A recent report coming out of the Pew Research Center on U.S. politics and policy issues lays bare a startling dataset which paints a challenging– and incredibly polarizing– picture of how Americans view the landscape of higher education in 2017.
The Pew report surveyed Americans registered to the two major political party affiliations on their opinions relating to a variety of hot-button issues, among them the popular news media and other major institutions such as churches, banks, financial organizations and labor unions. Most interesting are the numbers revealing a sharp partisan divide in how we view the purpose, value and recent performance of institutions of higher education. The numbers are, frankly, troubling in a way never before seen within American education.
According to the report, a majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents (58%) believe that universities have a negative impact on the country. Only a year ago, this number hovered closer to (45%), still sharply contrasted to Democrats and Democrat-leaning Independents, (72%) of whom believe colleges have an overall positive impact on our nation. This number has remained largely consistent over the past few decades.
Let me be clear: these developments are not the same bear as the long history of anti-intellectual sentiments that have always dogged popular American politics. It’s never been particularly fashionable to speak difficult, culture-breaking truths to the public– for reference, consult the long list of public orators to have noticed this trend, a list that includes the names of Socrates, Copernicus, Martin Luther, Al Gore, and most recently even James Comey. The data’s relevance is entirely different from the long-running conversations that have plagued academic culture, from evolving conversations on academic language to considerations of free speech as it exists on college campuses.
Why have conservative voters come to develop such alarming opinions on the role higher education plays in the development of your young citizens? As anyone versed in dialectic knows, self-criticism and self-evaluation are integral to the successful functioning of any social apparatus. What can we, as academic professionals, do to address this trend?
Here are three avenues we might consider moving forward both in writing classrooms and in academia in general. We should:
(1) Renew our traditional emphasis on the evaluation of information. What has “fake news” come to mean? How might our students define this term differently than we do as academics? Can this conversation on the reliability of popular news sites, bias, ideology, cultural geography and spin (rhetoric! rhetoric! ethos, pathos, logos!) be a generative one?
This is one conversation in which academics traditionally tend to shy away from. We tend to dismiss our students’ opinions as naive, uninformed projections of the expressions they hear from their parents or on popular media forums, be they on television, the internet perhaps even on daytime talk radio. As many composition scholars have noted, the Freshman writing classroom is, in its very nature, training in exercise of citizenship.
(2) Renew our interest in asking our students these same questions that the Pew report ventures. Is a college education good or bad for the country? I like to periodically ask my first-year writing students, once at the beginning of the semester and once at the end, what new methods of thinking their college education has garnered them. What have they learned? What can they do now that they couldn’t do before? Why has college been worth it?
Predictably, some students tend to relish this type of open-ended question, generating responses as varied as a newfound ability to critically think, fresh appreciation and openness to differences and exposure to previously unheard ideas. On the other hand, many students answer these questions with a literal directness that is not altogether unproductive. “I’ve learned to improve my study habits,” is a valuable reflective lesson for any first-year students to consider, and it never hurts to remind young writers that what they’ve accomplished in just the past year, including successful completion of a composition course and all that it entails, is no small feat.
(3) Envision new opportunities for classroom writing and reflection that reports such as these might open up. Might the college composition classroom be just the place to nurture and cultivate the types of thinking that can save democracy in the era of fake news, which in recent months has come to mean nothing more that this report is disagreeable to the interests of the current presidential administration. It would be wholly inappropriate for a composition instructor to willfully attempt to sway her/his students toward one political ideology over another. However, a major aspect of the task composition has historically set for itself is the preparation of critical thinking and evaluation skills that will be utilized throughout a student’s time in the university. Is it unfair to reject the realm of popular politics when tackling this endeavor, given that the political realm is perhaps the one realm of popular consciousness that each and every student will likely have at least some previous, outstanding knowledge of? My technique in the past has been to consciously ask my students to forsake their traditional party affiliations (red, blue, green) while in the classroom in favor of policy-based discussion. We don’t discuss names, but only how issues are marketed, represented and ingrained into the popular consciousness.
To me, policies such as the construction of a border wall with Mexico or the flying of the Confederate flag over publicly-funded state buildings seem glaringly, plainly, unmistakably antiquated– a viewpoint fostered by years of consideration of the United States’ history of racist, xenophobic, sectarian intolerance. Our students have only just begun this consideration. For many, they are being asked these questions for the first time, and are being pressured too soon to formulate a final, life-long identity as either a Republican or a Democrat. I, for one, entered the university from a blue-collar, staunchly Republican family background only to discover, in Geoffrey Bender’s first-year writing course all those years ago, that my opinions did not match those of my larger family, not to mention many of my high-school teachers, coaches and administrators. What we fail to realize is that oftentimes our students’ political affiliations and opinions are in fact shaped during their early university years, and that the treatment their opinions receive in the college classroom goes a long ways toward how they’ll remember, evaluate and value their education– frankly, what they take away from the hard work we as instructors make it our mission to provide.
The good news for higher education is that large majorities still view hallmarks of American democracy, Lockean ideals such as checks and balances, free and open elections, and the right to assemble peacefully, as being fundamental to the survival of our society. What remains to be seen, however, is how the American university will address the issue of why it is so unpopular with such a large proportion of the American population. These problems are thrown to the forefront when, as in recent years, the mainstream political party that embraces academic institutions proves itself fully impotent to address issues relating to working-class economics and near-completely incapable of winning elections at many local, state and federal levels.
Should we re-invent ourselves as academics? Or, as I contend, is now the perfect time, the ideal kairos, to re-consider the values of academic institutions with an increased emphasis on critical information evaluation and on popular rhetorics and ideologies as they exist and are continually re-made in our culture? In other words, might we re-consider the university’s role in the cultivation and nurturing of young minds, steering them toward old ideals of truth, transparency and openness? Might we move toward the Socratic ideal of truth, Sophists of the internet age, reestablishing and reaffirming the dedication of our discipline to our understanding of rhetoric in society, a long-belated move toward a role we should’ve embraced long ago?