America’s culture wars have evolved greatly from the central issues of the 1990s and early 2000s, such as legalizing same-sex marriage, or what standards of decency hip-hop artists or cable-television shows should adhere to. Now the very concept of higher education — its purpose, how its institutions prepare our country’s young adults, and what exactly is being taught in the classroom — has taken center stage.
Americans’ opinions about the current state of higher education, according to a new Pew poll released earlier this week, reveal a stark partisan divide over whether our nation’s colleges perform a positive societal function. Fifty-eight percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents now believe America’s institutions of higher learning “have a negative effect on the country,” whereas 72 percent of Democrats say the effect is positive.
For over half a century, conservatives have more or less accepted the fact that leftists control the classrooms. The cliché of a son or daughter coming back for the holidays armed with all sorts of ideas collected from a freshman sociology seminar typically ends with a polite smile or headshake from the parents — and another tuition check. At least, parents could tell themselves, the kids were learning something. Families tolerated the political biases of college professors and administrators because there was an implicit understanding that students would be challenged and educated, whether directly or indirectly, in areas that would eventually prepare them for life as engaged citizens and productive members of the labor force.
All of that sounds quite lovely on its face, but it’s no surprise that so many conservatives are deeply disturbed by how much colleges have changed in their lifetime. Considering how far academic standards have eroded on campuses, it’s difficult to justify the undergraduate degree as a necessary vehicle to the middle and upper-middle class. It’s even harder to justify American colleges and universities as a positive societal force instead of just an extremely expensive four-year ritual required in order for an individual to be rewarded with the keys to cosmopolitan society and all the avocado-toast-filled brunches anyone could ask for.
The common refrain from the left that conservatives reject higher education out of a preference for ignorance or a fear of “dangerous ideas” couldn’t be farther from the truth. Conservatives don’t defend the Western canon because they think understanding it will make students believe that lower corporate tax rates are one of the best ways to grow the economy, but because we deem it important to understand the West’s intellectual underpinnings so that we can best defend and (yes) criticize it.
It’s disappointing but not necessarily surprising that so many self-identified liberals have few gripes about the direction higher education is taking. In the age of Trump, liberals have adopted a bunker mentality and view college campuses as a steadfast safe space at a time when their own political party seems temporarily impotent against historic GOP gains.
As the student-debt bubble grows, I suspect many liberals will begin to regret their indifference to these changes. While 55 percent of Americans still view colleges and universities positively, this number seems awfully slim considering the prominent role higher education plays in the modern economy and as a class signifier. Moreover, the urban–rural cultural divide will only increase in intensity as more individuals realize that one of the main roots of liberals’ arrogance — their prized education — is nothing more than a sham.
In ten or 15 years, when Millennials are still mailing checks to Sallie Mae, it won’t just be Republicans who ask: “What did I get out of this?”
— Joe Simonson writes about politics and culture.