The publication of the annual Pew Survey of American attitudes toward institutions has caused quite a stir regarding the politicization of higher education. The most noteworthy conclusion of the study was that partisan differences (i.e., Republican vs. Democrat) have significantly increased in the last two years regarding how respondents view college and universities.
“Two years ago, 54 percent of Republicans said colleges had a positive impact on the country’s direction, with 37 percent rating higher education negatively.” This year, 58% identified a negative effect, while only 36% saw college as a positive force in society. Party affiliation made a big difference: 72 percent of Democrats viewed colleges positively, while only 19 percent were negative.
What’s going on? Surely the common good served by an educated populace is largely non-partisan in nature. The developments in medicine, science, technology, and industry that we see every day come from our educated citizenry. Colleges drive economic development in their communities. That an educated population best serves a democracy is a commonplace repeated on the left and right. Students from around the world still flock to the United States to study. And I suspect there is very little partisan distinction in the American love for collegiate sports (practically an obsession).
The answer lies in the inflated rhetoric of the Culture Wars and the exaggerated caricatures of college life built around a handful of stories meant to illustrate political conflicts on campuses running amok and resulting in embarrassing things like a controversial speaker being chased away.
Such events have indeed occurred, but they are mischaracterized as representative of college life. William Chace, former president of Wesleyan and Emory, makes this point persuasively in an article in “The American Interest”
Chace discusses the protest at Middlebury that stopped a lecture by conservative sociologist Charles Murray. He points out that Murray has spoken since at a dozen universities without similar incident. He notes that Middlebury is an elite institution that is not particularly typical of higher education. And even there, he notes, “most students are doing what students mostly do: study, talk to friends, waste time, worry, think about the future, party, and behave as young people always behave. “ I might add that students are supposed to make mistakes as they figure things out, and seizing on particular moments for ridicule as young people explore their political identities and develop their own voices undermines our educational mission.
Sure, there are statistics that show that college students and professors are slightly more to the left than the general population. With faculty, this is true primarily in four-year colleges and in the arts and sciences, but less the case in professional disciplines and in other kinds of collegiate institutions. Even in the last bitterly contested presidential election, students went just one percent more for the Democratic candidate than the general population did.
Still, the partisan divide in how colleges are viewed that the Pew study reports reflects something real—and something that educators should be concerned about. Part of the cause, I am convinced, is the shift in political and social discourse to modes of communication in which outrageousness and extremity are awarded: political shock-jock radio and cable tv, reality television, internet memes and clickbait stories. In that world of inflated rhetoric, exaggerated stereotypes take the place of reality, and the cartoon is mistaken for the more nuanced thing itself.
Those of us who care about an educated America need to push back in ways that cross party lines: by making the case for how our colleges serve their communities and the economy, by teaching respectful discourse and serving as exemplars of it, by gently correcting stereotypes when we talk to people about life at Sage or wherever we study or have studied. We graduate Republicans and Democrats and Independents, just as we serve students diverse in religion, ethnicity, and sexual identity. An educated society grants us all a life that is decidedly richer and we shouldn’t let the politics of the moment obscure that.