Interim President Rawlings speaks at the Francis Halpern 2017 Lecture at the Rhodes-Rawlings Auditorium on Tuesday.

Corinne Kenwood / Sun Staff Photographer

Interim President Rawlings speaks at the Francis Halpern 2017 Lecture at the Rhodes-Rawlings Auditorium on Tuesday.

March 28, 2017

Rawlings Warns of Radical Shift in U.S. Democracy

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To Interim President Hunter Rawlings, democracy in the United States is not immune to tyranny.

In his Francis Halpern 2017 Lecture on Tuesday — possibly his last lecture at Cornell before handing the reins to President-Elect Martha Pollack — Rawlings said digitalization and a decreased interest in the humanities have intertwined U.S. politics with daily life and made political systems more volatile.

Contemporary politics appear more like like the ancient Athenian model of democracy, especially as the internet and social media are politicized, said Rawlings, who has taught several courses and researched Greek historiography at Cornell since ending his first term as president in 2003.

Athenians, Rawlings said, “didn’t want the elite and highly educated making decisions — they wanted everyone engaged.” As politics becomes more closely intertwined with the internet, it can radically change the system, as in ancient Athens, where the political system was “radical in that it was direct.”

While the Founding Fathers preferred the Romans’ Republican model and based the Constitution on Rome’s representative democracy, modern technology and communication have drawn the United States closer to the Athenian democracy over time, Rawlings said.

“Today, an individual can reach millions with tweets and can be elected president by conducting a populous campaign against both traditional parties,” Rawlings said.

Rawlings told the story of the Mytilenian Debate, where the Athenian assembly decided the fate of city-state Mytilini, which had attempted unsuccessfully to revolt against Athens during the Peloponnesian War.

The Athenian assembly’s ultimate decision to commit genocide in the city-state serves as a warning of how history can repeat itself.

“It will happen again because human nature remains constant,” Rawlings said. “History won’t prevent democracy from doing some bad things. It probably will do those bad things, because we as a species are who we are.”

Rawlings spoke about the diminishing emphasis on liberal arts education in the United States and declining public funding from universities.

The instruction of critical thinking and rational decision making has “never been as necessary as it is today,” he said.

“To say that we need more citizens with an education in the arts and sciences is an understatement,” Rawlings said, adding that public officials’ “disdain for liberal arts [is] reaching a fever pitch.”

  • Tom

    Hardly anyone has a problem with history or English. Liberal arts has come under attack when concentrations are developed solely for leftists (who could not otherwise get a job) to teach wannabe leftists their hyperbolic philosophy. Obvious examples are gender or racial studies.

  • Frank Rizzo

    Tom hit the nail on the head. Liberal Arts is not what is used to be. It’s taken a decidedly left turn and isn’t even the same thing; this is why many people are opposed to what is now called ‘Liberal Arts’.

  • AJ

    The liberal arts education is becoming unaffordable as universities continue to raise the cost of college far more than the rate of inflation. And this is occurring despite large amounts of public funding, including tremendous tax breaks such as in college savings plans, exemptions from property taxes, tax deductible nature of contributions by alumni, and tax breaks on these university’s gargantuan endowments.
    The outrageous amounts of money required to attend these universities result in many taking alternative routes. In addition those who do attend can graduate with a large amount of debt, which can often affect their career choice. And parents are often forced to put their savings on the line, as well as being forced to take out loans including on their retirement plans to cover students who are well past the age in which they qualify to vote or serve in the military. The whole system of associating students with their parents well after the age of majority seems more like a gambit to collect as much money as possible from families than to achieve a well educated population.
    And a substantial amount of this money goes to an ever increasing army of overpaid and underworked administrators, even as these school’s endowments continue to grow to astronomical levels.
    If Cornell and other universities want to achieve a population well educated in liberal arts, the best plan would be a substantial decrease in the cost of attending these schools both for students with and without financial aid.