Partisan Divide About College Reflects Our Dislike Of Each Other

07/16/2017 09:39 am ET Updated Jul 16, 2017
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In this episode, Rory Gilmore makes reading look more complicated than it is.

As I’ve written, attacks on academia are bread and butter conservative discourse—even though Republicans at the highest levels are the products of elite institutions. This is a problem—not because professors are snowflakes or conservative families are choosing to deny their kids access to higher education. In fact, the overwhelming majority of parents expect their kids to go to college. It’s a problem because attacking the liberal academic straw man harms students themselves—many of whom are facing the economic uncertainty that pundits insist propelled Trump to the white house.

Nobody who follows politics is surprised that a Pew Research study showed stark partisan divides in the way Republicans and Democrats view institutions, with 58% of republicans saying colleges and universities have a negative effect on the direction of our country. As a professor with a background in politics, I know academia is a right-wing media whipping post.

However, the precipitous drop in approval since 2015 is worth noting: “the share of Republicans and Republican leaners who view the impact of colleges and universities positively has declined 18 percentage points (from 54% to 36%).”

As one Fox commentator said in an attempt to pin Trump’s Russia woes on colleges: “We could redefine collusion as collusion between media, academia and entertainment industry that have been trying to brainwash us for decades." That’s wrong too, as I’ll explain.

In the alternative facts presidency, led by one of the most mendacious politicians in memory, it’s easy for smug liberals to paint Republicans as ignorant and uneducated. We’d not only be douchebags for doing so– we’d be wrong. College-educated whites, after all, still broke toward Trump. Nonetheless, conservatives bang the drums about liberal bias on campus- regardless of whether they owe their own success to higher education.

Longstanding but increased Republican dislike of academia isn’t about academia at all; it’s about liberals. Colleges and universities aren’t brainwashing the few people who come through our doors, and Republicans actually want their kids to attend. The Pew results and this striking partisan divide are about two simple facts:

1) College students and professors are disproportionately liberal and lean Democratic; and

2) Republicans and Democrats dislike and distrust each other.

Colleges are where the libt—d snowflake homosexual abortionist vegan UN helicopter pilots are, so of course they’re having a negative impact. But colleges aren’t creating Democrats and liberals—we’re attracting them. This should be obvious to anyone who looked at the results of the 2016 election.

Young voters overwhelmingly rejected Trump. The majority of college students are young: “In 2014, there were about 12.0 million college students under age 25 and 8.2 million students 25 years old and over.” The majority of college students are are also female- a group that rejected Trump.

Considering that only 40% of those aged 18-24 are attending college, and that fewer than half are attending residential colleges where they are immersed in the “radical” atmosphere about which the right wing obsesses, it would be illogical to lay young people’s liberalism at the feet of academia.

It’s true that most professors are liberal, and it’s understandable that some would conclude that liberal professors produce liberal students. But this formulation fails to acknowledge that the professor-student relationship is an adult, professional relationship.

So let’s look at how other people’s political ideology affects us. On one extreme, let’s say my dentist is liberal. Few people would say that her political views will affect mine. On the other extreme, let’s say our president is conservative. Few people would dispute that the president’s political views affect the way he governs- and like a conservative student at a school like mine, liberals still have to live with the president’s decisions.

Is a professor more like a dentist or a president? Like a dentist, we have expertise our patients don’t. Like a president, we wield decision-making power. Like dentists, we earn specialized degrees. We don’t campaign for our jobs; we earn them through academic attainment, scholarship, and- in the case of practitioners-turned-teachers like me- through workforce experience. Still, if a professor is more like a president (we’re in between, but where’s the line?), it’s possible that partisans will change their views of issues based on her leadership: 22% of Republicans supported missile strikes in Syria under President Obama; 86% supported them in April of this year.

Though some of us teach politically-provocative subjects (my con law courses are heavy on god, guns, and gays, oh my), “the most popular undergraduate majors in recent years have been business and health-related fields such as nursing.” In a nursing school curriculum, the bacteriology lab is unlikely to be a hotbed of Socialist theory; does anyone believe “arts and society” professors can carry the burden of inciting students to burn the flag?

No. In fact, professors have a moderating effect on our students—at least those who engage rigorously with the material (come to office hours, FFS):

  • ‘With regard to political views, academic engagement promoted moderation. "[T]he results indicate -- in contrast to the concerns of many conservative commentators -- that academic involvement generally moderates attitudes," Dodson writes. "While conservative students do become more liberal as a result of academic involvement, liberals become more conservative as a result of their academic involvement. Indeed it appears that a critical engagement with a diverse set of ideas -- a hallmark of the college experience -- challenges students to re-evaluate the strength of their political convictions."

