college as unamerican -- 11/21/22

Today's selection -- from After The Ivory Tower Falls by Will Bunch. Belief in the value of a university education has been eroding, especially among conservative voters, a change that accelerated starting in 2015:
"Wisconsin, more than any other state, captured the zeit­geist of the 2010s in red America, as the simmering discontents of vot­ers from rural areas and small towns that had started with talk radio gripes about 'political correctness' run amok finally boiled over the top. This anger among white working-class voters wasn't new, but it accelerated rapidly during the decade, egged on by newer media out­lets like the Fox News Channel and politicians like [Governor Scott] Walker who hadn't been around for the American Dream heyday of college ambition in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. Things spiraled downward as the mostly Re­publican budget cuts for higher education got deeper and deeper after 2010, while the anti-intellectual rhetoric grew nastier.

"Midway through the decade came a tipping point that would have once seemed all but impossible: The dominant perception of college that has been cemented in the post-World War II era -- as a desirable, ambition-fulfilling machine, the punched ticket toward the goal of a better life than one's parents -- began to change, and change rapidly. But the rapid decline of trust in college as an institution, and as a nec­essary and desirable life goal, was not uniform across the board.

"The Pew Research Center's annual survey of U.S. attitudes about higher education found that, among Republicans, support for the very idea of college practically dropped off a cliff starting in 2015. That year, 54 percent of GOP voters still believed that colleges had a posi­tive impact on the country's direction -- despite a half century of polit­ical attacks against the academy -- while a minority of 37 percent held a negative opinion. By 2017 -- just twenty-four short months later -- the Republican numbers had flipped. A whopping 58 percent said institu­tions of higher education played a negative role, with just 36 percent holding the positive view. By 2019, Republicans were 59 to 33 percent negative on higher ed.

"It's important to note that this drop occurred at a moment when trust in virtually all American institutions -- from the news media to Congress to Silicon Valley -- was declining in a bitterly divided nation. And support for higher education among Democrats, which was quite high in the mid-2010s, did also show a dip in Pew's 2019 survey -- a reminder that 'the college problem' isn't just Fox News demagoguery but a reflection of real-world problems like runaway tuition that affect everyone. (Among all Americans, 50 percent had a positive view of college's impact on the nation in 2019 -- a record low.)

"It's impossible not to notice that the reversal in Republican voters' perceptions of university learning took place in the two years between that day Donald Trump descended the gilded escalator of Trump Tower as a longshot presidential candidate, and his installation as 45th president of the United States. This was not an overt process -- Trump did not make direct attacks on college a centerpiece of his politics, as Scott Walker and others would do -- but rather a complicated dance. Rural and small-town voters flocked to the GOP's 2016 nominee be­cause his words, his style, and his policy drove those arrogant, diploma­-wielding elites crazy. And the enemy of their enemy was their friend.

"The 2016 election changed the delicate balance between the American way of college, our politics, and the policies that flow from that; in a cou­ple of profound ways. Most obviously, the so-called college/noncollege divide (a term that political scientists rarely used before the late 2010s) that had in some ways been brewing since the campus protest era of the 1960s finally exploded, electorally. It's already hard to remember today, but until very recently GOP candidates -- when traditional conserva­tives were advocating low taxes and toughness on crime -- still usually won a majority of white college graduates. Trump's laserlike focus on the 'forgotten Americans' of the white working class -- on everything from protectionism around trade to his more rank xenophobic and racist appeals -- brought out thousands of new voters, but also alienated many educated suburbanites who suddenly felt more comfortable voting for a Democrat. The college/noncollege divide had grown slowly at first, driven by social issues like abortion or LGBTQ+ rights, but after Trump it became tribal. Increasingly, to be a college grad is to be a Democrat, and to be 'a deplorable' member of the working class that resents them is to be a Republican.

"But the Trump years also accelerated some societal problems that went well beyond electoral politics. By planting their flag firmly as the anti-college party, modern Republicans inevitably came to grow suspi­cious of, if not openly despise, the deeper values that higher education stood for, and this would soon transcend political correctness or iden­tity politics around race and gender. A conservative movement that once laughed at journalists as 'nattering nabobs of negativism' now shunned fact-based reporting altogether, preferring to share conspir­acy theories on Facebook or YouTube.

"Republicans didn't just dislike microbiologists but became the anti-science party -- casting doubt on the research around climate change (to the delight of the GOP's Big Oil millionaire donor class) and then the health information needed to survive COVID-19. In a high-tech world where knowledge is both economic power and the only path toward solving humankind's most intractable problems, America was increasingly governed in angry statehouses and on gridlocked Capitol Hill by a movement of knowledge haters and deniers.

"This counterrevolution's defining moment came during Trump's impeachment -- the first one, that is -- at the end of 2019. The House Judiciary Committee had called upon four of the nation's best, most accomplished Constitutional law scholars -- professors from Harvard, Stanford, George Washington, and North Carolina -- for some exper­tise on the thorny issues at hand. Maybe it was because three of the four argued that the president's actions in the Ukraine matter surely did warrant his impeachment, but their words and citations from centuries of British and American law didn't carry much weight with the panel's Republican members. After the hearing, several argued that what they heard was not the wisdom of legal knowledge but the arrogant con­tempt that campus elites hold for the real America.

"'All I've got to say is, if you love America,' the right-wing Texas congressman Louie Gohmert told a gaggle of reporters, summoning the time-worn lyrics of Waylon Jennings, 'Mamas don't let your ba­bies grow up to go to Harvard or Stanford Law School.' The other Re­publican lawmakers who stood behind Gohmert giggled. For today's conservatives, Gohmert was, in the popular parlance, saying the quiet part out loud: Going to college was an un-American activity." 



Will Bunch


After the Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew up Our Politics -- and How to Fix It


William Morrow


Copyright 2022 by Will Bunch


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