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September 21, 2017

Higher Education Fallacies: What’s Behind Rising Conservative Distrust of Learning?

Photo by Hammerin Man | CC BY 2.0

I recently delivered a lecture at the “Open University of the Left” in Chicago, titled “Does Capitalism Have a Future?” I strongly suggest for those interested in this topic, which focused on the role of higher education and other factors in stifling political-economic transformation, to check it out here. That talk appears all-the-more relevant following a July Pew Research Center study finding that 58 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents agree that “colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country.” It’s tempting to dismiss outright the feelings of reactionary partisans, who fail to offer anything more nuanced than a “higher education is bad” mentality toward the world. But we need to better understand why it is that education is viewed with such disdain in contemporary America, in addition to exploring what’s wrong with this contempt.

First off, it’s worth pointing out that mass Republican distrust of higher education is a relatively recent phenomenon. According to Pew, in 2010, 58 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents held a positive view of higher education, but that number fell by a whopping 22 percentage points by 2017. Furthermore, the rapid growth in distrust didn’t occur until 2016 to 2017. So if distrust of academia is a new development, where did it come from?

It doesn’t take much imagination to recognize that growing conservative hatred of higher ed is tied to the rise of a reactionary, anti-intellectual culture in the age of Trump. Knee-jerk hysteria against critical thought and investigation was, and is a hallmark of Trump’s campaign and presidency. In my lifetime, I’ve never seen a president who was so proud to showcase his own willful ignorance and lack of knowledge about American politics, society, and the world. This president has sent an unequivocal message to the country that stupidity and willful ignorance are traits to be celebrated, not condemned. The rising anti-intellectualism of Republican Americans is dangerous, considering that authoritarianism and fascism thrive on public manipulation and ignorance, and on the suspension of disbelief toward reactionary political officialdom.

Related to Trump’s anti-education rhetoric is the reality that higher education is associated with a greater likelihood of holding liberal political, economic, and social values. This association was verified by the Pew Research Center, which found in its mid-2015 national survey that liberal attitudes become increasingly common as education increases. In the 2015 survey, 54 percent of Americans with post-graduate degrees held attitudes that were “mostly” or “consistently liberal,” compared to 44 percent of those with an undergraduate degree, 36 percent of those with “some college,” and only 26 percent of those with a high school diploma or less. But we should be careful about drawing cause and effect claims from this data, as the first lesson of an introductory statistics class is that “correlation is not necessarily evidence of causation.” Tragically and ironically, this lesson is missed by many conservatives who hold disdain for higher education, and who are never exposed to basic statistical reasoning – which is now deemed superfluous and even dangerous in Trump’s America.

It is certainly possible that students develop more liberal beliefs and ideas because of professors sharing and encouraging such values. On the other hand, it’s also the case that younger Americans, who make up the lion’s share of individuals attending institutions of higher education, already hold more liberal attitudes compared to older individuals (for more on this, see here and here). It should be no surprise that Millennials share a fundamental distrust of American political and economic institutions, which have largely failed them in terms of providing for affordable education, affordable health care, and decent jobs in the modern era. So why should it be a surprise to find that college graduates are more left-leaning? This may be a revelation for Fox News viewers and other Republicans without college degrees, but I doubt it surprises anyone familiar with the individuals attending institutions of higher learning.

There’s a “selection bias” problem with claims that professors are indoctrinating students with left-wing views. By “selection bias,” I am referring to a population of people, in this case college students, who do not represent a random sample of the American public, but which conservatives falsely assume should be representative of the mass public. This is simply not the case. Students overwhelmingly represent one specific subgroup of the public – young people – who are already predisposed to hold left-leaning attitudes. I can provide one example of this, so readers better understand how selection bias work in the real-world, and how it may have nothing to do with professorial bias. In the fall of 2016, I taught a course called “The Politics of Inequality.” From the very beginning of the class, it was clear that left-leaning students had sought out the course, due to their pre-existing commitment to social justice and to the notion that government should play a role in trying to reduce inequality. Individuals who believed there was something government could potentially do to reduce inequality were more likely to take a class addressing what government could potentially do to reduce inequality (a shocker!).

While there were a small number of conservative leaning students (one or two) on day one of the course, these students dropped out early on, informing me that they had found alternative courses that were more in line with their occupational interests and goals. The loss of these conservatives, however, was hardly surprising, considering a longstanding notion that has taken hold of higher education that “learning means earning,” and that enrollment in classes should be driven primarily by what a course can do to further one’s occupational skills and earning potential. Still, this example demonstrates how left-leaning and conservative ideologies can (and does) exist in higher ed, independent of the beliefs or values of professors.

