How Universities Aid the Fall of Democracy

University education aims to transform people’s thinking. Thompson (2014) argues that institutions rarely openly declare this goal, but it is there nevertheless. But in this endeavour, there is a fundamental danger that threatens to destroy democracy. The bald fact is that most students graduate with epistemic thinking skills that are not equal to the task of evaluating democratically. Let’s look into this claim a bit.

I’ll use Baxter Magolda’s (1992) classification to describe an individual’s ability to know about their own knowledge and their awareness of their own subjective and objective elements in the knowing process. Baxter Magolda differentiates between four types of person. The first, the absolute knower, sees the world in stark right-or-wrong terms. The second is a transitional knower, are able to recognise that some questions cannot be answered categorically. But the transitional knower experiences discomfort with uncertainty. The independent knower, on the other hand, is more at home with uncertainty. He or she believes that there are no certain answers and that an individual brings as much to the meaning-making process as does information. Finally, Baxter Magolda describes the contextual knower. This highest level is characterised by the inclusion of justification and evaluation within appropriate contexts in the knower.

Baxter Magolda studied university students, and her longitudinal research demonstrates adequately the type of thinking transformation in the student body. My own research has looked at similar changes in knowing in a Japanese university. What Baxter Magolda found was supported in my data. The surprising–and dangerous–conclusion was that very few students graduate at the highest level. Table 1 shows the type of thinker over the five-years in Baxter Magolda’s study.

Absolute Transitional Independent Contextual
1st Year 68 34 0 0
2nd Year 46 52 2 0
3rd Year 12 84 6 2
4th Year 2 80 16 2
5th Year 0 32 58 10

Table 1. Baxter Magolda (1992) Ways of Knowing by Year

Note that the percentage of contextual thinkers in year 4, a standard graduating period, was 2%. My own small-scale studies have shown no contextual thinkers in the fourth year. (But my samples are tiny, so I can’t begin to make any strong claims.)

What does this mean? An independent thinker (the majority of people at graduation) does not believe in certain knowledge. They are unable to evaluate between options on epistemic grounds. Their abilities in justification are founded on personal, not objective nor technical, factors. Baxter Magolda shows this in the words of Alexis.

I like to listen to their arguments for it; then I listen to other people’s arguments against it. And then it’s just my own personal view, really, whether I can establish the credibility—so I guess it really stems from the credibility ofthe person who’s saying it also, as well as just the opinion on it. I listen to both sides. I usually throw some of my own views into it as well. So I’m influenced by other people—like each member of the group should be influenced by each other. But when the final vote comes in, you should go with what you believe. (Baxter Magolda, 1992, pp. 147–148).

In other words, the university does little to remove overwhelming subjectivity in students and produces a citizenry able only to support their own subjective views absent of objective evaluation.

And we’re talking about university graduates! For a true democracy to exist, there is a need for an informed citizenry, one that is able to adequately evaluate between the claims and counterclaims that characterise modern politics. But if graduates are limited to their own subjective opinions and are unable to extend their thinking beyond this, what does that say about the majority of the world’s democratic populations who don’t have a tertiary education? And how can we proceed morally with the claim that the university is indeed a place for the highest learning, a place that aids the development of a democracy?

There are answers to this last question. The most obvious one (to me, at least) is that the university, if it is to be a true ground for the highest order thinking development, should not begin until students have had sufficient life-experience to make sense of the information and process skills they experience at university. A good age? 25.

This answer is problematic for a multitude of reasons, but to begin with, honesty is vital.


Baxter Magolda, M. B. (1992). Knowing and reasoning in college: gender-related patterns in students’ intellectual development. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Smiley, J. (2018). Exploring epistemic cognition in Japanese university students. In H. Saito (Ed.), Studies on European and American Languages and Cultures (pp. 123–154). Morioka: International Culture Department, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Iwate University.

Thompson, R. J. J. (2014). Beyond reason and tolerance: The purpose and practice of higher education. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

About theCaledonian

Scot living in north Japan teaching at a national university.
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