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.
Lori Saldana says
Since “knowledge is power,” I suspect it is the emerging economic and political power of traditionally underrepresented communities that is troubling those who hold conservative beliefs. Also, the fact that many people from non-traditional groups have derived this new power- at least in part- from access to public education.
And while it’s accurate that “more people of color are gaining access to the still-very-white world of higher education” – sexism and beliefs about gender in both higher education and the workforce also contribute to this uneasiness.
Yes- More women than men are now enrolled in higher education. Yes- They are receiving certificates and advanced degrees, and rightfully seek higher paying jobs upon completion of their studies.
This is a balanced reflection of our population, where women slightly outnumber men. But this shift may be distressing for those who consider increases in women’s education and employment opportunities as a threat, rather than a net benefit, to our economy.
As Yale’s Nancy S. Niemi states: “…when the majority of U.S. college students were male, few named it as problematic. It’s important to note that the number of men in college has not decreased, but their share of the enrollment is lower because so many more women have enrolled.”
For more on this, see: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/08/16/author-discusses-new-book-gender-and-value-higher-education
bob dorn says
Thanks for exposing the deep cynicism of so many Republicans who’ll attack public schools that so many of them graduated from. The mean-spirited, evangelized, violent and exclusionary thoughts they themselves hold are being projected onto their perceive enemies
who often had the advantages of being white and from wealthy families. Donald Trump thinks the networks and newspapers are fakes while he’s cheating at golf and ignoring childhood hunger, for another demonstration of what seems to me to be a closing down of the mind because the truth is too hard to face.
John Lawrence says
In an era where the economic divide between the 1% and the 99% grows bigger everyday, public education should be about getting students decent paying jobs rather than academic training which does not further that goal. The “ever-shrinking space outside of the constraints of the marketplace” filled with “ideas that conservatives don’t like” does nothing to prepare someone for blue collar type jobs that do exist but that colleges don’t train people for.
The prestige universities educate quants for Wall Street while the lower level for profit colleges are designed to put students into debt in return for which they get a piece of paper that won’t get them a job. Apprentice style training for actual jobs will go a long way to match people who don’t have an academic bent or the appetite to sit in a classroom and listen to some academic lecture with hands on jobs which are more suitable for their aptitudes and sensibilities.
bob dorn says
Back when there were unions the young and impoverished could learn skills as grunt laborers. It was an informal apprenticeship, but one that was very effective. The laborer could learn just by watching the processes and the order of tasks and how to use the tools. I don’t believe universities can provide that sort of experience, nor should they. Universities and colleges already are compelled by donors and legislators to provide non-academic degrees in business and mass communications, IT and other money-oriented jobs. Education ought not be confused with the making of money.
John Lawrence says
Then what most low net worth Americans need is not education but the making of money, ergo fact, not colleges or universities but jobs.
John Lawrence says
bob dorn says
“Education should not be confused with the making of money.”
As I have pointed out before (and I think we agreed) there is a serious shortage of skilled laborers. This article is 4 years old but I’m sure it’s still relevant. Robots haven’t taken over everything yet. https://www.forbes.com/sites/emsi/2013/03/07/americas-skilled-trades-dilemma-shortages-loom-as-most-in-demand-group-of-workers-ages/#5b0195e56397