Will Distrust of Colleges Increase Our Economic and Political Divide?

(photo courtesy of Nathaniel Givens…I think)

Since the 2016 Election, a lot of effort has been devoted to understanding why different groups voted the way they did and what it says about our society. That analysis is interesting, but incredibly complex, since so many factors play a part in why someone votes a particular way. For example, the key Midwest states that helped swing the election could have been decided based on a desire to bring back coal jobs, a general distrust of Clinton, or resentment that Obama didn’t do enough to address their concerns. Who knows?

What we can see is growing social divide in how people view themselves and the respective parties. This effect, known as polarization, can lead to extreme positions, which aren’t always good for making sound decisions. Polarization is created when a group of like-minded people find themselves isolated from external positions and drive the members of the group into a more extreme version of the mindset that caused them to enter the group in the first place. For example, if you took a room full of new mothers, some of whom believe that breast feeding is the best way to nurture a baby and others of whom believe using formula is fine, and separated them into groups based on their viewpoints, you would find the members of each group will push the group as a whole to more vehement versions of the initial viewpoints.

 

I want to focus on a particular version of this polarization that is manifesting in the U.S. right now, based on political affiliation. According to a recent survey, people who self-identify as Republicans are becoming more and more convinced that colleges and universities are having a negative effect on the country. Here is the chart of this shift:

Note the years. Up until late 2015, Republicans saw colleges as mostly a positive in American life. They were more suspicious (as a group) than Democrats, but seemed to acknowledge that higher education was a good thing, overall. A vocal minority, of course, has accused colleges of liberal indoctrination for at least as long as talk radio has been a thing, but only in the last couple of years has this mistrust surged.

What has changed? I’m not sure, and I’m guessing there are lots of theories. While there is some evidence that conservatives in the U.S. (again, not all, but a certain strain…this is the last time I’ll qualify this, but assume it in other cases) have intentionally undermined the very notion of science for largely political reasons. There is also a tendency to associate higher education with elitism, an idea that was certainly in play during President George W. Bush’s terms. Again, though, the chart above shows a dramatic shift in recent years; so we need to look at something more recent.

Perhaps it’s the Climate Change Denialist movement, which has presented science as a monolithic, agenda-based movement that is somehow involved in a vast conspiracy to kill coal jobs (for reasons unknown….big money from somewhere is the usual claim). Scientists are associated with universities, and so universities are bad? Or maybe it’s the fact that professors lean to the left, despite the fact that there is little evidence that this results in indoctrinating students. Still, even the perception could be the problem here.

Ultimately, the reasons don’t matter, because the view is what is important. The U.S. has a growing inequality problem. Wages have been in stagnation since the 1980s, though this story is a bit complicated. What is less in doubt is that there is an economic divide between rich and poor that is not improving. What we also know is that while college is no longer a guarantee of a well-paying, fulfilling job, it is still most often a necessary step to receiving such a job. Put in logic terms, it is necessary, but not sufficient for getting a job for the average person.

If Republican parents discourage their children from going to college in fear of some sort of liberal indoctrination, this will be a huge detriment to those children. I do not mean to suggest that college is a panacea for society’s ills. I could write a series of articles on problems with Higher Education and the ways in which it needs reform. However, it is still the best way to get ahead in life, especially if you come from a lower class background. That degree opens doors for you.

Many of the states that tend to vote Republican are among the lowest in the country in terms of education levels, quality of education, and percentage of higher education. A sharp rise in skepticism toward education will only exacerbate this issue, creating a deeper divide in the political tribalism that exists in the U.S.

So, how do we avoid this? I’m not sure. The best way, ironically, would be through education! Unfortunately, the current President does not seem to value universal education policies. The appointment of Betsy Devos doesn’t help. Her policies in Michigan were disastrous for the lower classes, and really the state in general. She is a proponent of privatizing colleges and universities, and even K-12 schooling, which tends to favor the wealthy who can afford the fees associated with privatization.

I would usually say that parents should encourage their children to get a college degree. Mine certainly did, and I was raised in a family where a secondary education was pretty much assumed. But if the only parents doing this are liberal parents, we will end up with a country in which conservatives are less educated and perhaps continue to resent those who are more educated. That’s not a good recipe for working together in the future.

Unfortunately, this article is based mostly on pointing out the potential for future problems in this area. If I had better solutions, I would offer them. If you have some, I’d like to hear them!

