democracy and half what society owes universities, but the next three battle cries more closely fit the title. Colleges and universities “receive students precisely as they are on the cusp of assuming the responsibilities of citizenship,” Daniels reminds us. We need to remember that most college freshman are just four years away from having been eighth graders. He finds himself “desolate” about “the civic literacy” of his students. The second chapter (“Free Minds: Educating Democratic Citizens”) asks our institutions to teach more about the “art and science” of democratic citizenship — even to implement a “democracy requirement” for graduation. As the value of factual knowledge seems to erode in our public square, the third chapter (“Hard Truths: Creating Knowledge and Checking Power”) calls upon universities to publish more knowledge of all kinds that is from the outset shareable and reproducible. The fourth chapter (“Purposeful Pluralism: Dialogue across Difference on Campus”) asks universities to reimagine and reconfigure “student encounters” (on campus and off) and to welcome rather than cancel vigorous debate around all of our burning social and political issues.

“The university should brook no difference in obligation,” he writes, “from that which is borne by other key institutions — the elected branches of government, the courts, media, and the vast political bureaucracy — at a time when liberal democracy is under profound stress.” Daniels is concerned with the future of the university — but not only the university. Elevating the role of our 4,000 educational institutions, but also, by extension, our 35,000 museums and 120,000 libraries, Daniels is explicit about the quasi-constitutional responsibilities — the new checks and balances — that these institutions should be fulfilling. In particular, “the responsibility of universities to step forward in defense of facts and expertise is greater than ever.”

Given the repeated stress (especially in the third chapter) on learning lessons from the experiences of Hungary, Poland, Russia, and Nazi Germany, it’s worth invoking another brave Hungarian alongside István Rév and George Soros. Concerned in the 1920s and ’30s with the dark ideas taking hold across much of Europe, Karl Mannheim, a Hungarian scholar working in Germany, declared that ways of thinking — “modes of thought” — could not be “adequately understood as long as their social origins [were] obscured.” “[I]t is […] one of the anomalies of our time,” Mannheim wrote in Ideology and Utopia (1929),

that those methods of thought by means of which we arrive at our most crucial decisions, and through which we seek to diagnose and guide our political and social destiny, have remained unrecognized and therefore inaccessible to intellectual control and self-criticism.

This anomaly becomes “all the more monstrous,” he emphasized, “when we call to mind that in modern times much more depends on the correct thinking through of a situation than was the case in earlier societies.”

Like Daniels’s father, Mannheim managed to escape Germany, but the “methods of thought” he identified took hold there, feeding directly into what became, in historian Daniel Goldhagen’s memorable words, the “hallucinatory ideology” underlying the Nazi genocide. Deploying explanatory tools from Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge, Goldhagen examines, in his best-selling 1996 book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, how Nazi Germany’s newspapers, books, radio, and film media — and virtually all of its educational, cultural, and social institutions — propagated a “fantastical,” “demonological,” “apocalyptic,” “psychopathic,” and “insane” worldview and “moral culture,” pumping these ideas relentlessly for years into all 65 million residents of the Third Reich. To Mannheim, other sociologists, and émigré philosophers, the only way an entire society could militate so effectively against truth and science was first to have its key institutions — its universities in particular — gutted of courage and independence.

Thus, it is not without alarm that one reads about how our universities have “regressed” and been “absent” from these conversations, how the project of reinvigorating their critical role has “never seemed more urgent.” For those interested in the history of education and the role of the university in American public life, there is much to chew on in Daniels’s book, including excellent information about calls to action from previous days — like the Progressive era’s “Wisconsin Idea” or the 1947 Truman Commission Report (“It is essential today that education come decisively to grips with the world-wide crisis of mankind”). There is also useful commentary on more recent critiques by the likes of Thomas Kuhn and Bruno Latour.

Despite its lack of overt references to Trump, this is a book that has come steaming out of the cauldron of January 6. The author is the president of a major research university that makes major contributions to the world, including the peerless COVID-19 dashboard that is updated every day by its medical school — a paragon of public service during a worldwide pandemic. While the book has an international scope, its focus is here. While the book takes us touring through history, its focus is now. “The insurrection at the Capitol building may have failed,” Daniels warns, “but the forces that fueled it have not left us.” The threats are real. The generations before us saw them; the generations that will follow us are likely to see them again. The time to act, as he says, is nigh.


Peter B. Kaufman works at MIT Open Learning and is the author of The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge (2021).

LARB Contributor

Peter B. Kaufman works at MIT Open Learning and is the author of The New Enlightenment and The Fight to Free Knowledge (2021). His book The Moving Image: A User’s Guide comes out from the MIT Press in 2025.


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