Column: Climb Down From the Ivory Tower

  • Valley News - Shawn Braley

For the Valley News
Saturday, November 19, 2016

The surprising results of the election just past laid bare the economic divide in this country, the haves versus the have-nots. But it also exposed the educational divide in the United States. The two are not unrelated.

Much was made of Donald Trump’s appeal to white voters with no college degree, those who felt left behind by the slow but steady economic recovery following the Bush-Cheney recession. These Americans by and large did not reap the benefits of an improved economy. If you lost your job to outsourcing or to technology, it matters little that the unemployment rate is half what it was eight years ago; you’re still unemployed.

The Republican nominee was able to tap into this resentment, and also to amplify it into a generalized suspicion of “elites,” including political, cultural, media and educational elites. That Trump himself is part of the elite — a billionaire and a media personality who was educated at Fordham and the University of Pennsylvania — apparently did nothing to diminish his credibility as an oracle for the dispossessed. Even his reputation as a developer who treated workers shabbily or his television persona as someone who fires them — or his alleged sexual predation — failed to alienate those who voted him into office.

Despite his own Ivy League credentials, Trump appealed to his base of non-college-educated whites by trotting out the tired charge of political correctness. “In the past few decades, political correctness — oh, what a terrible term — has transformed our institutions of higher education from ones that fostered spirited debate to a place of extreme censorship, where students are silenced for the smallest of things,” Trump told a campaign rally in Ohio. “We will end the political correctness and foster free and respectful dialogue.”

In the shocked aftermath of the election, pundits, many of them liberals in full self-flagellation mode, have seized on this trope as truth and as explanation for the yawning gap between college-educated and non-college-educated Americans. Articles in The Washington Post, the Chronicle of Higher Education and The New York Times have pointed out that colleges and universities are “liberal bubbles.” Nicholas Kristof in the Times notes that the percentage of college professors who identify as conservative, either politically or religiously, lags far behind the affiliations of the general population.

I’m willing to grant that academic discourse sometimes is not as unfettered as it should be. But such punditry about the ideological composition of faculty misses the larger point. The educational divide in this country can be attributed far less to ideology than to the fact that academics rarely speak with anyone outside of the academy.

I’ve long argued, in fact, that colleges and universities are inherently conservative institutions in the sense that change comes slowly and that it’s very difficult to gain tenure without persuading your colleagues of the scholarly merits of your work. A conservative who debunks climate change, for example, will have trouble being tenured in the natural sciences — not because he’s conservative, but because the overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrates that human activity has wreaked havoc on the environment, a development that will have catastrophic long-term consequences. Similarly, a historian who identifies as conservative might want to deny the Turkish massacre of Armenians or the Holocaust, or question the authorship of plays attributed to William Shakespeare, but unless she can muster credible evidence for those claims, her chances of securing a place in the academy are limited.

That’s how it should be. Colleges and universities are conservative in that respect because they demand substantiation. Changes in scholarly consensus happen slowly and incrementally and only as scholars demonstrate to other scholars the persuasiveness of their arguments.

The perception of the academy as elite in this country, therefore, will not be addressed by ramping up the percentage of conservatives in the academy. (Besides, the one thing that conservatives profess to loathe more than anything else about higher education is quotas.)

The problem lies with academics themselves. It’s not merely that we’re not listening to the general public; we also refuse to talk to them. We’re far more comfortable talking with one another, and often in highly technical jargon that is accessible only to an increasingly narrow band of specialists.

Younger scholars learn early in their careers that the surest path to tenure lies in persuading one’s departmental colleagues that you are worthy. Accordingly, they produce highly specialized scholarship, replete with specialized language, that only a specialist can decipher. I know of a department at Dartmouth, for instance, that invites selected colleagues from other universities for closed-door conferences. Dartmouth students and professors, to say nothing of the general public, are barred from the conversation.

One would hope that, especially after tenure, professors would grasp the importance of communicating beyond the academy, that they would recognize such communication as part of their civic duty. It rarely happens, however, and as a consequence, the divide between the academy and the general public grows wider — as evidenced by the election just past.

Let me provide an example. In the 1990s, when I was producing a PBS documentary about the controversy surrounding creationism, I interviewed the late Harvard scientist Stephen Jay Gould. In the course of our conversation he lamented that so much of his valuable research time was consumed with refuting attacks on the scientific credibility of evolution. Nevertheless, Gould recognized his civic duty to do so.

In my field, American religious history, I have spent a great deal of time over the past decade or so dealing with the demonstrably false claims of a faux historian named David Barton. He asserts, all historical evidence to the contrary, that the United States was founded explicitly as a Christian nation. His spurious “research” — which includes manufactured quotations from the founders, by the way — has been adopted by various conservative politicians and by leaders of the Religious Right to justify opposition to gay rights and to the civil liberties of anyone who does not identify as Christian.

I cannot claim that my rejoinders — op-ed pieces and even a couple of books — have reversed the tide. It’s a continuing struggle, but it’s a battle I feel obligated to fight, even though I’d much rather be working on other projects. Academic careers are short, and time is scarce, so I’d much prefer to pursue my own research rather than refute Barton’s nonsense about America’s “Christian origins.”

Sadly, not many academics share this sense of civic obligation to the general public. When was the last time you read a primer on climate change — one pitched to general readers — in the pages of this newspaper, or any other newspaper for that matter? Is it any wonder that Americans elected a candidate who insisted that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese? Or that his likely appointee to head the Environmental Protection Agency is a climate-change denier?

When was the last time you read a theological defense of homosexuality and same-sex marriage in a general interest publication? How often do we hear impassioned defenses of the First Amendment and the separation of church and state?

The insularity of the academy comes at a price. A liberal arts education is far too valuable to be sequestered in colleges and universities; some of its glories and insights should be shared with the broader public — and not in a condescending way. The idea is not to insist that everyone appreciates the nuances of a Beethoven symphony or is conversant with the vagaries of Plato’s Republic (although neither would be a bad thing). Instead, those of us in the academy should ensure that our work never becomes so recondite that we cannot communicate at least something to the general public.

It’s our civic duty. And it may serve to narrow the educational divide so evident in the election just past.

Randall Balmer is chairman of the Religion Department and director of the Society of Fellows at Dartmouth College.