As a Republican professor of political science at Pennsylvania State University, I think I have a unique understanding of the challenges faced by the right in higher education. Beyond my 20 years of experience as a conservative in higher education, I've spent much of my career systematically studying how academe's liberalism influences students, potentially shaping their values, their politics and their careers.
When I learned that my former senator, Rick Santorum, had recently taken to the airwaves to decry the mistreatment of conservatives in higher education, I took notice. Like many conservatives, I'm concerned about the ideological imbalance among the professoriate. Yet, looking at Santorum's specific accusations, I was disappointed to discover that rather than offering a measured critique of academe's often-insular liberal world views, the senator lapsed into a form of conservative victimology.
Elaborating on a prior interview where he asserted that Democrats like President Obama want every kid to go to college because they are "indoctrination mills," Senator Santorum described his own negative experiences as an undergraduate at Penn State. "I went through a process where I was docked for my conservative views,” Santorum asserted. Although he acknowledged that he couldn't be certain if the mistreatment of conservatives is still a problem in higher education, he further speculated that "I suspect it may even be worse."
There are elements of truth to Senator Santorum’s criticisms. Many professors seem to be in denial about the potential problems created by the ideological homogeneity in higher education. For example, in my own work, I’ve often found it much easier to publish research when findings tend to bolster a left-leaning political narrative than when they might be used to justify a conservative position. I don't think this is a left-wing conspiracy. Rather, left-leaning faculty will unconsciously dismiss conservative findings more readily than liberal findings. In a profession where a vast majority of researchers approach social scientific questions with a liberal slant, it will naturally be more difficult to publish work that undermines liberal policy positions. As a result, academe's ideological imbalance probably tends to stifle innovation, encouraging a kind of groupthink on questions related to politics and policy.
Yet, Senator Santorum undermines these substantive if somewhat subtle criticisms of academe by portraying higher education as a left-wing boot camp, designed to create Democratic voters rather than productive members of society. I'm not suggesting that conservative students are never mistreated because of their views, nor would I deny that many left-wing professors would like to politically influence undergraduates.
However, in assessing whether higher education is truly hostile to conservatives, it's important to consider how often this is a problem. The results of several major studies call into question whether colleges and universities are indeed "indoctrination mills" as Senator Santorum asserts. In my book The Still Divided Academy: How Competing Visions of Power, Politics, and Diversity Complicate the Mission of Higher Education, (written with my wife, April Kelly-Woessner, and the late Stanley Rothman) we find little evidence that students' views change over their four years of college. Very few individuals (students, faculty or administrators) report mistreatment as a result of their political views. As my wife likes to say, "students aren’t sponges." Eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds aren't accustomed to accepting everything at face value. Indeed, neither I nor Senator Santorum succumbed to efforts to influence our political views. We both emerged from higher education with strong conservative values, perhaps sharpened by an environment in which we were forced to articulate our unique points of view.
Without the facts, I wouldn't presume to contradict Senator Santorum’s claim that as a student at Penn State he was docked for his conservative views. Nevertheless, looking to Senator Santorum's demeanor on the campaign trail, let me offer an alternative hypothesis.
As a presidential candidate, Senator Santorum sometimes engages in exaggeration or hyperbole, to make a political point. For example, in criticizing John F. Kennedy’s famous speech where he advocated a separation of church and state, Senator Santorum remarked, "that makes me throw up." Obviously this wasn't meant literally. Yet, as an academic who trains students to analyze politics calmly and carefully, I found this remark to be disconcerting. Aside from the fact that I think he misconstrued the central point of JFK’s remarks, that kind of over-the-top rhetoric demonstrates a certain political immaturity. While I share many of Santorum's political views, if, as a student, he had criticized Kennedy's remarks with that sort of overheated rhetoric, I probably would have docked his grade, too.
Matthew Woessner is associate professor of political science and public policy at Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg.
The prospect of reading a book about the Tea Party by a professor who supports the movement has a certain piquancy to it -- especially now, as campaigning for the Republican nomination enters what feels like its second or third year. Eight more months until the election? Even a political news-junkie's mood might turn a little gray at the thought. The Tea Party: Three Principles (Cambridge University Press) by Elizabeth Price Foley, a professor of law at Florida International University, is certainly a change of pace.
