Wednesday, July 12, 2017

How We Think About Colleges And Universities. Partisan Divisions in the United States.

A new Pew Research Center survey about how Americans view various institutions shows the usual blunt partisan divisions, and some have even become wider.

Do colleges and universities "have a positive effect on the way things are going in the country these days?" asks Pew, and the majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents answer in the negative, while most Democrats and Democrat-leaning Independents say that they do have a positive effect.  The former percentage has changed dramatically in just over two years. The majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents sorta liked colleges and universities in 2015, too.

So what has changed?  The coverage* of student behavior on Fox News and on other conservative news sites tells the audiences that free speech is threatened on campuses, that "political correctness" has reached a fever pitch, that commie professors are wreaking havoc among the vulnerable young students and that students now view themselves as fragile snowflakes who require safe spaces away from any conservative messages.

That kind of coverage is extremely common in the conservative media, and, as far as I can tell, it never explains how common those activities are (they seem pretty uncommon to me), but simply allows the audience to assume that all campuses are now rioting against conservative speakers and refusing to have debates about anything at all that someone might find upsetting.  

Still, my first reaction to seeing the question was to think of the actual jobs of colleges and universities which are education and research.  The way Pew frames that question is so vague that we might come away with the impression that the Republican majority agrees with Boko haram** about books being forbidden.

And of course that could be true, given the statements of a few conservative politicians.  But the different coverage of events in the conservative and liberal news bubbles does matter in explaining such a rapid shift in the views of conservatives:

Viewers of right-leaning news media might not be surprised by Pew’s findings. Virtually every day Fox News, Breitbart and other conservative outlets run critical articles about free speech disputes on college campuses, typically with coverage focused on the perceived liberal orthodoxy and political correctness in higher education.
For example, Breitbart on Monday riffed on a report from The New York Times about a 35 percent enrollment decline at the University of Missouri at Columbia in the two years since racially charged protests occurred at the flagship university.
Bogus right-wing outlets also often target higher education. A fictitious story about California college students cutting off their genitals to protest Trump’s Mexican border wall plan recently made the rounds on purported news sites and social media.

*  That the reason is probably in the news coverage rather than in more personal experiences of colleges and universities is suggested by the fact that right-leaning people between 18 and 29 years of age are split roughly fifty-fifty on the effects of higher education, while only 27% of right-leaning people over sixty-five think that the impact of higher education on the way things are going is positive. 

Though older people do tend to be more conservative, on average, I would think that those more likely to actually know about colleges and universities as they are today would show stronger negative reactions if things truly were terrible for conservative students.

** The name of this extremist Wahhabist terror organization is usually translated to imply that Western secular education is forbidden.