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Dec. 9, 2019

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Jayne: Higher education is a good thing

By , Columbian Opinion Editor
Published: August 25, 2019, 6:02am

There are, one would think, some things we can agree on.

Oh, we might differ on whether President Donald Trump is making America great again or whether the Rolling Stones were better than the Beatles or whether tofu should count as food. These are important discussions yet open to opposite opinions. But some things should generate near-universal agreement.

One would think that, wouldn’t one?

Among those items of presumed agreement is the importance of education and the value thereof. For generations — nay, millennia — education has been regarded as the portal to personal success and the advancement of humanity.

There is a reason Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press is the most significant invention of the past 1,000 years — it brought knowledge to the masses. And there is a reason Thomas Jefferson wrote, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

Which brings us to the point of this exercise. A poll released last week by Pew Research claims that 38 percent of Americans believe colleges have a negative impact on the United States.

That’s not people saying, “Oh, colleges probably could be better” or “colleges are a bit too liberal” or “colleges don’t have enough keggers and toga parties.” That’s people saying that higher education is actually detrimental to the United States. More than one-third of the public believes this.

Now, according to “The Columnist’s Guide to Writing Columns” (Funk & Wagnalls, about 1933 or so), at this point I am supposed to launch into a spirited, witty and eloquent defense of the subject at hand. But the idea that higher education is actually bad for the country is so absurd that I am almost at a loss for words. Almost.

That’s not to say that everybody needs to go to college. Or that everybody should go to college. Many a productive, happy, prosperous life has been led without ever having set eyes on an ivy-covered wall. And there is no particular genius in going to college and earning, say, a journalism degree.

But it seems that changing opinions about education fit in with a broader trend of anti-intellectualism in this country that might lead us to do something stupid. You know, like eschew vaccines. Or ignore climate change. Or, oh, I don’t know, elect Donald Trump. Admit it — that was not our brightest moment.

And the interesting thing about this is that Republicans — and independents who lean Republican — are almost solely responsible for the changing attitudes about U.S. colleges. In 2012, according to Pew, 53 percent of Republicans had a positive view of colleges and 35 percent had a negative view. Now, the tally is 33 percent positive and 59 percent negative. Yep, three-fifths of Republicans think college is bad for the country.

The study says Republican antipathy toward book smarts is driven in part by a perception that colleges have gone overboard in coddling and protecting students from the real world (which they have). It also is driven by a perception that colleges are filled with Marxist professors who are turning our kids into the next antifa generation (which is overblown fear-mongering).

Where these thoughts came from I have no idea, but Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, knows. He points to Fox News, telling The Atlantic, “Every story about a university is essentially the same: Somebody on the left did or said a censorious thing that in some way victimizes a conservative.” There are other factors, of course, but Fox News has become the all-purpose bogeyman for liberals.

The point is that in the past 40 years or so, Republicans have grown deeply fearful of education and science. Not all of them. But studies following the 2016 election found that education levels were the best predictor of who voted for the candidate that said, “I love the poorly educated.”

That does not speak well for this country’s future. Ignorance might be bliss, but we should agree that it is not desirable.

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