It’s possible that those attending colleges and universities become more “liberal” in their beliefs because of the absurdity of what passes for “conservatism” in the U.S. these days. Higher education adopts evidence-based learning as its core driving component. And modern conservativism is driven by a commitment to faith-based “reasoning” – with that faith either based on the cult of Trump’s persona, or on a devotion to conservative religious orthodoxies via the “Born Again” Evangelical churches and other right-leaning Christian denominations. When modern conservatism is defined by a fundamental rejection of science and scientific reasoning, the result is an awfully large catch-all for what constitutes “liberal” or “left” ideology. As a result, liberalism is increasingly defined by support for science and empirically-based inquiry and reasoning. If this is what it means to be liberal, then we shouldn’t be surprised if institutions of higher education produce liberal thinkers in droves.

Aside from the above problems, there is another reason to question conservative lamentations about the alleged dangers of higher education: professors are not very good at using their classes as platforms for pushing left-wing thinking. I’ve been a part of higher education, either as a student or a professor, for nearly two decades, and based on everything I know about American social science professors, I can do little but shake my head when I read findings of the kind published by Pew. Contrary to claims of student indoctrination in favor of radical leftist ideas, there’s little indication that professors beat students over the head with their ideology. In the area I teach (the social sciences), most professors are relatively mild-mannered, and go out of their way to avoid beating students over the head with ideology. Rather, the commitment in the classroom is to aiding students in developing the evidence-based thinking skills (that science thing again) that are necessary to becoming a thoughtful intellectual and citizen. In other words, the concern is with teaching people how to think, not what to think.

If there’s a criticism of higher education to be had, it’s that professors are often intimidated into avoiding hot-button political and social issues, and to avoid expressing criticisms of the American political-economic system when appropriate, for fear of being singled out and punished. In the era of “professionalization,” professors are under more pressure than ever to be “unbiased” in the classroom, and to avoid “taking a position” on various issues. This alleged neutrality is on its face absurd and harmful, considering the scientific method at its core requires scholars to put forward hypotheses (also known as arguments) about how the world works, which must be confirmed or falsified by evidence. Short of lobotomizing the learning process, it’s simply not possible for professors to avoid discussing scientific findings that contradict accepted conservative positions and orthodoxies. Rather than worrying about offending conservatives who reject evidence-based reasoning, professors should be seeking to challenge their students, in addition to the political world outside of the ivory tower. Instead, right-wing political and media harassment has meant that many professors kowtow to conservative agendas for fear of being labeled “biased.”

Much of the American scholarly community has uncritically embraced the “professionalization” of higher education. By professionalization, I am referring to numerous things, including: 1. The notion that being a public intellectual, and reaching large numbers of people with one’s work and knowledge, is a “bad” thing, since scholars are only supposed to speak to each other and confine their findings to academic venues; 2. The fallacy that more arcane terminology and language used in one’s work is a sign of increased rigor, since the harder something is to understand, the “better” it must be; 3. The belief that only the privileged few should have access to the knowledge produced in higher education, to be delivered either through classrooms to tuition-paying students, or in high-cost academic journals and conferences, to which the average citizen doesn’t have access. All these trends are a recipe for the decline and death of intellectual discourse, and unsurprisingly, we’ve seen a rapid dumbing down of American political culture as a result. With academics increasingly removing themselves from the real world of politics, con-men and used car salesmen like Donald Trump and others are left to fill the vacuum. What hope does reasoned, critical discourse have when the individuals best positioned to challenge official misinformation and propaganda sit by and do nothing?

The reality is that scholars must become more active if they wish to challenge the rise of anti-intellectualism. And the assault on higher education is in large part a function of the failure of academics to defend themselves from a savage neoliberal agenda dead-set on dismantling what little remains of America’s public institutions and infrastructure. If professors don’t defend themselves and their endeavors, who will?

Modern politics is driven by the notion that the public good is a quaint, outdated notion, and that institutions must demonstrate their value to the private sector, corporations, and profits to remain relevant. Obviously, this mentality is toxic to any democracy, and to a population that relies heavily on public goods such as education. Rather than talking about “why professors hate America,” we need to transform contemporary discourse and pose a more appropriate and relevant question: why is it that supporters of conservatism have such an active and shameless disdain for thinking? The answer is obvious enough: such feelings are driven by a strong distrust of democracy. Democracy can only flourish if the masses are educated to develop the critical thinking skills needed to question official lies and propaganda. The shift in public discourse toward idealizing stupidity and ignorance is a direct threat to democracy. We need to shame those celebrating the dumbing down of society if we seek positive, progressive transformation in American politics, economics, and culture.

To watch my talk on the growing instability of corporate capitalism, in addition to the impediments to political and economic transformation, please visit the “Open University of the Left” YouTube page here.

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