As an American student of international affairs and Russian, assessing where authoritarian societies draw their strength from has been a long-time focal point of mine. Safe in my liberal democracy, it was often too easy to dispassionately explore this question from afar. With the prospect of a nascent authoritarian movement in the United States, however, this question is now uncomfortably relevant.
My pedagogical experiences in Russia suggest that education is a significant source of strength for both liberal and authoritarian societies. I currently serve as an English Teaching Assistant at a university in Kazan, Russia on behalf of the Fulbright Program. The Russian education system mirrors broader Russian society in that collectivism is the prevailing ideology. In Russia, hierarchy must be respected, standards must be met and it is better to conform than to differ. In the classroom, this means that students and educators alike follow orders from their superiors without question. Such an education system allows little room for discussion and, perhaps more importantly, dissent.
This could not be more the opposite of my experiences at Lewis & Clark, where dissent is in many ways the cornerstone of critical thought. Because universities influence citizens’ outlooks whole generations at a time, it concerns me that this dearth of dissent persists in the Russian education system. I see a direct link between the health of Russian civil society and how dissent fits into the education system here. This lack of dissent in the education system begets the same deficiency in civil society.
An even bigger concern is how dissent fits into my own society and how that may be changing. The U.S. was born out of a fit of dissent. Nearly 250 years later, that dissent is still present in the fundamental mechanics of both our government and civil society. The powerful tradition of dissent is being challenged in unprecedented ways, however. The ascent of Trumpism—really just a glorified, spray-tanned take on authoritarianism—marks the biggest affront on American dissent since Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus in 1863.
Trump’s dispute with UC Berkeley highlights that educational institutions are not immune from the administration’s apparent distaste for dissent. Due to my experiences in Russia, I foresee universities potentially becoming targets for those who oppose dissent in the U.S. LC and other liberal arts institutions in particular are innately at odds with authoritarianism due to the kinds of values these institutions are founded upon. These same values have been cited throughout history to halt the actions of hostile governments and, at times, to topple them.
I owe my ability to think critically—my ability to dissent—to LC. In the years to come, I will continue to draw on this ability to fight injustices sure to come. I can only hope that current students and fellow alumni realize what a gift they have been given and do the same.
Sophia Freuden ’16 is an LC alumna.