I went to a college graduation on Sunday. Graduations are festive events, when everybody dresses up, smiles a lot, and congratulates everyone else. They are called “Commencements” because the ceremony represents the beginning of a new life as an educated person.
A college education in America is expensive, nearly $100,000 for students at public universities in their home states and over $200,000 at smaller private colleges. But as an investment, that expensive education is clearly worth it. College graduates earn on average nearly twice what those with only a high school diploma earn, which adds up to over $1 million in lifetime wages. The unemployment rate for college graduates is about one-third that of high school graduates.
Some Americans sneer at the idea that a college degree is worth anything. They do not argue with these numbers. Instead they criticize the entire American higher education system as fraudulent brain-washing. I doubt that these critics of American universities and colleges have any idea what actually happens on college campuses.
The distrust of political conservatives for intellectuals and higher education has been a feature of our politics for half a century. Before that conservatives had wielded their political power to shape education in their image, to prevent it from challenging the myths which supported their ideology. When I went to school and college in the 1960s, our lessons and instructors supported the status quo. The subject of history, the most politically dangerous of all disciplines, was written and taught to prevent questioning of political traditions.
James Loewen, and many others, have shown how conservative myths dominated history textbooks which were used then in high schools and universities. Slavery, the antecedent of Jim Crow discrimination, was transformed into a humanitarian effort by well-meaning whites to care for inferior blacks, who were happy in their bondage. Women were portrayed as best realizing their limited potential as home-bound caregivers. They, too, were pleased with their limitations. White men taught these myths, assigned textbooks written by white men, in courses selected and organized by white men, and made sure that when one white man retired, another one was found to take his place.
The few men and women who challenged these ideas and the structure that had created and propagated them had been struck down with the powers of the state during the lengthy postwar period of political repression, lasting long after Joseph McCarthy had been repudiated.
The protests of the 1960s targeted not only segregation and the Vietnam War, but also conservative power in American higher education, initiating a fundamental transformation of both knowledge and teaching that have alarmed conservatives.
American conservatives have been infuriated by the gradual dismantling of that whole system since then. The stories that confirmed their historical worldview and their contemporary politics were shown to be whitewash. African Americans and women demonstrated with their bodies that they were not happy with a rigidly subordinated place. The composition of history departments changed and so did their teachings. Studies of race and gender by a gradually diversifying faculty revealed uncomfortable truths about white supremacy and male domination in American history.
Crude conservatives like Wayne LaPierre say this all represents the hostile takeover of our universities by communists. The Heartland Institute, ostensibly embodying loftier intellectual aims, says that college is useless: their “policy advisor for education” Teresa Mull mocks today’s graduates as “ignorant and inept”, because “most college courses . . . are a waste of time.” Revealing what really bothers American conservatives, the example of “brainwashing” she provides concerns teaching about racism.
I don’t know how much experience such people have on American campuses. Their claims are not descriptions, but propaganda in the conservative war against knowledge they don’t like. The majority of conservatives who say that American higher education damages the nation really mean that it damages the propagation of their myths about American racial history, about the proper roles of men and women, about the effects of human society on the natural environment.
Decades of conservative attacks on higher education have succeeded in creating an image of the college teacher as radical, elitist, unpatriotic, and intellectually dictatorial. The students who marched in their robes across the Illinois College campus Sunday, and tens of thousands of students marching across America, know better. They know that no course and no professor is perfect. They know about the flaws and achievements of institutions. But they know that they have been challenged, not brainwashed, encouraged, not repressed, coached and tutored and prepared for useful lives. They say the word “professor” with respect.
The real students I met are thrilled to graduate, because they appreciate how their college years and college teachers have transformed them. They are wiser, more knowledgeable, more skilled, more expressive, and more confident. They know themselves better – what they are good at; what they want; how to use their personal skills to achieve their goals.
At Commencement they’re doubly happy – happy to be done and happy for what they have gained. Good for them and good for us all.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 15, 2018