Editor’s Note: David M. Perry is a journalist and historian. He’s the senior academic adviser to the History Department at the University of Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter. The views expressed here are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The democratization of American higher education was one of the vibrant, if hard-won, victories of the 20th century in the United States. Thanks especially to public colleges and universities (including community colleges), but also due to civil rights legislation and its acceleration of desegregation and co-education, increased access to private education beyond the wealthy, and other related factors, America grudgingly stumbled into an era where pretty much everyone could access some form of affordable and high quality education. Access was never equal. Inequities remained severe across class, racial, and other divides. But higher education did shift from a habit largely left to the elite to a widely recognized common good. How else were we to build an informed citizenry to build a more just and humane world?
Then along came the modern Republican Party.
A new report from the Pew Research Center details an ever-growing partisan divide about the core value of colleges and universities, with 59% of Republicans arguing that colleges and universities, as institutions, are having an overall negative effect on the country. Note that these respondents are not merely concerned with liberal bias, questions of cost or curriculum, or the degree to which higher education merits public funding. Their doubt strikes more deeply at the very existence of colleges.
This result is no accident and Pew’s findings are no surprise. Many in the Republican party and the right-wing media ecosystem have been attacking specific college professors and liberal students for a long time. But as higher education itself becomes a flashpoint exploited for partisan gain, we impoverish the soul of our nation as we move away from the chief mechanism of building an informed citizenry. We also impoverish young people, as we lose our consensus that publicly supporting the costs of higher education is a common good.
Perhaps the first whisper of the modern right-wing attack on college came in 1951, when conservative intellectual William F. Buckley attacked colleges for turning Christians into “atheistic socialists.” But in recent years, right-wing figures have found ample political and commercial benefit in alleging widespread inequities against conservatives on campus. Fox News, sites like Breitbart or Daily Caller, and Youtubers like Dinesh D’Souza and the anti-college site PragerU repeatedly allege either that colleges are trying to brainwash all students or trying to silence conservative students.
Parker Molloy, a writer at Media Matters for America, recently tracked column after column by conservative writers in the New York Times about political correctness and social justice activism on campus. Conservative lawmakers attack academic freedom, tenure, and funding. Most recently, Alaska’s universities came close to total financial collapse, before a deal could be found that cut only $70 million over the next three years (instead of $136 million all at once).
The conservative attacks are largely myths. Conservative students on campus do sometimes feel marginalized, but there are lots of them, and their grades are just as good as those of liberal students (as found in a major study led by a professor who told me over the phone that he was a life-long Republican). Conservative professors are as likely to thrive as liberal ones, and while outnumbered in some disciplines, this may have more to do with values than discrimination. Humanities professors make a lot less money than you might think. No wonder conservative intellectuals gravitate to economics and the business school. They tend to go where the money is.
And yet the perception of bias, of political correctness run amok, is only intensifying, especially (as Pew found) among older Republicans who presumably have not been in the classroom for a long time. What do we do?
Recently, I’ve been arguing at CNN that we need to reframe the social contract around higher education when it comes to issues of cost. But we also need to tell a better story about why college matters. Back in 2011, Louis Menand wrote for The New Yorker that college “exposes future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing.” Higher education isn’t the only way to create an informed citizenry, but it’s surely one way that works.
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It may, of course, be that many Republicans keep attacking colleges because they are afraid of an informed citizenry, afraid that in a war of ideas, they’ll lose. If that’s the case, maybe instead of attacking learning, they could work on getting better ideas. One place they might find them is … their local college.