The Importance of Travel

When I was around 12 years old, I was given an opportunity to travel to Europe as part of a trip sponsored by my school. I was taking French at the time, and it seemed like it could be fun. Unfortunately, there were some terrorist activities around that time, and I got scared and didn’t want to go anymore. While I travelled a great deal in the U.S., I would not leave the country until nearly 30 years later. In hindsight, I regret this. Traveling outside of one’s own country is essential for understanding the world. It broadens the mind, increases overall empathy, and enforces one’s own identity, while simultaneously offering perspective, both historic and geographic.

I will soon be going back to Italy, a country that became one of my favorite places almost as soon as I arrived. Walking through the winding streets of Florence (Firenze in Italian) takes you back in time to a world where art was less utilitarian and more grandiose. You get a sense of the awe that the artists felt towards the universe and our place within it. Also, like many other European cities, Florence has the ability to leave you dumbstruck as you turn around a corner and suddenly come face to face with one of humankind’s greatest creations.

My first full experience of this in Italy was coming upon The Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore). I’d seen it in pictures; I’d climbed it in a video game (Assassin’s Creed 2). Coming face to face with such a monument, however, is an entirely different experience. It reminds me of a concept I first encountered through the aesthetic musings of Immanuel Kant, a philosopher more famous for his views on ethics than art. Kant describes the feeling that he calls ‘the sublime’. While hard to summarize in a blog post, the basic idea is this: sometimes we experience the vastness of the universe and the insignificance of ourselves within it. At the same time, we can derive a kind of comfort from feeling safe while in the presence of something truly awesome (I mean that in the original sense of the term—something that leaves us speechless and unable to fully communicate our experience). The Duomo does that to me. As I stand before it, I understand the significance of a word like ‘magnificent’, which etymologically means ‘a great making’. Humans built this edifice. Someone conceived it part of this structure, and someone built it. It inspired others to do great things, and now it is inspiring me.

These moments dissolve us into the universal, allowing us to transcend our individual lives and become one with humanity itself. Time ceases to stream; the moment stretches into infinity.

Put simply, you almost never experience this in your home city, regardless of where you were raised. I grew up in Hunstville, Alabama. It is the home of the Space and Rocket Center, a museum dedicated to U.S. space exploration. As you drive past it, you can see a Saturn V rocket, one of the greatest accomplishments of the 20th Century. Visitors are often fascinated by this scene, but I grew up with it. The main affect it has on me is to remind me that I’m back home, but it’s certainly not the transcendent feeling I get with The Duomo or the Pantheon or any other number of famous monuments or works of art.

Only through travel can we have these moments. And it doesn’t end with the monuments. When you visit a country where people speak a different language and live very different lives, you begin to see how petty most of your concerns are. The world becomes both much larger and much smaller at the same time. You recognize a vast variety of different cultures, values, and priorities, but at the same time you realize that many of them exist only hours apart from each other. Europe is particularly good for this experience, since we tend to think of England, France, Italy, Germany, etc. as different worlds. Yet, they sit right next to each other, in areas about the size of U.S. states.

I believe that everyone should experience this at least once in life, but ideally more than that. We should all be given the time and opportunity to experience different cultures. Once there, take a moment to immerse yourself in a different point of view. Don’t be an American in another country, forcing it to accede to your demands. Be a guest, ready to be accepted into another person’s home.

If you take this attitude, you will find yourself welcome practically anywhere. When we visited France, we had been told that the French people are not particularly accommodating. They do not like when you try to speak their language, and they are quick to dismiss Americans in particular. That was not my experience at all! The French people were very friendly to us, and most were very patient with my terrible accent and sparse vocabulary when trying to speak their language.

Granted, Italy offers a whole different level of hospitality. At our first stop to eat in Florence, the waiter called me ‘Generalissimo’ and my partner ‘Principessa’. I was the general, and she was my princess. It was cute, friendly, practically flirtatious, and very welcoming. There was nothing condescending about it. When we visited another restaurant, we were asked to become members of the club. After filling out the paperwork, our hostess said (in Italian, which my partner translated) “This is now your home, too!”

Such experiences remind us that we part of a huge world, but one united by common needs and values. You cannot gain this knowledge through reading, or watching videos of people in other places, or even from reading this blog. You have to go to these places and have them become a part of your phenomenological being. They will then live in you and you will live in them for the rest of your life.

So, the next time, you are given an opportunity to travel abroud, whether you are 12, 42, or 72, take it. Do not wait. Take it, and when the next opportunity arrives, take it again. As the famous essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson notes, “Life only avails, not the having lived.” Travel is life, so go live already!