Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Why Do Some People Hate College?

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.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 15, 2018

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Happy Birthday, Karl Marx

Saturday was Karl Marx’s 200th birthday. It’s dangerous to even wish Mr. Marx a happy birthday, because his name has become so closely associated with dictatorship and mass murder in the 20th century. But Marx killed nobody and never advocated killing anyone. He spent his life fighting against repressive monarchies in the 19th century.

Marx criticized the governments and societies he experienced in Europe, because they limited the freedoms of the majority. Hereditary monarchy, surveillance of political meetings, censorship, and banning of labor unions were discriminatory against the working class.

Marx’s political program for workers was remarkably progressive in the middle of the 19th century and includes ideas that should be familiar to Americans. The “Demands of the Communist Party in Germany” in the Communist Manifesto of 1848 included: the right to vote for everyone (probably he just meant men) over 21; a free justice system; “universal arming of the people”; universal free education; strongly progressive taxes; and separation of church and state.

Marx signed a letter by the International Working Men’s Association congratulating Abraham Lincoln on his 1864 reelection, which ended: “it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.” Marx died in 1883, long before anyone who called himself a “Marxist” entered the political arena.

Marx experienced capitalism in its rawest form. The painfully detailed descriptions of the lives of early English industrial workers by Marx’s collaborator Friedrich Engels led them both to see the social, economic and moral flaws in a system where some own property and others work for them for wages. In today’s economically wealthy Atlantic world, where their demands for political change have been met for a century or more, their criticism of economic inequality as the basis for political inequality is still valuable.

Besides critiquing the world’s economic system based on the system’s own statistics, and calling for its overthrow, Marx occasionally imagined what real personal freedom for everyone would be like, with no company and no government telling people what to do. In the “German Ideology” in 1845, he wrote: “each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” He argued that such many-sided activity was most likely to produce happy and fulfilled people, willing to cooperate with each other, rather than compete against everyone.

There are strong resemblances to the extreme libertarian wing of Republican politics in America, but they won’t admit it. Marx is an emphatic punching bag for the right, because his writings lay bare the poverty of their appeal to people without property.

Every idea has dangerous possible consequences. Medieval Popes and critics of the Papacy like Luther both thought the Bible admonished them to demean and even kill Jews. People who called themselves Marxists killed millions during the 20th century.

Thoughtful, courageous, honest and ethical Marxists were inspired by the vision of a free society of free individuals to oppose Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, and their versions of Marx’s ideas, often losing their lives in the process. Marxists, both intellectuals and workers, became leaders in the deadly struggle against fascism in Europe, along with certain religious Christians. Christians who risked their own lives to hide Jews from the Germans, and sometimes their own police, demonstrated the hopeful humanitarianism of the Christian message. Does it make sense to toss them in the same pot as Torquemada?

Blaming Marx for the history of the Soviet Union or Communist China is like blaming Jesus for the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition.

On Marx’s birthday, as I do most days, I spent a few hours in my office, dug in my garden, read, and amused myself sharing the NBA finals with my wife. The productive, creative and self-regulated life appeals to me. I don’t like being told what to do or need a boss to tell me to how be useful to society. I like collaborations among equals. I see honor in all types of honest labor and don’t think that the work of executives is worth more than 300 times the work of average employees. I believe that humans become stunted intellectually and morally by a lifetime of one-sided dependent labor. We flourish best when we are able to do many things, develop many talents, control our own destinies.

For those ideas and others for which there is no space here, I am grateful to Marx. I wish the ideologues who perverted his ideas in order to justify becoming political tyrants had paid closer attention to what he meant.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal_Courier, May 8, 2018

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

People Keep Asking “Why Trump?”

Seventeen months after the 2016 election, people still wonder why Donald Trump won. As in any presidential election, there were many overlapping reasons why Trump won a majority of electoral votes, although he lost the popular vote.

