The news that Republicans now think college is bad for America reads like a parody. But remember when it seemed crazy that Donald Trump could get elected president?
I’m a slow learner. But I’m schooling myself to take the crazy political movements of the day more seriously.
Take the latest poll findings about American views about higher education. They are bonkers. But get ready for this to become a major policy flash point in the months or years ahead anyway.
“Majority of Republicans say colleges are bad for America (yes, really)” said headlines this week (that one is from Newsweek.)
Now college is bad? The Pew Research Center has been tracking opinion on higher education for many years. This is the first time there hasn’t been bipartisan agreement that one of America’s greatest success stories is still a good thing.
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It came suddenly. By a steep 22-point margin, Republicans now believe American colleges and universities have a net negative effect on the country. In 2010, Republicans still said college was a good thing by a 26-point margin. So that’s a complete collapse in GOP support for higher education (self-identified Democrats and independents have always thought college is good by overwhelming, 40-point plus margins, and still do).
What in the world is going on? Sure, college is exorbitantly pricey. But at the same time, schools like our own University of Washington continue to set all-time records for applications (up more than 40 percent during the past three years.) So how unpopular can it be?
I first noticed the GOP becoming weirdly anti-college in the 2012 presidential campaign, when Rick Santorum called then-President Obama “a snob” for wanting all kids to have a chance to go to college.
This seemed reactionary in the most know-nothing way. If you said higher education was only for elites, that would make you a snob. Santorum’s faux-populist shtick didn’t catch on, but it was a warning.
By 2015, a study called “How Public Confidence in Higher Education Varies by Social Context” found evidence that rank-and-file GOPers were increasingly anti-college and anti-science, for the same cultural reasons. Namely, that “universities represent an elite liberal sphere of society.”
That the ivory tower leans left has been known since at least the 1960s. So what caused the sea change in opinion?
The echo chamber, that’s what.
Recent campus protests and controversies about trigger warnings or other “PC” issues have been covered relentlessly by Fox News, Breitbart and sites devoted solely to mocking leftist college outrages. Some of it was true, as students or faculty sometimes do act ridiculously. But other stories were fake. Example: It’s been a thing in the right-wing ether that California college students are threatening to castrate themselves to protest Trump’s Mexico wall. Seriously, I’m not making that up (well, it’s made up, but what I’m not making up is that it’s a real made-up thing. Welcome to the news business, 2017.)
Anyway, my own view on all the student-protest excess is … they’re students. Sometimes they go too far. I have written in defense of letting provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos speak at the UW, no matter how repellent. But even if liberalism sometimes runs amok, this tug of war over sensitivity and speech is hardly cause to indict the world’s greatest university system.
Yet that’s what’s happening. The American Interest, another right-leaning site, said that plunging conservative support for higher ed is all a byproduct of how “Donald Trump reveled in raising a middle finger to the ever-proliferating codes of academic liberalism.”
Yeah! Stick it to the man by voting for the billionaire Ivy Leaguer! To hell with these public universities!
No matter that these are the same institutions that democratized higher education — that made college no longer just a golden ticket for the elites.
As with the rest of Trumpism, it would be a mistake not to take it seriously. Already in our state Legislature there are a slew of right-wing bills to try to regulate academic culture, to make political identity a factor in hiring decisions, and to sell off one of our six public institutions, The Evergreen State College — a bill backed by a third of the state House GOP caucus.
“We are not going to end public funding of Evergreen, or any other public university, because of student protests,” Rep. Drew Hansen, the Democratic chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, assured last month.
Watch this space. Unfortunately, we appear to be just getting started on making America stupid again.