CHICAGO — A recent survey on the public’s view of national institutions elicited headlines that suggested a tale of backwardness and ignorance. One example: “Majority of Republicans Think Higher Education is Bad for America.”
The reality is more complex.
What the Pew Research Center actually found is that for the first time on a question asked since 2010, a majority of Republicans (58 percent) say colleges and universities are having a negative effect on the way things are going in the country. Thirty-six percent say they have a positive effect.
This is not equivalent to saying that most Republicans don’t believe in higher education.
It is a declaration of disgust with the ethos of college campuses and not a rejection of the knowledge that higher-ed institutions can provide.
According to Pew, as recently as two years ago, most Republicans and Republican-leaners held a positive view of the role of colleges and universities. In September 2015, 54 percent of Republicans said they had a positive impact on the way things were going in the country while 37 percent rated their impact negatively. Even in 2016, Republicans’ ratings of colleges and universities were mixed — 43 percent positive, 45 percent negative.
The emerging disgust doesn’t come out of nowhere. Look at what’s happened in the last two years.
Let’s start with Laura Kipnis, a self-described “certified left-wing feminist” who in 2015 wrote an essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education criticizing an emergent “sexual paranoia” on college campuses. Two students at Northwestern University — where Kipnis is tenured — complained that her writing was, in itself, a violation of the federal act that states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
Their complaint earned her pariah status, death threats and a 72-day Title IX investigation, which resulted in her exoneration.
Also in 2015, protests at the University of Missouri over charges of mishandling of racial incidents on campus spiraled out of control into a full-on tent city on campus. In a culminating incident, a communications professor led the charge to keep the news media from reporting on the emerging violence. She called for “some muscle” to bully a student reporter away from the scene.
Add onto this pile two years of stories about trigger warnings, safe spaces, the shouting down (and physical attacks, in some cases) of conservative speakers on campus, and a backlash that has ushered in racist and anti-Semitic graffiti, even swastikas and lynching nooses.
Is it any wonder that parents of either political persuasion would think that college campuses are no place for their kids?
The images and news stories are so over-the-top they’re even lampooned in liberal bastions such as satirical TV shows. Episode 2 of the sixth season of HBO’s “Veep” has former President Selina Meyer arriving at a Smith College where the students hurl expletives at her and snap their fingers. One young woman yells, “Don’t talk over me!” — a direct reference to the Yale “Shrieking Girl” who shouted down an administrator who had objected to a memo about appropriate Halloween costumes.
The fact of the matter is that the roiling war between ultra-sensitive college students demanding special treatment for their political views on one end of the ideological spectrum and truly racist, insensitive and intolerant students on the other has made college campuses unwelcoming to many of those who fall in the middle.
According to the National Student Clearinghouse, which tracks college enrollments, the number of students in colleges and universities has now dropped for five straight years, and this year 81,000 fewer high school graduates nationwide are heading to higher-education institutions.
Lower birthrates and increasingly plentiful jobs are mostly to blame, but the tone of campus politics is surely a factor. For instance, the University of Missouri has seen freshman enrollment at its Columbia campus dip by more than 35 percent in the two years since the protests.
People of all ideological bents revere higher education — it is the context in which it’s delivered that is increasingly looked upon skeptically.
We should focus on this context rather than the exacerbating partisan divisions by painting those with the concerns about free speech, free thought, basic order, and respect on campus as troglodytes who don’t value learning.