Reactionary politics have never been kind to academia. While a well-educated population is deemed a pillar of a democratic society and strong economy, authoritarian regimes in contrast have a dark history of mistreatment of students and academics. China’s cultural revolution, Mussolini’s persecutions of leftist intellectuals, and the Nazi book burnings show how order and state loyalty took priority over free thought and education. From Cambodia’s communist Pol Pot regime to Spain’s fascist Franco regime, members of the “intelligentsia” have suffered under the hands of populist autocrats. While current American institutions do not allow such drastic threats, anti-intellectualism is as fundamental to populist fervor as nativism and racism.
As recently as 2015, the favorability of universities has plummeted among those on the right, with 80% of conservatives viewing universities negatively, a higher disapproval rating than for even Islam and labor unions. This uptick in anti-university fervor should be frightening to all Americans, as it threatens the U.S.’s leading role in global higher education. During the recent tax reform debate, the House of Representatives proposed a tax plan that would have reduced $65 billion of university tax benefits over ten years. The right was willing to weaken the status of American higher education, threatening economic growth, mobility, and global status, just to save what amounts to chump change in the scope of the entire budget. While the attempt failed, the tax debate was just the beginning of an anti-education agenda.
Anyone who has heard the latest stories about left-wing activism on college campus won’t have a hard time figuring out the source of colleges’ unpopularity among the right. News stories on campus “PC culture,” “speaker shutdowns,” and activist violence are not just prevalent in right-wing media, but are commonplace in even mainstream outlets. It’s not difficult for the actions of a handful of students in unknown but elite colleges to lead commentators to conclude that there is a “Free Speech Crisis” on American campuses. Universities are often portrayed by the media as violently liberal and overly sensitive, especially in the presence of alt-right provocateurs. The narrative told is of intolerant students demanding safe spaces and enforcing PC culture, and liberal professors pushing their radical ideology onto vulnerable students. But anyone who spends time on a college campus—such as, for example, actual students—would be skeptical of this media portrayal of day-to-day campus life.
These myths about what colleges are like need to be challenged, starting with the supposed “free speech” crisis on college campuses. The controversial antics of student demonstrators, including shouting down campus speakers, shaming professors, and creating safe spaces tend to attract plenty of media attention that portrays an entire generation as hostile to the right to free speech. But in reality, the perception of intolerant, First Amendment-hating students is hugely overblown and needs to be called out. A study by the Knight Foundation finds that students are more likely than U.S. adults to say that college should “expose students to all types of speech and viewpoints” over saying “colleges should prohibit biased or offensive speech.” While students believe that there should be some restrictions on what can be seen as hate speech, this sentiment is also shared by a similar portion of Americans. Americans on the whole support free speech in the abstract, while also supporting restrictions in more specific cases, with students’ views largely conforming to these wider American views. Support for free speech has been largely increasing, with college students more likely to be willing to provide a platform for controversial speakers than non-college students, even for racist speakers. The notable trend, however, is that liberals have become less tolerant of racist speakers, but are still more likely than conservatives to be more overall tolerant of controversial speakers and ideas, casting serious doubt on an inherently lefist issue with free speech. Students are found after their first year of college to become even more open to free speech . And college graduates, while left-leaning, are more open to different political opinions than they were before college, casting serious doubt on the notion of higher education as indoctrination. While media anecdotes tell one story, the statistics show that college students, liberals especially, are overall more tolerant of controversial opinions than the average American.
So why have we been hearing so much about free speech on campus? This is due to the “availability heuristic,” in which opinions are shaped based on available examples. “Do I think there a free speech crisis? Well I just saw a video of rambunctious Middlebury students, so there must be!” The “free speech on campus” storyline reported by the media inflates viewers perceptions on the prevalence of these controversial antics. The issue is worsened by the political nature of free speech on campus, as one side uses it as a way to score points against who they dub the “liberal elite,” not for upholding the First Amendment. It is used as political rhetoric more than for addressing an actual crisis or upholding any actual principle. As expressed by Chris Ladd of Forbes, “Conservatives aren’t sending Ann Coulter to Berkeley as a missionary. They are sending her to get B-reel footage they can play in fundraising pitches to aging Alabamians. She is there to incite violence.”
While some may be concerned with the rise in student activism, this can be attributed to students being more likely to have political opinions upon entering college, likely as a result of technology. It may be better for students to develop political opinions early in college so these ideas may be challenged in an environment that fosters free thinking and debate, rather than in private sector companies, where free speech is at the mercy of the human resources department, which, oddly enough, hasn’t received nearly the same scrutiny as college campuses.
However, what these portrayers of campus free speech often exclude from their arguments is that “free speech” backlash is highly political. For instance, one speaker shutdown that the free speech media must have missed is of Cal State Northridge, where the biographer of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was shouted down by Armenian students. This is a “free speech on campus” issue like any other and would have been a perfect chance for right-wing news to display the lack of tolerance and etiquette at a liberal California college. Had the speaker been an alt-right Trump supporter, the campus would have been swarmed with media attention putting pressure on college administrators. In fact, when the left and the right try to disinvite speakers, it is the right that is often more successful. The same people who condem students for their unwillingness to listen to new ideas are the same people that try to prevent certain leftist groups, like those that may be deemed anti-Israel, from speaking on campuses.