Its argument is clear enough to be forceful while revealing its presuppositions at every step. Foley regards the Tea Party as a movement that emerged as a spontaneous expression of concern to defend the U.S. Constitution from all enemies, foreign or domestic. (Whether Barack Obama counts as foreign or domestic, she does not address.) The Tea Party movement stands proudly apart from the two major parties, holding fast only to three principles: limited government, forthright American sovereignty, and constitutional originalism. It is a lucid and necessary response to threats such as "the globalist agenda" and Obama's suggestion that the founders "bequeathed to us not a static condition but a perpetual aspiration." The movement is not driven by racism, nor is it engaged in the culture wars, nor should it be treated as the religious right with a makeover. Tea Partiers are, she writes, "united in their fearless query, 'What happened to the America I grew up in?' "
That's one way to look at it, I guess, although "fearless" is hardly an apt characterization either of the Tea Party or the usual tone of that question. To ignore the level of racial animus expressed in the movement requires an act of will. In a paper from the American Political Science Association meeting in September, Alan I. Abramovitz said that an analysis of data from the American National Election Study Evaluations of Government and Society Survey showed that, while "ideological conservatism was by far the strongest predictor of Tea Party support," support for the movement also corresponded to both white racial resentment and aversion to Obama himself. "These two variables," Abramovitz noted, "had much stronger effects than party identification. Racial resentment had a somewhat stronger effect than dislike for Obama." The influence on the movement of constitutional-law scholars such as Foley is minute compared to that of the fantasies that Jill Lepore discusses in her recent book The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History (Princeton University Press). And anyone believing that the Tea Party is a spontaneous and nonpartisan movement -- driven only by the humble but anxious civic virtue of just-plain-folks -- should take Deep Throat's advice during the Watergate affair: "Follow the money."
Foley's book shares the Tea Party's politics, but not its fevers. It has the soul of a talk-radio call-in show in the body of a law-review article. It left me wanting to argue with the author, or at least interview her -- not that the distinction lasted very long. A transcript of our e-mail discussion follows. If ever there is a Tea Party think-tank, it's clear Foley would be a capable director.
Q. Your dedication page reads, "To the intrepid members of the American Tea Party movement, with admiration and respect." Would you say something about your degree of involvement or interaction with the movement? Is this book simply an expression of political sympathy, or does it grow out an activist commitment?
A: I am not a Tea Party activist personally. I have spoken to Tea Party groups, who have read some prior articles and op-eds and invited me to talk. So I have met many Tea Partiers over the last few years and have learned to admire and respect them tremendously. They are the only group of ordinary Americans I have ever met who carry around pocket Constitutions and want to engage in substantive discussions about the text's meaning. From my perspective, this can only be a good thing for the country. The Constitution has become almost a dirty word in some parts of America's intelligentsia, and it's too often viewed as an anachronistic, backward-thinking document written by a bunch of dead people who were racist, sexist, and not worth admiring. This is a dangerous narrative, and the Tea Party seeks to reverse this trend by re-embracing the Constitution and its original meaning. As someone who has dedicated her life to teaching and studying constitutional law, I find the Tea Partiers' attitude healthy and refreshing.
Q: You write that the Tea Party is opposed to people who think of the Constitution as "an anachronistic, backward-thinking document written by a bunch of dead people who were racist, sexist, and not worth admiring." That seems like equal parts straw man and red herring. The racism or sexism of the authors isn't a topic for debate, since the evidence in the document itself: Article 1, Section 2 was to gave slaveholding states extra influence by letting them have extra representatives proportionate to three-fifths of their slave populations (not that this did the slaves any good); plus it took 133 years and 19 amendments before women got the vote. This doesn't mean the framers were Neanderthals, but it does suggest that "original intent" counts for only so much.
A: I'm afraid you misunderstand the nature of originalism. I can tell by the way you phrase the question that you've never had anyone objective explain it to you -- I'm sorry for that. But it's not as though you are alone in this view, and indeed it was a view I shared myself until I went to law school.
