My alma mater, Michigan State University.
When I began writing this piece a few days ago, it was nearly impossible for me to set aside my own incredulity at the fact that according to a new Pew Research Center poll, a majority of surveyed Republicans now believe that higher education has a negative effect on the country. I wanted to be able to approach this issue neutrally, but now I realize I could never do that – I am part of the elitist, snobby, educated class upon which self-identified conservatives now look with disdain. There is a persistent stereotype of colleges and universities in America that Republicans have promoted over the years, one that paints institutions of higher education as ‘liberal bubbles’ where, as one National Review writer argues, “anyone who dares to express an independent thought” is vilified and ostracized (I do wish the author had given his definition of ‘independent’). On the contrary, anyone who does not follow the conservative frame of thought is typecast as fragile ‘snowflakes’ who are unable to accept any constructive criticism or outside opinions, and who require safe spaces where nothing ‘bad’ can be said or done to them in order to function.
I sincerely tried to uncover a solid argument against higher education. I swear I did. Aside from the heavy financial burdens and physical inaccessibility in rural areas (legitimate concerns nonetheless), I must admit that I have come up empty-handed. Education is the best weapon with which we as citizens can arm ourselves, especially in times as uncertain and unstable as these. The Republican Party has been benefitting from intentionally disarming American citizens of their educational opportunities for decades; they profit from stoking one-minded perspectives toward a number of issues. Take, for example, health care: we all had a good laugh at the many videos of people who didn’t realize that the Affordable Care Act and Obamacare were the same thing, but this is just one example of how a lack of education on important topics can blindside the very people who need help the most. The GOP benefits from a broad, general disinterest in topics like politics because if people aren’t paying attention, they won’t know what is happening until the rug is yanked out from under them – Obamacare, case and point.
In the aforementioned National Review article, the author drones on about the coddling of college students, from their ‘vegan lunches’ down to their nuanced conversations on gender. All dramatics aside, going to college is a life-changing experience. For so many students, it is their first opportunity to live away from home. It is their first opportunity to interact with people from different backgrounds, lifestyles, and ethnicities. It is a time of difficult growth and transformation, a time of questioning one’s identity, and a time of coming to terms with the diversity of the world in which they live. Perhaps before attending college or university, most students interacted solely with people whose lives looked quite similar to their own. While they might encounter others with whom they disagree vehemently about how to exist on this planet, it is this very exposure to difference that makes a strong student and ultimately a strong citizen.
I’m not sure what college or university the author of that article attended, but I have been lucky enough to attend two universities that frustrated and challenged me every single day. I was never, ever coddled. I engaged in demanding dialogue with my peers on a daily basis and even when we disagreed, I could feel myself growing and becoming open to other viewpoints and lifestyles. Even when I wanted to throw my textbook at the wall (which I didn’t, because it was expensive), I knew that exposure to previously unknown perspectives was giving me the tools to exist out in the real world. This is one of conservatives’ favourite arguments – that if we allow colleges to become ‘safe spaces,’ students won’t know how to deal with the real world when they enter it. But there is nothing ‘safe’ about attending university. What college students learn is that with every class they attend, every research paper they write, every stranger they converse with, they are arming themselves with the tools to shape that very real world. They are learning more than equations and research methods; they are learning how to forge the future.
Scorning education has always been a popular technique used to suppress the masses. It is why books have been banned and burned, why the Republican party is currently at war with the free press – because information is education. The GOP knows that its anti-elite, anti-intellectual standpoint does not benefit the people; rather, it benefits the party. If the population at large has a negative viewpoint of higher education, the very foundation of our country, they will soon turn to the Republicans for their education. Humans strive for knowledge, and if they no longer believe in the power or message of colleges and universities, where will they turn? The GOP knows where – straight to them. As they continue in their attempts to discredit the media, all the pieces will slowly fall into place. Republican policy will become gospel. The people will turn to sheep. Worst of all, this is what the GOP so desperately wants – a malleable electorate that takes their every word as the one and only truth, never questioning the information they consume nor the policies that are enacted.
I wanted my conclusion for this piece to focus on the ridiculous costs of higher education, the barriers that prevent impoverished people from even believing that college is a possibility for them, and the blatant inaccessibility of education itself. I wanted to write that instead of lamenting about coddled college students, Republicans should be more concerned with the fact that college is increasingly only available to the wealthiest and most privileged among us. But that isn’t what they want to hear. An educated person is a terrifying person, and Republicans recognize this. Capable of rational, inclusive, broad thought processes, an educated person refuses to follow the masses. An educated person sees falsehoods and lies for what they are, and this is exactly what the Republicans are afraid of. If they continue in their attempts to discredit the free press, I have no doubt that higher education will be next on their list; these two bastions of democracy are essential to the existence of our free nation. We must protect and defend them however possible.