Politics in this country has become a black-and-white proposition with less and less room for moderation on an issue. As the narrative goes, if you are an African-American then of course are going to vote one way, but if you are a rural white Christian you will certainly vote the other. If you are gay then you will support candidate A, immigrants will support candidate B, and women will certainly favor candidate C over D. We saw these various divisions dissected in the midterm election coverage as pundits and politicians tried to figure out just how many votes they might get from certain districts depending upon its population. How would women react to Trump? How heavily would Republicans rally after the ‘persecution’ of Justice Kavanagh during the confirmation hearings? How would Latinos respond given American reactions to the impending doom that is the “Southern caravan”? All our divisions were on display and neatly quantified for comparison and reflection. But there was one division in America that for many explained winners and losers more than anything else. It was mentioned constantly on every channel, yet it is unexamined relative to assumptions on how race, gender, religion, and other personal characteristics affect politics in America. For me the biggest take away from the midterm elections was the fact that a college education has become a thing that divides us as a country.
College Education and the American Dream
For most of my life I’ve understood a college education to be something inherently associated with the American Dream. As I grew up it was clear that regardless of where you were on the political spectrum a degree allowed you greater opportunities to participate in society. Whether you wanted to be a Wall Street banker or an environmental activist, a DC lobbyist or the next generation of American farmer, I always assumed that the value of an education transcended political division in America. Over time I began to realize that this was not the case. The further I proceeded in my own education the more I realized that for some Americans the process of education itself is just too daunting. But it wasn’t until I became an educator that I realized how much contempt for the education system exists within our society. And it wasn’t until last night that I realized how much education in general has become the most important source of political division in America.
It is important that I admit a significant bias upfront in that most of the key failures and successes in my life have revolved around education. To say that I was a troubled youth in high school would be an understatement and the experience was capped by my decision to drop out three months before graduation. I spent the next 10 years of my life making up for that mistake and the 10 years after that getting everything I could out of the education system. I think the greatest aspect of the American Dream is that it is defined in almost the same way as the concept of faith: everyone uses similar terms, but the exact definitions are often personal and hard to express to others. My American Dream depends on acquiring as much knowledge as possible and then passing it on to anyone who wants it. As a student, an educator, and an involved citizen I believe that regardless of your politics, religion, gender, or nationality the pursuit of knowledge is both a means and an end. Thus, it is shocking to see the idea of being ‘uneducated’ becoming a badge of honor while the educated are increasingly a source of mistrust and derision.
America’s Newest Class Division: Education
During the ceaseless coverage of the midterms over the last two weeks one group was mentioned more than any other, “college-educated white women.” The issue at stake was the president’s history of misogynistic statements and behaviors with the assumption being that a certain number of women would vote against candidates and policies endorsed by the president out of disgust and anger. It was interesting how often being college-educated was assumed to be the key factor, and yet was never actually discussed. The assumption is that the political differences between being college educated or not are as ‘obvious’ as the differences between men and women. While the latter has been the focus of endless studies, analyses, and reports, the former has received almost no attention at all. This is nothing new of course as a person’s level of education has long been known to be an important indicator of their political opinions. What is new is the growing level of anti-intellectualism in America symbolized by mistrust for the education system and anyone who uses it to pursue ‘liberal versions’ of the American Dream. The problem for the American education and political systems is that education by its very nature tends to liberalize individuals, while also being essential to the continued technological advancements driving the American economy today. The result will be a paradox where increasing numbers of Americans distrust the very thing empowering our nation’s advancement.
There has always been a correlation between increased levels of education and voting liberal in America. The simplest explanation for this is that as exposure to new ideas increases, individuals begin to feel a greater connection to the world around them and are less conservative when it comes to engaging social change. The connection between American education systems and liberalism crystallized during the 1960s in conjunction with the Anti-war and Civil Rights movements. There was a predictable response amongst conservatives symbolized most by a disdain for ‘liberal college hippies’ who they believed were using the education system to ferment unpatriotic sentiment in America. The use of the country’s universities as political battlegrounds continued into the 1970s with a truce being called once they started to become the source of the computer revolution that would overtake America and the world in 1980s. With the explosion of new technologies and industries since the end of the Cold War education was an unquestioned component of both the American Dream and America’s future. But the pace of growth combined with the increasing complexity of the education necessary to participate in it meant that large numbers of individuals were being left behind economically and intellectually. It was these individuals who became most disillusioned with the government, political correctness, the environment, international issues, and anything else beyond the frustrating daily grind they believed their lives had become. It was these individuals who also formed the Tea Party in 2008, and who represent the hard-core of the conservative right today. For many conservatives these issues have not only caused turmoil and upheaval in their communities, they have also been advanced (i.e. researched, reported on, advocated for, etc.) most often by ‘educated elites’ through the University system. The result for political culture in America has been the development of a broad conservative anti-intellectualism and disdain for ‘liberal education’ in general.
The Future of American Anti-Intellectualism
One of my biggest concerns about the Trump phenomenon is that it will lock into place a social divide in America between those who believe education is part of the American dream versus those who believe it is a tool of conspiracy and oppression. This divide has the potential to create two rival America’s whose conflicts and disdain for one another would dwarf what we see between Democrats and Republicans today. As much as the two parties disagree vehemently on just about everything, at least they are using the same language to do so. As education increasingly separates Americans, the ability to communicate clearly and directly on these issues will decline. The very words that define some of our most important issues will be less and less understood by parts of the electorate. The most potent illustration of this today is the now deadlocked position of global warming within American politics, although other issues such as vaccinations are impacted too. Regardless of how many improved scientific examinations and explanations are advanced, there are those on the right who steadfastly refuse to accept even the existence of global warming. The increased availability of knowledge on the topic only reinforces their belief that climate change itself is a hoax being perpetrated by the liberal scientific community. There is no tipping point at which a significant portion of climate change deniers will suddenly be convinced with the evidence. Instead their ranks will continue to grow as the complexity and urgency of the information on the left reinforces the narrative on the right. And as the role of education increases in importance relative to the most important issues in our country today, so too will the intractability of individuals who are both unwilling and unable to understand the discussion.
It is this last component of the education divide in America that is most alarming. The president’s coining of the phrase ‘fake news’ was an astute political move meant to capture this new anti-intellectualism. He made it okay to question every day ‘truth and facts’ as an extension of the already existing distrust of advanced education and intellectual elitism. Conservatives have not rejected education in general by any means. Rather, they have begun developing alternative education systems that they believe shelter them from the false and potentially threatening lessons that make up the liberal education system in America today. Homeschooling, private schools, and religious schools have all grown exponentially over the last two decades, and almost exclusively amongst conservatives. While public school systems continue to vary wildly in quality across urban, suburban, and rural communities, they are also guaranteed to be more diverse and liberal in their acceptance of different ideas and perspectives. Combine this with the continuing increase in the cost of education in general and there are very few incentives to bridge the chasm that now exists. The great irony of this is that I was always taught that only the exchange of ideas through education can create bridges of understanding.