First, let me clarify what originalism means to most self-identified originalists today. I don't know any originalists who focus on "original intent" anymore. Instead, originalism is "original meaning" originalism, which asks the interpreter of constitutional text to ascertain what the meaning of the text would be, in commonsense terms, from the perspective of We the People who ratified it. By contrast, "original intent" originalism (which again, no one seriously espouses) tries to ascertain the subjective, oftentimes unknowable "intent" of those who wrote the constitutional text (i.e., the founders themselves). Notice that when I talk about originalism, I talk about not just those who wrote the text, but those who ratified it -- i.e., We the People. This is important because the founders had extensive conversations with the American people during the ratification process -- in widely-read pamphlets, newspaper articles, speeches, etc. -- and it is this understanding of the Constitution that matters to originalists.
With that clarification, I hope you don't honestly believe this is a red herring or straw man. The Three-Fifths Clause to which you refer, for example, was anti-slavery provision, not a pro-slavery one. Remember that the slaveholding states argued that slaves should be counted as whole persons (to boost those states' representation in the House), whereas the non-slaveholding states argued that slaves should not be counted at all. What the founders ultimately proposed (and the People ratified) was a Three-Fifths compromise. It certainly by no means meant that the founders endorsed or approved of slavery. Some did; many didn't. Indeed, you should look further at the constitutional text to get a more accurate picture. The Constitution never even uses the word "slavery," assiduously avoiding it because some of the founders (e.g., Madison) thought that mentioning it by name would give it further credibility, and they wanted to avoid that at all costs. Moreover, the 1808 Clause in Article I gave Congress the power to abolish all further importation of slaves beginning Jan. 1, 1808 (20 years after ratification). This was designed to choke off all future slave trade, stop its expansion, and hopefully its demise. Indeed, on Jan. 1, 1808 -- the first day this constitutional power kicked in -- Congress enacted exactly such a law and prohibited all further importation.
So the bottom line is that slavery was a very controversial issue, for obvious reasons, among the founders. To dismiss them all as racists is far too simplistic, and disregards the fact that the constitutional text they wrote was at ambiguous on the topic (to be expected given the divergence of opinion among the ratifying states) and in some key respects, quite hostile to it.
More fundamentally, please realize that originalists such as myself do NOT advocate that judges try to reinstitute the original Constitution. This is a very common misunderstanding, so again, you are not alone. But it is simply not accurate, as I discuss in the book. Originalism asks judges to interpret the Constitution's text as it presently exists. So, for example, none of the original Constitution's clauses addressing slavery have any continuing legal validity after the ratification of the Civil War Amendments -- the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. And of course the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote, is likewise part of the text of the Constitution that is entitled to full respect and implementation.
The Constitution as a whole -- as its text and that text's historical context stands today -- is what originalists (and the Tea Partiers) seek to honor and preserve.
Q: Whatever the merits of claiming that Obama's health care reform violates the commerce clause, my recollection of the Tea Party in late 2009 and early '10 isn't one of a debate over constitutional law. It's of people carrying guns to demonstrations, growing hysterical about "death panels," and venting in ways that sounded pretty much like what you would have heard at a George Wallace rally in 1968. You refer to people carrying around well-thumbed copies of the Constitution, but what argument is there to make for that reflecting the true concerns of the Tea Party movement, rather than, say, that picture of Obama as a witch doctor with a bone through his nose?
A: As I spend a good number of pages explaining in the book, the Tea Partiers' opposition to the health care reform law is grounded in their belief in limited government. If one knows anything about this concept, one can easily see how the health care reform law threatens this foundational constitutional principle. The individual mandate is an unprecedented, breathtaking exercise of federal power. If upheld, it will have significant, negative implications for individual liberty.
A ubiquitous government presence in healthcare will indeed predictably lead to some form of health care rationing -- it is a matter of supply and demand. The health care reform law added some 32 million Americans to health insurers' rolls, but did nothing to expand the supply of available health care providers. Substantially increased demand, without a concomitant increase in supply, will lead to not only price increases (which we have already witnessed and will continue to do so), but access shortages that will necessitate some form of rationing. Tea Partiers were naturally concerned about this, as older Americans, as high-demand users of health care, are the most vulnerable in a rationing regime.
