Dear Commons Community,
Peter Wood, President of the right-leaning National Association of Scholars, has a commentary on The Chronicle of Higher Education’s story about the recent Pew Research Center survey on American attitudes toward higher education. The survey of 2,504 adults found a dramatic shift in the percentage of Republicans who see colleges and universities having “a positive effect on the way things are going in the country.” The finding has been widely reported: In just two years, Republicans have flipped from a majority (54 percent) saying higher education has a positive effect on the country, to a majority (58 percent) saying the opposite. Here is Wood’s position:
“I am heartened by the news. It has taken a lot to break through the complacency of these voters. In my role as head of the National Association of Scholars, I’ve given speeches at countless grassroots events, written or published hundreds of articles, and spent hours on talk radio in an effort to persuade ordinary Americans that something is terribly amiss in higher education. The Pew survey suggests that at least some people have begun to listen…
…The parallel question about Democrats matters at least as much. Why are only 28 percent of Democrats in the Pew poll worried about higher education’s effect on the future of the country? Shortsightedness. It might be energizing to believe that the university is wholly on your political side, but the danger of raising a generation steeped in the politics of resentment, power for its own sake, and loathing of intellectual disagreement ought to alarm liberals. This can come to no good end.
Our colleges and universities may get some things right — even that is disputable — but they are getting civic education wrong. They are graduating students whose “activism” is rooted in an odd conjunction of utopian wish and apocalyptic fantasy. A significant portion of those campus activists are nihilistic, bitter, mean-spirited, and, of course, self-righteous. Their worst impulses, those impulses to put the pursuit of power ahead of the desire to learn, are encouraged by the identity politics of the faculty and the expediency of college administrators.
The Pew poll suggests far more than it can plausibly show. It suggests that Republican voters have at last begun to relinquish their fond hope that our colleges and universities are, despite numerous defects, still a net good for the United States. The exorbitant costs, the student-debt crisis, the immolation of the humanities, the trivialization of much of the curriculum, the turn to making an accusation of “sexual harassment” into proof of guilt — none of that was enough to cancel the patience of conservatives with an institution they are by nature inclined to love. But Middlebury? Taken in company with the other such fiascoes, yes, that was enough.”
I don’t agree with everything that Wood says. I believe the Pew survey reflects more the fact that the American people have become tribal with regard to their politics. You are either with them or against them. Higher education has moved more and more to the progessive Democratic Party alienating those in the Republican camp.