As I enter my thirtieth year as a professor at a public college of one kind or another, I’m used to the constant political fray that comes with being in the middle of funding battles, debates about education reform, and the culture wars, but this may be the first time in my long career that I have begun a new semester with the knowledge that a large number of Americans no longer see higher education as a public good.
Over the summer, the Pew Research Center released an interesting poll that helps explain where we are at this political and cultural moment in America. The survey revealed that most Republicans now believe that institutions of higher education have an adverse effect on the United States.
As Salon reported:
For the first time, a majority of Republicans think that colleges and universities have a negative impact on the country. Fifty-eight percent say that colleges “are having a negative effect on the way things are going in the country,” according to Pew. In other words, the Wall Street banks are more popular with Republican voters than Stanford, Harvard or the University of Akron.
Surely it is dismaying that a minority of Democrats share this opinion, but the clear issue over all is with conservatives. While there is nothing surprising when it comes to grumblings about “political correctness” in conservative circles, it is noteworthy that a majority of Republicans now see colleges as a national problem. And this shift is relatively recent as the Salon piece explains:
Just two years ago, a majority of Republicans, 54 percent, rated universities’ effect as positive. As Pew noted, “this shift in opinion has occurred across most demographic and ideological groups within the GOP,” but in particular the poll found that positive views of colleges among Republicans under the age of 50 sunk by 21 percentage points from 2015 to 2017. While Republican views of colleges and universities remained largely the same throughout much of the Obama administration, 65 percent of self-identified conservatives now say that colleges and universities have a negative impact on the country. Positive views of colleges dropped even among Republicans who hold a college or graduate degree, declining by 11 percentage points during the last two years.
So what gives? The Salon article points to one possible explanation which, in the wake of the events at the college town of Charlottesville, Virginia, is certainly worth thinking about: fear of an increasingly diverse America where more people of color are gaining access to the still-very-white world of higher education: “The right has long decried the ivory towers of academia, but now that those ivory towers are increasingly filled with members of marginalized communities, such attacks are beginning to resonate with average Republicans.”
Over at Inside Higher Ed there was speculation that the shift in conservative attitudes could be the result of “right-leaning news media” that run “critical articles about free speech disputes on college campuses” focused on “the perceived liberal orthodoxy and political correctness in higher education.”
Another possibility, according to the piece, is that the changing conservative attitudes could be push back against “increasing college tuition levels” when “not all jobs require the credential.”
Following this logic, one would think that it would be the less affluent Republicans that most disapprove of higher education but precisely the opposite is true as affluent Republicans are the least positive about college (31 percent approve) while the poorer Republicans are significantly more positive (46 percent approve).
Thus it seems that a significant number of working and middle class Republicans might still believe that social and economic “ladders” are in their interests, while their more fortunate fellow travelers view things far more instrumentally and simply don’t see the merit of giving workers anything other than the narrowest of job skills.
Finally, Inside Higher Ed ponders whether the shift in conservative attitudes is simply “about the rise of an emboldened anti-intellectualism in the wake of the last presidential election?” It’s hard to argue that there is not at least some truth to this as we are witnessing nearly daily attacks on a whole array of American institutions by the Trump administration and its supporters, whether it be the courts, the free press, the democratic process, etc.
Why should public education, even the world’s most successful system of public higher education, be an exception?
Of course, the great irony of this is the fact that many of the dreaded “liberal elites” occupying the ivory tower spend a significant amount of time negotiating a terrain that has been conquered not by tenured radicals but by the very corporate business model that Republicans most revere. With so many of our colleges primarily staffed by untenured adjunct professors with few rights and little economic security, American universities mimic some of the worst exploitative business practices in the corporate sector.
And the commodification of education driven by efficiency models and various forms of academic Taylorism shapes the curriculum far more than anyone’s political agenda. In sum, American public higher education is much more influenced by neoliberalism than anything else.
But what does still does exist is a degree of academic freedom in an ever-shrinking space outside of the constraints of the marketplace so ideas that conservatives don’t like can survive along with a proliferation of unpleasant historical, cultural, economic, and scientific facts that challenge their worldview.
The public college is also a visible manifestation of the public sector and, now that we are at the apex of a decades-long assault on the very idea of a democratically controlled public space, the public college is a ripe target for those who are ideologically opposed to the continued existence of the intellectual commons as we have known them.
Thus, it makes perfect sense that in an era where many Republicans insist on the right to their own facts and embrace a deep nostalgia for a mythic White American past untroubled by history or our current diversity or inconvenient facts like climate change and deep economic inequality driven by the economics they embrace, the existence of a site of free inquiry that can deliver the facts they hate is akin to heresy.
This is where we are now and it’s a very dangerous place indeed with only 55% of Americans believing that higher education is good for the country. If a critically thinking, educated populace is the cornerstone of a healthy democracy, a country where large numbers of people reject that idea is something else entirely.