Wednesday, July 12, 2017
Ignorance is bliss?
A majority of Republicans now tell Pew Research pollsters that colleges and universities have a negative impact on the U.S. That's a big change from just two years ago, and it's most pronounced among people who identify themselves as conservative.
Now why would they think that? What is the negative impact we purportedly have? I suppose the place to start in trying to figure that out is what we actually do.
First, obviously, we educate young people. What does "educate" mean? It actually has several components, which I will get to.
Second, we do research. We work to increase human understanding of the universe, including humans and human society. We do this based on standards for observation and inference, upon which there is a substantial area of broad agreement but considerable disputation around the edges. These vary somewhat among disciplines, some of which allow for a substantial values component in their discourse, others of which at least pretend to have little or none.
Our standards for observation and inference have a lot to do with the nature of the education we provide. Students do memorize facts. They also learn methods of inference and critical thinking. They learn how to distinguish categories -- what is, what ought to be, what is beautiful -- and to talk about each of these in the manner proper to its nature. They learn skills for learning. They learn logic, critical reading, methods of discourse and argumentation. Colleges and universities produce people with the knowledge and skills to expand scientific knowledge, manage enterprises, develop technology, solve problems. Without colleges and universities, we would be living like people in the 15th Century. We wouldn't have modern medicine, or telecommunications. Colleges and universities also train actors, musicians, film makers, chefs, architects, public policy makers, and engineers.
So what is bad about them? Let's go back to those categories -- the true, the good, the beautiful.
Being a conservative Republican nowadays requires believing some things that are objectively not true. Most notably, it requires believing that human activity is not causing the climate to change. It is people working in universities who are determining that yes, that is really happening. (Also, there's that little question of evolution and the history of the universe.) People in universities, including in schools of public health such as where I work, also figure out that people can be harmed or helped by features of their physical and social environment, which provides the rationale for policies such as pollution control, early childhood education, expanded health care access, and yes, gun safety policies. Note that conservatives have literally forbidden federal funding of research in the latter field -- truth that is contrary to ideology is not to be discovered.
I could go on with this but the bottom line is, reality has a well-known liberal bias. We study reality, and that's bad.
But the good and the beautiful matter as well. It was not always the case, but universities nowadays strive to be inclusive and celebratory of diversity. We encourage open debate and dissent. Now, lately there have been some highly publicized controversies -- in fact they are very few and far between -- about invitations to particular speakers who some members of a university community find offensive. These happen to be people called "conservative," which in these instances means racist and/or misogynist. Whether allowing these people to speak or not is proper is a debate I will defer. The point here is that racism and other forms of bigotry and exclusion are not generally condoned in colleges and universities, but they are condoned among conservative Republicans. So we have a disagreement over the good.
Finally there is that question of the beautiful. I expect that many people who consider themselves conservatives also have a feeling that people with college educations look down on their culture. This isn't actually true, for the most part. Some well-to-do people are snobbish, of course. And there are no doubt differences in artistic, culinary or sartorial preference among people of differing levels of education. But I can assure you that working class and low income people are just as valued and respected as wealthier people, if not more so, here in the school of public health and elsewhere in the university. We really are working to make life better for everyone, especially those in most need. And please don't confuse us with politicians.