Q: You write that "the Constitution doesn’t require prior approval by the UN Security Council" for use of the military. But neither does the Constitution require prior approval by Congress. Article 1, section 8 gives Congress the power to declare war. If there ever was any sense of obligation on the part of the executive branch to seek approval for the use of military force abroad, it's been more or less a dead letter since the Korean "police action" -- with the War Powers Act of 1973 not changing the situation much. According to a Library of Congress report, "U.S. Presidents have consistently taken the position that the War Powers Resolution is an unconstitutional infringement upon the power of the executive branch," beginning with Richard Nixon.
A: Completely agree with you here. The war power is shared between Congress and the President. As Commander-in-Chief, the President under Article II can commit US troops in defense of US interests. Congress can declare a formal war, constitutionally, but doesn't have to, and the Supreme Court has never said otherwise. Congress's ultimate power lies in the power of the purse — i.e., withholding appropriations.
Q: You go on to say, "Americans – particularly Tea Partiers – would think it odd that either our Supreme Court or our president would think they need to consult with the international community before doing what they think is right for America." But how is that an either/or? "Consulting with the international community" is a matter of building support for what the US is going to do in any case. How seriously can we take the "globalist agenda" as something to worry about, given that US leaders, Democratic and Republican alike, pay exactly as much attention to international law or world public opinion as is expeditious for pursuing what they regard as the national interest?
A: "Consulting" is fine, if by that word you mean literally "consulting" rather than asking for approval. The difficulty with President Obama's statements prior to committing troops to Libya was that he espoused a view — embraced by progressives — that something more than mere consultation was desirable and necessary. He suggested that it would contravene international law to commit U.S. troops without prior UN Security Council approval, and it is that radical position about which tea partiers are concerned, from the perspective of defending US Sovereignty.
Q: You only quote Tea Party people once or twice, if memory serves, not counting a couple of passages from Glenn Beck. The book seems not so much about the Tea Party, or even of the movement, as for it. That is, you offer arguments and perspectives that support Tea Party positions -- but they express your sense of how the TPers ought to be arguing. You downplay any "culture war" or social-conservative aspect of the movement, although there's evidence that the Tea Party overlaps considerably with the religious right. I've given you a hard time here about the element of racism that has been abundantly evident in some Tea Party discourse -- and a recent statistical analysis of poll results from 2010 showed a high degree of correlation between Tea Party support and white racial resentment. But just to be clear, there's nothing of the sort going on in your book. It's as if you are trying to raise the tone a little bit. Is that fair? Is it any part of your intention? Isn't the book more about what the Tea Party can be or should be, from your perspective, rather than what it is?
A: I did not want to write a book about individual Tea Partiers (as many books have already done, some well, some not so well). Instead, I wanted to write a book about the constitutional principles that define the movement as a movement. My goal was to have a substantive discourse about these principles -- to offer, if you will, an intellectual defense of the Tea Party movement.
I downplay the culture war aspect because the Tea Party itself downplays it. It is a conservative movement, true, but conservative in the sense of fiscal and constitutional conservatism, not social conservatism. You don't attend Tea Party events and hear any serious discussion about abortion or gay marriage. Polling data confirms this, revealing that a majority of Tea Partiers support the legal availability of abortion, as well as gay marriage or civil union. So I don't think it would be factually accurate to try to paint the Tea Party movement as a socially conservative movement. There are undoubtedly some social conservatives within the movement, but this is inevitable, given that some social conservatives are also fiscal and constitutional conservatives.
In November, Pew Research Center released a report discussing the level of belief in American exceptionalism in the United States. It gauged this by asking whether interviewees accepted the statement "Our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to others." I have been interested in the history of theories of American exceptionalism for more than twenty years, and gave it a look. Formulating the idea that way struck me as obnoxious and fairly absurd. But then the Pew people are specialists in public opinion research -- and feelings of superiority (or rather, anxieties over it) do seem to be what is at stake as the expression American exceptionalism is used in U.S. politics lately. (It's worth noting that it's the authors of the report who make a connection between superiority and exceptionalism. The interviewers didn't explicitly ask about the latter.)
Republican candidates keep proclaiming their faith in American exceptionalism, or smiting Obama for his failure to believe in it. Not long ago somebody published a letter to the editor claiming that Obama hates American exceptionalism, which would seem to imply that he must believe in it, since hating something you don’t believe in sounds difficult and a real waste of time. But it’s probably best not to expect too much logical consistency at this point in the electoral season.