Clinton’s negatives are easy to see. Conservatives had hammered at Hillary for two decades, creating a fictional monster whom some voters hated so much that they wanted to lock her up. James Comey’s decision to announce just before the election that her emails as Secretary of State were again being investigated played into these beliefs that she was unusually dishonest. Her campaign ignored warning signs in key northern states, choosing to chase votes in solidly Republican states.

The positives for Trump are more puzzling and controversial, and will occupy social scientists for decades. A new study by Diana C. Mutz, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, offers valuable insight. Mutz argues against the idea that has become a commonplace in discussions of 2016: that working-class voters, who had been left behind by economic change, voted for someone who seemed to promise them economic redemption. According to this theory, key voters thought about their “pocketbooks”, to use familiar political jargon.

Instead, Mutz supports a different explanation for Trump’s victory, one that also has been much discussed since the election: groups of Americans with traditionally high status felt threatened and voted for the candidate who seemed to support their continued dominance. White Christian men who were concerned about social changes in recent decades gravitated to Trump, whose rhetoric and behavior consistently prioritized whiteness, maleness, and Christian belief.

Enough voters were pushed into the Trump camp by the efforts to reverse traditional discrimination against blacks and women, by the increasing diversity of American society and a future when whites will be a minority, by the fact that Democrats had produced a black President and a female presidential candidate. Mutz summarizes her findings by noting “a sense that white Americans are under siege”.

Trump said things during the campaign about Mexicans and women and other people whom he did not respect that could raise doubts about his character, but in the overheated atmosphere of a presidential campaign, supporters tend to ignore any negatives about “their” candidate. Since then, however, Trump’s character has been displayed much more clearly: he lies about everything; his ego overwhelms all other considerations; he is ignorant about most areas of public policy; his treatment of women, including his wives, is despicable. Trump’s blundering performance as President brings up the second big question about current American politics: why do his voters keep supporting him?

Gallup weekly polls show little change in approval of Trump for the past year: 38% to 40% approve of him as President, and 56% to 59% disapprove. Among Republicans, his approval rating has bounced around between 81% and 89% for more than a year.

The theory that status threat motivated many of his voters offers a partial explanation. Every day the news about Trump offers support for white men and evangelical Christians who long to regain unchallenged dominance: his criticism of all organized efforts by black and white Americans to identify and resist racism; revelations about his pumped-up masculinity; his continued support for preventing Muslims from entering the US and for the evangelical political agenda. No other politician embodies so publicly the conviction that white Christian men should always be in charge in America.

But doesn’t character count? In particular, how could Trump continue to be so popular among evangelical Christians, who constantly talk about morality?

I have no study, no variables, no surveys to support the following idea, just intuition. I think Trump’s low character is in fact a significant part of his appeal, especially to the “moral minority”.

Nobody need feel morally inferior to Trump. Although he constantly boasts about his genius, nobody need feel intellectually inferior to Trump. As a person, Trump does not further threaten those who already feel their status threatened.

The fact that voters could give Barack Obama two terms as President and then elect Trump has caused no end of hand-wringing and confusion among political commentators. I believe that Obama’s obvious intellect, his high-mindedness, and his success contributed to the sense of siege among some worried Americans. A black man was better than they were at everything. Trump offers no such threat. It is easy to feel superior to Trump, even while supporting his political direction.

For the Trump voters who don’t believe that women, gays, blacks and immigrants deserve the same status as they do, Trump’s personal behavior is irrelevant. All they care about is making America great again, which they define as making white Christian males great again. Three-quarters of white evangelical Protestants believe American culture has changed for the worse since the 1950s, when women and African Americans were rigidly subordinated.

They don’t want to be lectured by a black or female Democrat about the virtues of diversity. They want an old-fashioned white male chauvinist pig to put them back on a pedestal. If that means more pollution, tax windfalls for the rich, and corruption in the Cabinet, so what?

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published by the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 1, 2018