Sunday, July 16, 2017

American idiots: Republicans are bored with bashing the media – so now they're going after colleges and universities

By David Usborne
85 per cent of Republicans think a free press is bad for the country – and they’re now turning their attention to professors and colleges across the country because they are ‘indoctrinating’ students.
I don’t know if you’ve had reason lately to worry about the land of the free and where it might be headed. You may have. There’s that person they just elected president, the one who thinks freedom works better with walls and border bans, that free trade is better less free and so on.
It is not so much Donald Trump himself that befuddles – even now some of us struggle to put the word “President” before the name – but that “They The People” voted for him. Our assumptions about the things that bind us suddenly seem uncertain. Unless your name is Nigel Farage.
Well, how about this for concerning? Last week, the Pew Research Centre in Washington DC released a survey suggesting that a majority of Americans who vote or lean Republican now think that universities and colleges are a bad thing, to be avoided. Yes, really. A full 58 per cent of them believe that institutions of higher education have a negative impact on the country. Only 36 per cent of Republicans say colleges benefit it. Harvard? Pish. Princeton? Posh.

This is a rubbish situation for any country, not least one founded on the notion that with a little graft and, above all, learning, the road to prosperity and happiness is open to all. Is this is the birth of Idiot America? I say Idiot not just because disparaging learning seems so dumb, but because this could turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Scorn the halls of academe and they will crumble. And this is new, by the way. Just two years ago, a majority of Republicans saw colleges as a good thing; Democrats by a wide margin thought that then too and still do today. 
The same survey found Republicans deeply suspicious of the media also – a full 85 per cent of them think a free press is bad for the country. That is distressing too, but less surprising. The man they voted into the Oval Office spends a good chunk of each day urinating on even the most august members of the fourth estate. The more august (I’m thinking The New York Times – we can argue another time about CNN) the stronger his flow. 

Trump doesn’t spout every day about colleges. The most obvious exception, however, was back in February when he unleashed an unfriendly tweet against the University of California, Berkeley, when it decided to bar Milo Yiannopoulos, the British far-right agitator, from speaking on campus, after the invitation sparked days of violent protest. Clashes escalated when counter-protestors from the far-right showed up in force to denounce the university for restricting free speech.
The ruckus at Berkeley, however, gives us one grasp-hold in this otherwise perplexing shift of attitudes. Conservative America didn’t care for what the university had done. It saw it capitulating to the “anti-fascist” demonstrators and censoring free speech. Also at play here are the experiments on campuses not just in the US but in Britain too to create so-called “safe spaces” for students to seek shelter from opinions they might find too offensive to handle.
“The yawning gap between universities’ role as citadels of free inquiry and the ugly reality of campus censorship is often the fault of administrators who share the progressive belief that universities must restrict speech to protect the sensitivities of minorities and women,” Peter Berkowitz, a professor at Stanford University, wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “They often capitulate to the loudest and angriest demonstrators just to get controversies off the front page.”  Berkowitz in the same piece urged states to pass laws to block public universities from banning controversial (ie right-wing) speakers from campus. Several states have picked up on the idea. 
I said “Posh” and a turn against so-called elitism has something to do with what’s happening also. Or against the “expert class”. Britain saw something of this also in the Leave campaign last year. If Trump has helped drive a populist backlash against institutions that were once revered and admired, he was not the first Republican to do so. In 2012 Rick Santorum, whose ultra-conservative bid for the GOP nomination that year eventually fizzled, ridiculed Barack Obama for wanting to help disadvantaged Americans access further education. “President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college,” he said. “What a snob. There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor that [tries] to indoctrinate them.”
Then we have Peter Thiel, the libertarian billionaire, Trump booster and co-founder of PayPal, touring the country openly dismissing its top-tier universities as overpriced cons which all would-be future innovators and thinkers should spurn. Earlier this year he actually taunted young people to drop out of their universities and accept scholarship money from him to learn how to start a company just like he did. It’s called the Thiel Fellowship. Harvard President Larry Summers scorned the idea as, “the single most misdirected bit of philanthropy in this decade”.

If this new fashion for berating academe endures or deepens the risk of long-term damage is real. Two years after the University of Missouri effectively gave in to protestors accusing it of ignoring a pattern of racist bigotry on campus – its president and campus chancellor were both forced to resign – an ensuing backlash has contributed to a 35 per cent drop in enrolment. 
Public universities, like Berkeley, depend moreover on state legislatures to give them much of the funding they need to keep operating and, most importantly, to offer the grants that make it possible for poorer students even to consider enrolling. Republicans now control either the office of governor or the legislature in no fewer than 44 states. It already yields political dividends for conservatives to bash the media. So why not wield the same cudgel against universities?
The reason, you’d hope, would be clear. Idiot America is not a brand to aspire to.

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