Obama himself is at least somewhat culpable for the whole situation. The furor all started in 2009 when, in response to a question, he said: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” That, too, is a misreading of the term, equating it with something like national-self esteem. But of a healthy sort -- well shy of narcissistic grandiosity, with plenty to go around. That's probably what got him into trouble.
Anyway, the Pew study yielded some interesting results. Pew's researchers have been asking whether people agreed with the sentiment "Our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to others" for at least 10 years now. In 2002, 60 percent of the Americans polled said they did. The figure fell to 55 percent in 2007. Last year, just 49 percent of respondents agreed, with nearly as many (46 percent) saying they disagreed. “Belief in cultural superiority has declined among Americans across age, gender and education groups,” the Pew report said.
The same question was posed in surveys conducted in Britain, France, Germany, and Spain. The level of agreement was higher in the U.S, than elsewhere (Germany and Spain were fairly close) but the variations are less interesting than what held constant: “In the four Western European countries and in the U.S., those who did not graduate from college are more likely than those who did to agree that their culture is superior, even if their people are not perfect.”
Make of that what you will. For my part, the really odd thing about all the recent endorsements of American exceptionalism is that the very expression came into the world as the name for a Communist heresy.
The image of America as a city upon a hill -- uniquely favored by the Almighty and a light unto the heathens -- is older than the United States itself, of course. And it’s true that visitors to the country, including Alexis de Tocqueville, have long declared it “exceptional,” in one way or another, and not always for the better. Charles Dickens thought we were exceptionally prone to printing his books without permission, let alone paying him royalties. But the term "American exceptionalism" is more recent, and it took the Comintern to launch the Republican candidates' preferred way of recommending themselves these days.
Circa 1927-28, a group of American Communist Party leaders began arguing that, yes, the U.S. economy would undoubtedly succumb to the contradictions of capitalism, sooner or later, but it still had plenty of life in it yet, so the comrades abroad should keep that in mind, at least for a while. Their perspective was in accord with the ideas of the Bolshevik theorist Nicholai Bukharin concerning the world economic situation, and he was the one, after all, in charge of the Communist International. So all was copacetic, at least until the summer of 1928, when Stalin quit taking Bukharin’s phone calls.
Before long, the American leaders were called on the carpet by the authorities in Moscow, and found themselves denounced by Stalin himself for an ideological deviation: "American exceptionalism.” Stalin also told them, "When you get back to America, nobody will stay with you except your wives." That turned out to be a slight exaggeration, but they were promptly expelled from the party when they got back home -- taking around a thousand fellow American exceptionalists with them.
As it happened, all of this was just a few months before the stock market crash on Black Tuesday, which made the whole debate seem rather moot. But a catchphrase was born. Stalin’s speeches blasting American exceptionalism were printed as a pamphlet in an enormous edition. The pro-American exceptionalism Communists went off to start their own group, which had a strange and complex history that deserves better scholarship than it has received. But that seems like enough esoterica for now.
David Levering Lewis puts the neologism into a wider context with his essay “Exceptionalism's Exceptions: The Changing American Narrative,” in the new issue of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ journal Daedelus. Levering, now a professor of history at New York University, received one Pulitzer Prize each for the two volumes of his biography of W.E.B. Du Bois.
“[I]ts Soviet originators defined American exceptionalism as the colossal historical fallacy that imagined itself exempt from the iron laws of economic determinism,” Levering writes, “whereas most American academics and public intellectuals … avidly embraced a phrase they regarded as an inspired encapsulation of 160 years of impeccable national history.” One of the handful of figures to give the idea a careful, skeptical examination, Levering says, was Du Bois. In his masterpiece Black Reconstruction (1935), he wrote that “two theories of the future of America clashed and blended just after the Civil War.” One was “abolition-democracy based on freedom, intelligence, and power for all men,” and the other was “a new industrial philosophy” with “a vision not of work but of wealth; not of planned accomplishment, but of power.”
American exceptionalism was, in effect, the happy belief that these tendencies reinforced each other. That was not a credible idea for an African-American who received his Ph.D. from Harvard one year before the Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson that endorsed “separate but equal” treatment of the races. For Du Bois, writes Levering, “the cant of exceptionalism survived mainly to keep the Moloch of laissez-faire on life support even as its vital signs failed in the wake of the Great Crash of 1929.”
