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When I was a kid, my father was always fiddling with engines. He'd grown up on a farm and spent years working in Army motor pools, giving him an appreciation of internal combustion that I will never achieve.
Engine repair involved a curious amount of reaching for oil filters, which always seemed hidden in some diabolical location. When I think of Dad in those years, I envision his arm thrust into an engine, his head turned away to provide a few more inches of reach. Then, some variation on this rant:
"Damned college-educated engineers. Whose bright idea was it to put the oil filter there? I'd like to take it and shove it up their …" You get the idea.
No one in my immediate family had ever gone to college, and none of my parents' friends had, either. They were truck drivers and factory workers, honest people who wore steel-toed boots, got paid on Thursday and took pride in their lawns. We lived in rural western New York, in every way closer to Appalachia than to New York City. Manhattan might as well have been the moon to us. College, too, for most.
My father's mild brand of anti-intellectualism extended beyond automotive engineers. He delighted in kitchen-table tales of how some college-educated kid at work had screwed up that day, usually through a stunning lack of judgment. In his eyes, it was an either/or: either you were book smart, or you had common sense. The idea that someone might exhibit both traits simultaneously seemed unlikely, and perhaps even unfair, to him.
All of this came to mind recently when Attorney General Jeff Sessions condemned higher education's coddling of students in a speech to a group of conservative high schoolers. He decried "a generation of sanctimonious, sensitive, supercilious snowflakes," citing examples of colleges providing students with coloring books, therapy goats and Play-Doh for stress reduction.
It's the sort of characterization that plays well in diners across the country: entitled university brats debate how many angels can dance on the head of a pin while hardworking folks in Carhartts perform the real work of America. Don't talk to Main Street about trigger warnings and microaggressions. They served in ’Nam, and they'll show you trigger warnings. Damned engineers anyway.
Growing up, it seemed unlikely that I would ever graduate from college. That I might someday be a college president would have struck my family as absurd. Yet that's what happened, and perhaps because of my working-class roots, I understand the outcry against some of the more extreme examples cited by Sessions.
Like him, I'm concerned when campus speakers are disinvited or shouted down, regardless of which end of the political spectrum they represent. After Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, I did not support the idea of a campuswide vigil to calm and reassure students troubled by the result -- something that happened at many colleges. We didn’t provide grief counseling, and if the Democrats win in November we won't provide it then, either.
Yet I'm troubled by Sessions's tirade against higher education, primarily because he knows better. We teach our students that if you see a rhinoceros with a silly hat charging toward me, the salient point is that it is a rhinoceros -- tell me that first. You might mention the hat later, when I have some important context. The vast majority of the work done by colleges and universities is useful, noble and necessary. A bit of perceived silliness around the edges does not negate that, and to imply otherwise is disingenuous at best.
Anti-intellectualism runs deep in American culture, the result of an inherent sense of inferiority toward old Europe. Americans are "the most self-conscious people in the world," wrote Henry James in 1872, "and the most addicted to the belief that the other nations of the earth are in a conspiracy to undervalue them." To build ourselves up, we feel the need to knock others down -- be it the college-educated kid at work or our NATO allies. In our national psyche, we're the common-sense nation; by our own definition, we can't also be intellectual. We're a nation tormented by our birth order.
What elevates us is our core belief in social mobility. The more first-generation college graduates we can produce, the more the joys of learning will be shared, and the more accepting middle America will be of the academy. They won't worry about snowflakes so much because they'll see their own sons and daughters enjoying the many true benefits of higher education.
It worked for my dad. He's still convinced he has more common sense than I do, and he ribs me mercilessly if I can't do something simple like back up a trailer -- but he respects what I do, believes in higher learning and brags about me every chance he gets.
Perhaps one day we'll all see each other as belonging neither to a basket of deplorables nor to a supercilious snowball. Then we can work together on a better location for that oil filter.