And while these alt-right speakers typically travel to campuses across the country without incidence, the right fails to uphold the same standards for their political opponents that they demand for themselves. Conservative pundits and politicians who have been critical of withdrawals of university invitations and speaker shutdowns have been silent as their own side has been responsible for these same actions. While there are certainly individual cases of controversial antics from university students and faculty that most rational people will disagree with, like heckling and banning course material for the sake of political correctness, these decisions are often reversed once they become subject to debate, either within the institution or a through broader national discourse. Of course, unless the speech comes from the right, there’s little hope of it obtaining a wide national audience. This is because it’s never been about defending the right to speech; it’s been about sticking it to the liberal coastal elites, holding them up to a standard that the right itself fails to uphold.
There’s also a prevalent idea that colleges fail to foster conservative values and instead indoctrinate students with liberal opinions. College professors’ alleged liberalism is seen as a threat to an unbiased education. But partisanship isn’t just true for college professors. Based on a survey of professionals, science, legal, and medical professionals tend to lean left, while law enforcement, the military, and financial professionals tend to lean right. Perhaps it’s more important for educators than for other professionals to be unbiased, but the same could be said for law enforcement and the military. Yet, I have not heard any liberal commentators demanding more Democrats in the police. If anything, professors have been a moderating force on the more extreme views of students, challenging students’ initial beliefs and leading them open up to new ideas, rather than radicalizing them.
If a particular ideology fails to take hold in an environment that promotes hard thinking, fact-based debate, and the general pursuit of knowledge, then chances are it’s a bad ideology. If professors have become less conservative, it has more to do with the degradation of American conservatism than with professors themselves. The party of Trump will certainly attract fewer intellectuals than the party of Reagan. And it is not a coincidence that professors were becoming more liberal right as the Republican party started to redefine conservatism in 1994. Former White House Aid to Ronald Reagan, Bruce Bartlett, who had left the GOP around that same time, writes that the Trump phenomenon “is the culmination of everything I hated about the Bush-Gingrich era Republican Party that drove me out, especially the anti-intellectualism.” This anti-intellectualism of the right explains why professors started leaving conservatism (or what the GOP was doing to conservatism) in droves. The right willfully traded academia for the lowest common denominator. And rather than change course, Republicans have gone full speed ahead on Donald Trump’s crazy train while blaming academics for getting off. The right seems to abandon ideas of the free market when it comes to their ideas on college campuses. Rather than letting the best ideas win out among students and educators in an environment of learning and debate, they demand their ideology to be accepted.
The right’s attack on universities, far from representing a simple disconnect between cultures or regions, has had serious consequences for public policy. The recent debate on the tax bill presented conservatives with an opportunity to appease their constituents by going after colleges, with the GOP house tax bill aiming to cut tax benefits to higher education by $65 billion over the decade. Trump’s campaign economic strategist Stephen Moore made clear that the House Tax Bill is “death to Democrats….They go after university endowments, and universities have become playpens of the left.” And with the repeal of the state and local tax deduction, states will have difficulty collecting revenues to continue funding their higher education institutions, at a time when funding has already been at historic lows since the Great Recession.
Education has long been deeply valued, dating back to the founding of the nation and spanning throughout its existence. Despite their deep philosophical divides, the founding fathers, whose principles the right claims to uphold, were united in their praise of education. Thomas Jefferson even considered education to be “the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power” (not guns). And prioritizing higher education has also been a policy priority throughout American history. Land grants to public universities in the 1850s (which amazingly have had effects on regional development today) and the infamous G.I. bill of the 1950s, which has provided hundreds of thousands of Americans with access to higher education, show how much Americans value investing in the next generation.
By focusing policy to increase college attainment, national income would grow, economic opportunity would increase, and, unlike the Republican tax plan, such a program could pay for itself.A recent study has even shown that cancelling all student loans, which would cost about as much as the Republican tax bill, would do more for economic growth and distributional fairness and place less strain on the debt than the tax bill. However, we won’t get anywhere solving the real student debt crisis with all the fixation on the supposed “free speech crisis.”
The Republican Party is the party of crisis. They live off of fear. Whether it’s a Muslim invasion, rapes and murders committed by Mexican immigrants, the government taking away guns, George Soros trying to destroy America, or a “free speech crisis” on campuses, the right knows how to mobilize its base. It knows which stories to present as a violation of American principles by minorities or the liberal elite. That of course doesn’t mean it applies that principle itself; principles are used and discarded when convenient, and it’s the liberals that have to be moral. There’s only a free speech crisis when it’s targeted against conservatives, there’s only a debt crisis when a Democrat is in office, there’s only intolerance when it’s toward Trump voters, bias only exists on the left, and ethical standards are for liberal politicians. The right demands that liberals be more accepting of and willing to discuss conservative ideas, unless those conservative ideas come from Muslim migrants, in which case the right demands intolerance for the sake of Western values. But unless Western values of free speech are used against them, they demand those discarded too. If the left wishes to start winning elections, they have to take something greater than just the moral high ground. They have to challenge stereotypes constantly and call out hypocrisy and nonsense where they see it, even for fear of being partisan or impolite. We have to hold dear our ideas, our books, and our schools. Graduates of America’s proud higher educational institutions are what stand in the way of the dangers of a Kakistocracy, where stupid is power.
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