The doctrine of exceptionalism proved hardier than Du Bois imagined, as the years following World War II showed. Levering mentions that Henry Luce “had already given the world its peacetime marching orders in ‘The American Century,’ a signature 1941 editorial in Life.” Eight other contributors, most of them historians, join Andrew J. Bacevich in assessing that line of march in The Short American Century: A Postmortem (Harvard University Press), a collection of essays spinning off from a lecture series Bacevich organized at Boston University in 2009-2010.
“By the time the seventieth anniversary of Luce’s famous essay rolled around in 2011,” the editor writes, “the gap between what he had summoned Americans to do back in 1941 and what they were actually willing or able to do had become unbridgeable.” Unfortunately the editorial is not reprinted, and it loses something in paraphrase -- a bracing tone of stern moral uplift, perhaps, inherited from his parents, who had been missionaries in China. Here’s a sample:
“[W]hereas their nation became in the 20th Century the most powerful and the most vital nation in the world, nevertheless Americans were unable [after World War One] to accommodate themselves spiritually and practically to that fact. Hence they have failed to play their part as a world power -- a failure which has had disastrous consequences for themselves and for all mankind. And the cure is this: to accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world and in consequence to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.”
And plenty more where that came from. “When first unveiled,” Bacevich notes, “Luce’s concept of an American Century amounted to little more than the venting of an overwrought publishing tycoon.” By the end of the war, that had changed: “Claims that in 1941 sounded grandiose became after 1945 unexceptionable.” The American Century brought “plentiful jobs, proliferating leisure activities, cheap energy readily available from domestic sources, and a cornucopia of consumer goods, almost all of them bearing the label ‘Made in the U.S.A.’ ” And all of it while, in Luce’s words, “exert[ing] upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.”
Well, and how did that turn out? The contributors are not of one mind. “As international regimes go, much of the American Century, despite the chronic tensions and occasional blunders of the Cold War (and especially the tragedy of Vietnam) was on the whole a laudably successful affair,” writes David M. Kennedy. For Emily S. Rosenberg, “the period of maximum U.S. power and influence” was “a precursor to a global Consumer Century” that “proved highly adaptive to local cultural variation,” so that equating globalization with Americanization is a misnomer.
In counterpoint, Walter LaFeber rebukes Luce’s vision all along the line. He writes that the American Century “never existed except as an illusion, but an illusion to which Americans, in their repeated willingness to ignore history, fell prey.”
T. J Jackson Lears writes in praise of a “pragmatic realism” informed by the pluralism of William James and Randolph Bourne, and says it “requires a sense of proportionality between means and ends, as well as a careful consideration of consequences – above all, the certain, bloody consequences of war.” But his essay does not exactly portray the American Century as a triumph of pragmatic realism. (C. Wright Mills’s description of the nuclear war strategists’ “crackpot realism” seems a little more apropos.)
Bacevich’s essay concluding the book brings us up the moment by stressing how interconnected the American Century and American exceptionalism have become. “To liken the United States to any other country (Israel possibly excepted) is to defile a central tenet of the American civil religion. In national politics, it is simply impermissible.” Luce’s vision “encapsulate[es] an era about which some (although by no means all) Americans might wax nostalgic, a time, real or imagined, of common purpose, common values, and shared sacrifice.”
Such yearning is understandable, but nostalgia is bad for you: it makes the past seem simpler than it was. And the world has probably had as much exceptionalism as it can stand. As the American psychologist Harry Stack Sullivan put it, we are all much more simply human than anything else. And it seems like there must be a better use of a political figure's time than assuring people that they are all above average.
Today, I add another notch to my belt. The signs of aging are clearly beginning to show - in the past year or so, I’ve managed to hurt my shoulder throwing a tennis ball for the dog, pull something in my leg vacuuming, and injure my neck while sleeping. And to top it off, my body seems to insist on accumulating what appears to be spare material around my waist.
But my rapidly deteriorating body is not the only thing I’ve noticed. With each passing year, I lose a bit more perspective on what it was like on the other side of the student-faculty divide. So before it is lost forever, I thought I’d share some of the more illuminating differences in perspective between many students from younger generations and many from older ones. I certainly don’t claim to be able to speak for entire generations, but I do have reason to believe that these views are fairly widespread.
