Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
In July of 2017 the Pew Research Center published a detailed study of the current views of Americans regarding various institutions. One of those was higher education. The results showed that since 2015, Republicans, particularly Conservative Republicans place much less value on higher education and even that higher education has a negative effect on the country.
This should not be too surprising to anyone who studies American History. Our history is filled with anti-intellectual movements which are quite often tied in with conspiratorial world views, isolationism, and anti-immigrant or foreigner movements such as the Know Nothings, the Ku Klux Klan, and the original “America First” crowd. This has been a consistent drumbeat in American History, and yhe late historian Richard Hofstadter wrote:
“As a consequence, the heartland of America, filled with people who are often fundamentalist in religion, nativist in prejudice, isolationist in foreign policy, and conservative in economics, has constantly rumbled with an underground revolt against all these tormenting manifestations of our modern predicament.”
But simple native prejudice and religious fundamentalism are only part of the problem. Throughout much of our history Americans have as Susan Jacoby has noted “only in terms of its practical results.” She notes that this phenomenon has “reasserted itself strongly in the “no frills” decisions of many local and state school boards. That the eliminated frills had once provided children with some exposure to a higher culture than pop was a matter of little concern to the public.”
The prevailing opinion, especially among conservatives is that education is only valuable if it produces jobs. In other words it’s training, not education and if you don’t know the difference between the two you are probably not really educated. The fact is that education, especially formal higher education should pursue truth more on their own long after their formal schooling ends. I can thank my teachers and professors at every level for inspiring me to do that. Sadly, more many, if not most Americans education at any level is simply a way to punch a ticket to get a job, but I digress…
In 2015 Pew noted that 54% of Republicans held a positive view of higher education, while 37% viewed universities, colleges and higher education negatively. That shifted in 2016 to a plurality of 45% positive and 45% negative. Their 2017 survey showed a much more pronounced shift, 58% negative and only 39% positive. Of the Republicans those who considered themselves “conservative” views were even more pronounced with 65% saying that higher education had a negative impact.
A change of such magnitude regarding what Americans have almost always universally valued as a societal good does not happen in a vacuum, the ground has to be prepared for it. Since a large portion of the GOP conservatives are Evangelical Christians one has to look at what has been going on in Evangelical Church and its politics for the past 50 years. whole denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention experienced splits as moderates were drive from the denomination and its educational institutions during the Fundamentalist takeover of it and its institutions.
The growth of Evangelical power centers that any type of education that comes from secular institutions have created their own educational centers to propagate their fundamentalist and radically right wing political views. Institutions like the American Family Association, the Eagle Institute, and others mimic traditional think tanks but are nothing more than propaganda outlets covered with an academic veneer in order to fool people into thinking that they are legitimate. Likewise, the promotion and acceptance of fake history by faux “historians” like David Barton has led to a devastating decline in the willingness of Evangelicals, and hence Republicans to care about the truth and to rail at institutions which they despise out of the fundamentalist worldview.
Non-intellectual virtues such as patriotism, loyalty, faith, prosperity, and power have supplanted the intellectual quest for truth. Expertise of any kind is disregarded but particularly that of academics. Even on college and university campuses academics and the pursuit of academic and intellectual questions is being subsumed by bloated bureaucracies which treat instructors and professors as chattel while seeking profits which usually come at the cost of academics, but again I digress…
The fact is that American society as a whole is hostile towards intellectuals and academics. As Hofstadter wrote:
“All this is the more maddening, as Edward Shils has pointed out, in a populistic culture which has always set a premium on government by the common man and through the common judgement and which believes deeply in the sacred character of publicity. Here the politician expresses what a large part of the public feels. The citizen cannot cease to need or to be at the mercy of experts, but he can achieve a kind of revenge by ridiculing the wild-eyed professor, the irresponsible brain truster, or the mad scientist, and by applauding the politicians as the pursue the subversive teacher, the suspect scientist, or the allegedly treacherous foreign-policy adviser. There has always been in our national experience a type of mind which elevates hatred to a kind of creed; for this mind, group hatreds take a place in politics similar to the class struggle in some other modern societies. Filled with obscure and ill-directed grievances and frustrations, with elaborate hallucinations about secrets and conspiracies, groups of malcontents have found scapegoats at various times in Masons or abolitionists, Catholics, Mormons, or Jews, Negroes, or immigrants, the liquor interests or the international bankers. In the succession of scapegoats chosen by the followers of this tradition of Know-Nothingism, the intelligentsia have at last in our time found a place.”
The American President has shown that he is exactly that kind of leader, and he is supported by followers who lap up everything that he says. Fed by the lies of pundits and radio talk show hosts who are college dropouts that despise anything that might be considered intellectual the President has added his voice to the cacophony of anti-intellectual thought that characterizes current American conservatism, in which men like William F. Buckley would be hard put to find a home.
There is a cost to such trends. We are not unique and such cultural trends do have consequences that many people do not think could happen here. But the non-intellectualism of our time, especially that of the militant and often fundamentalist Christian Right that predominates American conservatism is dangerous. Milton Mayer wrote of his experience with ordinary Germans in the years after the Second World War in his book They Thought They Were Free:
“As the Nazi emphasis on nonintellectual virtues (patriotism, loyalty, duty, purity, labor, simplicity, “blood,” “folk-ishness”) seeped through Germany, elevating the self-esteem of the “little man,” the academic profession was pushed from the very center to the very periphery of society. Germany was preparing to cut its own head off. By 1933 at least five of my ten friends (and I think six or seven) looked upon “intellectuals” as unreliable and, among these unreliables, upon the academics as the most insidiously situated.”
The Nazis loved educated men who were able to subordinate themselves to the Party and the State to get the job done. There were quite a few academics, particularly lawyers and doctors who were willing to put their education to use in service of the regime. Real intellectuals, men who thought and fought for truth and freedom were removed from academia or their positions in government. They were replaced with men willing to sacrifice their integrity and honor to further their own interests or to serve Nazi ideology and the Party.
It is my view that regardless of what happens with the Trump Presidency that the assault on intellectuals, knowledge, education, and ultimately truth will continue unabated. Irving Howe wrote in his essay The Age of Conformity:
“The most glorious vision of the intellectual life is still that which is loosely called humanist: the idea of a mind committed yet dispassionate, ready to stand alone, curious, eager, skeptical. The banner of critical independence, ragged and torn though it may be, is still the best we have.”