Civility as White Privilege, and Other Reasons why Higher Ed Might Be Losing Republican Support

Civility sucks!

Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell fretted in a recent piece about the diminishing support for higher education she detects among GOP lawmakers. “Republican politicians,” she wrote, “clearly view beating up on colleges as a way to prove their conservative bona fides.”

Why, oh why, might that be? She offers two theories. First, that Republicans and conservatives have lost confidence in colleges. Schools are too liberal, they don’t allow students to think for themselves, and students are learning the wrong things. Or, in the worlds of Donald Trump Jr. last fall, colleges offer the following bargain: “We’ll take $200,000 of your money; in exchange we’ll train your children to hate our country.”

She quotes Arizona State University President Michael Crow to the effect that maybe there’s a teeny, tiny bit of truth to the accusation: “Crow acknowledges that even his prized university has not always had ‘intellectual balance,’ and notes that it has recently developed conservative-leaning programs.”

Rampell might gain some added insight by reading Steve Salerno’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today, headlined, “‘White-Informed Civility’ Is the Latest Target in the Campus Wars.” Salerno describes how in some quarters, professors are arguing that the concept of civility is a manifestation of white hegemony.

“Finally, there’s a recognition in the academic space that the way argument has taken place in the past privileges certain types of people over others,” Joe Leeson Schatz, director of speech and debate at Binghamton University, told the Atlantic. “Arguments don’t necessarily have to be backed up by professors or written papers. They can come from lived experience.”

In other words, no amount of mere “facts” or “logic” can trump the lived experience of the oppressed. Logic such as this, combined with the larger assault on the western intellectual canon of “dead white men,” creates the impression that colleges are spinning out of control. Admittedly, extreme examples plucked from places such as Howard University, Towson State, and even the University of Arizona are not typical of all universities everywhere, much less than the institutions here in Virginia. But extreme examples feed the sense that higher education is increasingly hostile to the values of Republicans and conservatives. And it is not illogical for legislators ask, “Why subsidize those who hate everything I believe in?”

Rampell sees another reason for the declining support — Americans are losing faith in the payoff from a college degree.

In an August Wall Street  Journal/NBC News survey, most Republicans, rural residents, and people who consider themselves poor or working class said college isn’t worth the cost. This is even though higher education averages a much bigger return than any other major investment: the occupations requiring at least some postsecondary education are projected to have the fastest job growth and highest earnings in the coming decade; and for those born at the bottom of the income distribution, a college diploma is key to achieving upward social mobility.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. The average college graduate encompasses a broad range of people from elite prep school valedictorians who scored double-barreled 800s on their SATs to those who were socially promoted through an inner city school and read at an 8th-grade level. Lump together Harvard-graduate hedge fund managers with State U shoe salesmen at JC Penney and, yes, they make a pretty good income on average. But the average is a meaningless figure for those on the margin. Most poor or working class kids will earn less than the average. What’s more, poor kids are at significantly higher risk of dropping out of college without graduating and accumulating significant student-loan debt in the process.

Rampell is an enabler of the higher-ed status quo, I surmise, because (a) she finds the college environment to be ideologically and philosophically hospitable, so bias against Republicans doesn’t bother her very much; (b) she buys the line that tuition increases are driven primarily by cutbacks in state financial support at the behest of mean ol’ Republicans rather than by out-of-control costs; and (c) despite her Princeton education, she cannot grasp the difference between the average and marginal utility of a college degree.