Many older folks within academia are fond of telling stories about how they worked over the summers at low-paid jobs to fund their education. This is sometimes accompanied by lamenting the laziness of today’s students. Most of the younger generation find these stories interesting but irrelevant to our lives, much like stories of using slide rules to do math. What many in the older generations seem to be unaware of is that except for those students attending the very lowest-cost institutions, their experience is no longer applicable. Working at the minimum wage, a typical student at a four-year college could pay their total cost of attendance in 1976-1977 by working 23 hours a week, 50 weeks a year.
Thus, it was feasible to finance your education with a summer job and a little part-time work. By 2009-2010,however, a student would have had to work 58 hours a week. As a result, instead of attending college and working on the side, students are increasingly working full time and attending college part time.
(2) For many students, college is all about the job.
Any time someone makes the point that a certain college or even a college degree may not make sense monetarily, they are immediately hounded by a slew of individuals retorting that there is a lot more to a college education than getting a good-paying job. This is obviously true. I myself gained a much greater appreciation for literature thanks to some schedule-filling class where we read the Odyssey, something I probably never would have read otherwise. But this point is usually overblown. Back when tuition was a couple hundred dollars a semester, it didn’t much matter if it helped you get a better job. Now a degree comes with an average of $25,250 in student loan debt (for those that borrow), not counting what parents borrow. Students don’t take on that kind of financial burden to become a better human being – we do it to get a better job.
Moreover, college is not the only place where these non-vocational skills and attitudes can be acquired. Now that school is no longer getting in the way of my education, I’ve rekindled numerous interests and still learn new things (the first poem that I ever enjoyed I read for work).
(3) We’ve realized that higher education has higher priorities than the education of students.
As new college students, we completely bought into those orientation speeches about how dedicated faculty are going to mold us into tomorrow’s leaders. Within a year or two though, we’d had classes taught by TAs and adjuncts who are too busy to prepare for class or give us timely feedback, or tenured professors who are too lazy to update their lesson plans from before we were born (some of these are written on yellow paper -- not yellow legal pads, mind you, but paper that has yellowed from age). But the worst are the classes where the professor/adjunct/TA doesn’t even speak English. The first couple of times you encounter these issues, you assume that it is just some sort of fluke, soon to be fixed. But by the time you graduate, you have encountered these too often and have come to one of two conclusions: colleges are either nearly incompetent in making staffing decisions, or teaching is simply not a high priority for colleges.
(4) We are goal-oriented, meaning we’ll follow the path of least resistance.
From what I’ve been able to gather, many in the older generations went to college to explore (at least that’s what they tell us). Many in the younger generations go to college to achieve a goal. We are told that a college degree is virtually required for a middle-class life, so we go out and get a college degree. But since the goal is a degree rather than a journey, we follow the path of least resistance. We do this not because we are lazy (well, that too) but rather because it is what we’ve been trained to do. We’ll take easy courses and seek out easy professors to ensure that our grades are high enough to reach the next level. This is problematic because we assume that the paths have been designed properly and therefore that we will be ready for life when we graduate. Too often, that is not the case (see point 3).
(5) College is not always worth it.
Most younger people know numerous people for whom college was not worth it. This colors our perception of the entire enterprise (and the advice we give to others). This is the difference that I think the older generations have the hardest time coming to terms with. When they went to school, as long as you didn’t drink yourself to death, it was almost guaranteed to have no long-term negative impact. That is no longer the case.
All the debt students acquire still needs to be paid back even if they drop or fail out. Even more disturbing, most of us know quite a few people who managed to graduate, but then couldn’t find a job, even before the recession. They generally find something eventually, but typically after a few years of aimlessness, and the job they finally get often does not require them to use their degree in any meaningful sense. These are smart, capable people. They would have achieved the same level of success regardless of whether they went to college or not, but all felt compelled to go, at great expense to themselves and taxpayers.
If you are older and disagreed with any of these five points, worry not. If my rapidly deteriorating body is any guide, I’ll be coming around to your views soon enough.
Andrew Gillen is an adjunct professor of economics in Washington, and research director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.