Opinion | The University curriculum is not what liberalizes students

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Madeline Pierce

Crowds gather on the main quad to enjoy the weather during Mom’s Weekend on April 6, 2019.

By Samuel Rahman, columnist

Every political season inevitably starts with candidates framing themselves in the image of the “average American.” These office-seekers are just like you. They portray caricatures.

Here is the question. If you want to win this election as a much-wealthier-than-the-average-American, highly educated, white-collar executive, what caricature do you choose to portray? You can only win via kowtowing to a broader voting base: One beyond your personal descriptors. You need to be a populist.

That is, the salt of the Earth, hearty, hardworking, God-fearing, family-oriented individualist attempting to inch ever closer to the American Dream. 

Unfortunately, some politicians have also taken to lambasting education by adding “anti-intellectual” and “anti-elitist” to the description: Inevitably fomenting animosity and disdain for higher education and public education in general among certain voting blocks.

According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2019, 59 percent of Republicans believe that colleges and universities have “a negative effect on the way things are going in the country.” This is an increase from 35 percent, back in 2012.

The most famous and direct example of anti-university sentiments is Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s comments in 2012.

The indoctrination that occurs in American universities is one of the keys to the left holding and maintaining power in America. And it is indoctrination…If they taught Judeo-Christian principles in those colleges and universities, they would be stripped of every dollar. If they teach radical secular ideology, they get all the government support that they can possibly give them.”

To Mr. Santorum and a good portion of the Republican Party, colleges and universities serve as nothing more but publicly sanctioned anti-religion, radical, politically leftist indoctrination camps.

Similarly, in June 2018, the 45th President of the United States gave a speech to supporters at a rally in Fargo, North Dakota.

We have more money and more brains and better houses and apartments and nicer boats. We are smarter than they are. They say the elite. We are the elite. You are the elite.”

This is important because as of 2017, “Nearly three-fourths of House Republicans represent districts where the share of white adults with a college degree lags below the national average.” In 2018 as reported by The Atlantic’s Adam Harris, exit polls showed “61 percent of non-college-educated white voters cast their ballots for Republicans while just 45 percent of college-educated white voters did so.” 

As Republicans inherited constituencies that fall behind in post-secondary education completion rates, it is easier to score cheap political points by making a less conventionally educated voting base feel as if they are elite and superior to those godless college graduates. 

It is easier to say that obtaining an education is wasteful, expensive, an unsound investment and a mode of indoctrination hellbent on destroying American values. 

It is much harder to actually fight for equal access and lower educational costs for those constituencies so that post-secondary education rates may rise again rather than stagnate then decrease as they have in the last decade.

Economists agree that education is the most effective way to increase lifetime income and raise communities and whole countries out of poverty through investment in human capital. When the financial argument for keeping voters uneducated — so they are statistically more likely to vote Republican — fails, Republican politicians must fall back on their culture war.

Yes, university professors identify as liberal and atheist/agnostic at a greater frequency than Americans overall. It is also true that college graduates are more likely to identify as holding “more liberal attitudes on social issues than their non-college-educated peers.”

But correlation does not equal causation. Neil Gross, sociology professor at Colby College, points out that research shows liberal high school students are more likely to attend college in the first place and that students pursuing bachelor’s degrees actually retain religious faith at higher rates than their non-college counterparts. 

Gross admits college leads to “more liberal attitudes on social issues, in particular on issues of tolerance, of difference and issues of gender equity” but also that post-secondary education has not been shown to change student’s broad political beliefs — size of government, for example.

If we set the bar so low so that “tolerance” is classified as a liberal idea, of course, the college experience liberalizes students. One of the famous Republican presidents in modern memory alleged one racial demographic was composed almost entirely of rapists and drug dealers while another insinuated a different racial demographic was comprised of government leeching welfare queens. 

Now, the moment a student attends college and takes courses alongside members of these demographics and realizes how absurd those propositions are, the student is somehow classified as an indoctrinated leftist by prominent members of the Republican Party and American conservative circles.

Through the combination of liberals being more likely to attend colleges and universities, teaching faculty leaning politically liberal and students becoming more tolerant as a result of meeting individuals out of their conventional demographic, colleges and universities are misleadingly given the reputation of liberal faculty, teaching liberal ideas, creating liberal graduates.

Republican politicians, instead of improving their district’s access to higher education, move to gain cheap political points without fixing the underlying problems of inequity through lambasting universities and declaring their less-educated constituencies the new elites.

Because the Republican Party disproportionately relies on uneducated white voters to win elections, the Party is incentivized to keep their constituencies uneducated and to continue spreading easily debunkable lies about the true liberalizing effect higher education has on students.

At some point, it stops being a choice for candidates to portray the caricature from earlier. There is no way to win the election as a much-wealthier-than-the-average-American, highly educated, white-collar executive if you do not.

Right now, it is either hop along the Party bandwagon of anti-intellectualism, anti-elitism and anti-post-secondary-education sentiments, or lose your election.

Samuel is a junior in LAS.

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