Last week the Pew Research Center reported on “Sharp Partisan Divisions in Views of National Institutions.” Though the survey covers a range of institutions–churches, banks, unions, news media, and colleges–it was the last category that drew the most attention (predictably) among people I work with. The report notes that 58% of those who identify as republican or leaning republican believe that colleges have a “negative effect” on the way things are going in the country. Only the news media was deemed more negative among that group. On the other hand, democrats/leaning democrats viewed colleges as 72% having a positive effect but 73% of them identified churches/religious organizations as having a negative effect. Hence the aforementioned “sharp partisan divisions.”
The partisan division is hardly surprising, but as the report notes, republican attitudes have shifted considerably. As recently as 2015, a majority of republicans viewed colleges as positive, so it possible this is just a blip in response to the presidential election and related politics matters–that colleges are just caught up in the wash of a generally intensified partisanship.
However, I don’t think of this as a blip. Republicans have been attacking higher education since the Reagan era. It was in the 1980s that public, tax-payer support of higher education began to decline; today colleges are basically tuition-driven. The conservative value behind it was that a college education is primarily an individual benefit which should be paid by individuals. During this time, the funding for research also began to turn increasing toward commercial applications, beginning the era of academic entrepreneurialism we see today.
Of course we can go back a few more decades to the sixties. We all know this story about colleges and the civil rights, peace, and women’s movements. But there’s an even more basic story. Universities were (and are) engines of technoscientific development that have been integral to the establishment of a post-industrial, information economy including not only the expansion of STEM-oriented careers and cultures but also the technocratic managerial practices running from finance to government. Part of that is also a shift in the way gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, religious affiliation and other macrosocial identifiers operate in society. Colleges were (and are) intended to help citizens move into this (still new) economy and culture. Such matters are obviously sites of social and political conflict. And though academia is founded on the open consideration of ideas and the objective, impersonal evaluation of those ideas, this does not mean that it is (or can be) neutral in these conflicts. Essentially openness and objectivity are themselves partisan values in this conflict, and those unwilling to hold those values cannot really participate in academia. Put differently, openness (academic freedom) is a particular discursive value; it doesn’t mean you can say anything at anytime or place. And objectivity points to particular rhetorical standards that vary by discipline to some degree.
However, I think it is a problem to conflate these values with those of a particular socio-economic class in the way David Brooks does in his recent op-ed, which begins by identifying “members of the college-educated class,” which he then re-terms the “upper-middle class” and the affluent. I think Brooks might be relieving his youth. According to the NCES, in 2014, 44% of Americans aged 25-64 had a postsecondary degree. Obviously all of these people are not in the same class. What Brooks is actually doing is laying the blame for America’s woes on a wealthy and urban segment of Americans, who tend not to share his politics. I don’t agree with this attempt to shift the focus from the 1% to the 10%, but that’s a different conversation.
There are two kinds of stories here though that intertwine in a weird way. One, on which Brooks focuses, is about how education is failing Americans because urban zoning restrictions put poor kids in underfunded schools, college is so expensive, and the culture of this so-called “educated class” is alienating. The second is the rejection of education by the religious right and other conservatives. These are people who reject climate science and evolution as liberal plots. It is the conservatives in the second group that have been waging war on education for a very long time. The Scopes Monkey Trial was 1925. The Reaganite claim of college-education as an individual investment was partly an assertion that college education was not a benefit to society. I.e., if you want to go to college to make more money that’s fine, but the society isn’t going to invest in college education because that would mean endorsing the future that it’s creating on a social scale. That cultural war is largely responsible for many of the problems we now have with education.
That cultural war has only intensified in recent years along with the material effects of postindustrial culture. Colleges are an engine of those changes and I think that’s where most of the antipathy arises.