PSA to anxious conservative parents: tell your offspring to swing by their professors’ offices. They’re likely to find conversation partners who are as skeptical of their Bernie Bro roommate as of their Ayn-Rand worshipping frat brothers. Another point of hope: most conservative students and professors are satisfied with college and “a vast majority complete their education with their values largely intact.”

Nonetheless, colleges are where the libs are, and Americans increasingly fear and mistrust the other side. Let’s say you dislike liberals, and your college-age son or daughter comes home at Thanksgiving and shares ideas that are more liberal than yours—but typical of their age group. Are you inclined to believe the times they are a-changing—or the profs they are a-changing the person you raised to embrace your values?

Media representations of college further exacerbate polarization by presenting a distorted picture of college life. We breathlessly read coverage of student unrest at Berkeley over Ann Coulter’s aborted (!) visit or Williams College canceling a speaker over “hate speech,” but these schools are not representative of college experience.

Nearly half of college students attend community colleges. Among four-year college students, most are at commuter schools and only 4% are at schools like Berkeley that accept fewer than 25% of applicants. An increasing number of college students attend for-profit institutions where marketing budgets eclipse academic services, graduation rates are abysmal, and students go into debt earning non-transferable credits. It is these students- not conservatives at Berkeley- who are getting the rawest deal in our education system.

Yet it is campuses like Berkeley- where unrest erupted over Ann Coulter’s planned visit—that the national media holds up as exemplars. We are told that this is the front line of a culture war. However, the Berkeley kerfuffle is not about student culture; it’s about inter-ideological hostility that can and does play out in many other settings.

Like Trump, Coulter angers liberals. Conservatism redefined as angering liberals doesn’t require ideological consistency, or principle, or faithfulness to an idea. It requires only that the other side feel the sting. TV hosts don’t invite Coulter to speak as an expert on any policy matter (she’s not). Similarly, student groups don’t invite Ann Coulter to hear Ann Coulter. They invite Ann Coulter to watch liberal students lose it and the outside world condemn their intolerance.

I challenged my own students to design a system Berkeley could use to select and fund guest speakers and address student concerns. Students across the political spectrum opposed excluding Coulter from campus- which some called “censorship.” However, not one articulated a contribution Coulter would make to campus discourse. To them, she stands for the principle that open discourse itself is valued and occupies the same space as the KKK in 1st Amendment law: they put up with her because they distrust institutions’ capacity to choose which speech we hear (as do I). (No, I did not just compare Coulter to the KKK. Read carefully, snowflakes).

This debate is also about something less noble than free speech—the power to remind marginalized people who is in charge. For every article I’ve seen about the disproportional burden marginalized people bear for speech I’ve seen ten about liberal students’ hypersensitivity and intolerance of difference. I have seen no explorations of conservative groups’ choice to invite these bloviating hate merchants, offering them a prestigious platform to share their “perspective” about some people’s inferiority. By inviting Ann Coulter to campus, conservative groups send a message that marginalized students already know: in 21st Century America, white supremacy, homophobia, and Islamophobia have a more secure place in the marketplace of ideas than demands for civility and decency.

I believe Berkeley students’ response to Coulter was misguided; however, the choice to showcase privileged students at selective colleges as examples of sneering liberal elites does a disservice to the majority of students, who are bearing the brunt of Republican-dominated state legislatures gutting higher education funding.

As with so many problems, this polarization and sensationalized coverage hits students of color and poor students the hardest. The fact is, though liberal intolerance makes a sexy story, campuses are still immensely exclusionary. Racial bias incidents on campuses— including the one where I teach— disrupt learning. White faculty hold a disproportionate number of senior faculty positions. Students of color report experiencing out-sized pressure to prove themselves, racial profiling, and alienation from a curriculum that largely ignores them.

Many aren’t getting the benefits for which they/re leveraging their future. Although more young people than ever start college, only about half will finish within six years, and many public and private colleges are failing to serve most of their students.

The fortunate half who complete their degree face racial disparities in opportunity and wealth. In fact, a recent report showed that “Black families whose head earned a college degree have only 2/3 of the wealth of white families headed by a high school dropout.”

When we characterize schools as places for elite snowflakes to shelter themselves from the real world, we neglect real threats to real students- inequality; barriers to completion; financial hardship.

Even violence.

This week, a Trump Administration official tasked with overseeing campus sexual assault policy grossly mischaracterized the problem, raising alarm that she would abandon efforts to prevent assaults and support survivors. This is what happens when you repaint college as a battleground between liberals and conservatives; between sensitive feminists and wrongly vilified white guys. Keeping students safe isn’t easy or simple; but it shouldn’t be ideological.

As long as college— like Planned Parenthood, NASCAR, guns, and Hollywood— serves as a symbol of “the other side,” students will pay the price. And that is bad for the way things are going in this country.

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