Friday, March 16, 2012

Conservatives and Higher Education

This study finding that only 21% of American conservatives have a favorable view of college professors and doubt the value of higher education more broadly is unsurprising:
"The importance of ideology to the value that the typical American attaches to higher education is tremendous. When I construct a statistical model that accounts for a person's income, gender, education, race, where they live, and whether or not they are the parent of a minor child -- conservatism is the single most powerful predictor of whether a person thinks a college education is important to financial success, the effect a person thinks college has on political ideology, and their opinion of college professors. In fact, political ideology is more strongly associated with a person's views on college professors than it is their views on President Obama! When compared to liberals, the amount that conservatives discount the value of college is about the same amount that persons with high school diplomas discount college when compared with college graduates."

I found myself reflecting on this last week when I was on a panel at a Shippensburg University Criminal Justice Department symposium on the death penalty. I was there to add an international perspective, talking about the death penalty in the Middle East. The other three speakers talked about the economics of the death penalty, the history of executions in the United States, and public opinion on the topic. The question period, however, was dominated by conservatives who were apparently inclined to disregard the established ground rules that the symposium was not a political debate and aggressively question whether the panel was adequately balanced with people for and against capital punishment.

For the record, I do not know where my colleagues stood on the topic, and I was not asked when I was recruited. If I had answered, I would have said I oppose capital punishment because it is so differentially applied based on factors such as race and income, and because I don't trust courts enough to be able to dispense such ultimate justice in a fair and efficient way. The former probably qualifies as a liberal reason, whereas the latter aligns with a conservative suspicion of human reason leading to a desire to limit government power. The woman moderating the panel, trying to keep it on track and away from the "Are you politically balanced?" diversion, said she would favor the death penalty as long as it was applied to everyone who committed similar heinous crimes.

The question on my mind, however, is what I or anyone else would have said differently if our opinions were different? The application of the death penalty in Morocco and Saudi Arabia is what it is. The same is true of the rates of execution represented in graph form in American history, as well as preferred methods of education. I'm assuming that my colleague from political science did not falsify her data on continuing public support for the death penalty even as states move away from it. In other words, our opinions on what should happen was completely irrelevant to our portrayal of the way the world was.

This leads me to wonder, in my own discipline of history, what would be different if I had more conservative colleagues. There are, in fact, reputable conservative historians, but a lot of the basic information and interpretations isn't in dispute. The biggest thing you would have instead, I think, is different coverage. Conservatives might spend more time on the successes of the American political system at the expense of most African-American and women's history. Military history would also have a more prominent place in the academy. You would also, almost certainly, see the choice to have more "Western Civilization" courses and fewer "World History" ones.

That last division is the clearest example I can find pointing to what I think is a core part of the conservative discontent with higher education in the humanities and social sciences, and that is a view of education as an incubator of group loyalty in which people learn about their heritage. At this point, I want to qualify generalizations based on political movements, particularly those as large and, even today, as diverse as "conservatism." I do think, however, that the dominant trend of conservative approaches to history and literature is as I have described it. When faculty discuss curriculum, however, we usually think about what knowledge we perceive students as needing, and in a diverse world, that often involves knowledge of the Other. In history, we try to point out important themes, trends and events, but as far as I can tell no one kids themselves that we can dictate through what philosophy, religious convictions, or other value systems students process them.

This leads inexorably, I think, to what I see as the core flaw of today's American conservatism, and that is its failure of empathy. If the only knowledge you value is that which buttresses your own group identity, then you cannot understand the perspectives of others, and you often see them simply as malignant and threatening forces which alter and perhaps threaten the world you hold dear. It is this sort of logic that leads so many conservatives to see, in a contraception mandate clearly laid out as a response to concerns of women, one battle in a "War on Christianity" which is perhaps an expansion of a "War on Christmas." Given your frame of reference, you wind up seeing everything as about you. Much of contemporary conservatism is, in effect, motivated by a sense of victimization that is blind to the trials of others.

This is ultimately bad for conservatism as a philosophical position in American politics, as well as for the conservative Christianity that many conservatives claim is their primary concern. If you simply demonize people and make them your enemies, you can expect them to respond in kind. The flight of Latinos from the Republican Party is a case in point, as much of the GOP base neither knows nor cares much about them aside from the fact that immigration is perceived as a threat. You might temporarily gain the levers of government power that way, but in the long run, you won't bring about the change in social values you seek.

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