U.S. Intellectual History Blog

On the Origins of the Anti-Elitist Critique of Higher Ed

A couple weeks ago, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum called President Barack Obama a “snob” for proposing policies that would make college affordable for more Americans. Santorum argued that colleges were “indoctrination mills” in which right-thinking young Americans were turned into godless liberals.

The sociologist Neil Gross had a useful piece in the New York Times yesterday refuting Santorum’s claims about American higher education.  Citing actual sociological studies, Gross shows that, although university faculty are certainly more liberal and less pious than other Americans, attending college does not in fact turn students into liberals, agnostics, or atheists [h/t to Tim Lacy for initially calling this piece to my attention over on the S-USIH Facebook page]. This of course should be no surprise to those of us who teach in higher ed.

But, at least for readers of this blog, the more interesting aspect of Gross’s op-ed may have been the intellectual history of conservative attacks on higher ed with which he concluded.*

Explaining the nature of these conservative attacks on higher ed, writes Gross,

…requires some historical perspective. Conservatives have been criticizing academia for many decades. Yet only once the McCarthy era passed did this criticism begin to be cast primarily in anti-elitist tones: charges of Communist subversion gave way to charges of liberal elitism in the writings of William F. Buckley Jr. and others. The idea that professors are snobs looking down their noses at ordinary Americans, trying to push the country in directions it does not wish to go, soon became an established conservative trope, taking its place alongside criticism of the liberal press and the liberal judiciary.  

The main reason for this development is that attacking liberal professors as elitists serves a vital purpose. It helps position the conservative movement as a populist enterprise by identifying a predatory elite to which conservatism stands opposed — an otherwise difficult task for a movement strongly backed by holders of economic power.

Gross is entirely correct about the populist (or pseudo-populist) function of the anti-elitist right-wing critique of higher education, but I believe he’s wrong that this explains its timing.**

After all, the populist critique of elites had long been put to conservative ends. For example, the generation of white Southern politicians that included Pitchfork Ben Tillman had used such appeals to reconstitute white supremacy in the post-Reconstruction South.

And especially after FDR–a member of the cultural, social, and economic elite if there ever was one–became the leader of, and symbol for, a reconstituted American liberalism in the 1930s, conservatives frequently framed their criticisms of the New Deal in anti-elitist terms.  To many on the right, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a “country squire in the White House,” as ex-New Dealer-turned-libertarian-conservative John T. Flynn titled his 1940 screed against the President.

But if conservative deployment of populist rhetoric was nothing new in the McCarthy period, what was new were the demographics of higher education.  In 1940, only 6 per cent of U.S. men and 4 per cent of U.S. women had completed four years of college.  Over the course of the next two decades, boosted at first by the GI Bill and post-war prosperity, those numbers began to increase. By 1960, 10 per cent of American men and 6 per cent of American women had completed four years of college. And starting in the 1960s, these numbers exploded.  By 1980, 21 per cent of US men and 14 per cent of US women had completed four years of college.***

In short, what was really new in the McCarthy era wasn’t the value of populist rhetoric for the right, but rather the changing political importance of higher education in America.  It was precisely when higher education slowly began becoming available to people not in a tiny elite, that charges of elitism and snobbery in the academy began to become popular.  And at least at first, I suspect these politics were most potentially effective in their ability to exploit generational divides between an older, largely not college educated middle class and younger Americans much more likely to have attended college.


* I realize that I am stepping into the professional territory of my USIH co-blogger Andrew Hartman here. I trust he will improve upon any points I make in comments!

** I do question his notion that anti-elitist attacks on academia from the right were a wholly new thing in the McCarthy era. To begin with, charges of Communist subversion leveled against the academy had, themselves, an anti-elitist aspect to them.

*** Source:  Thomas D. Snyder (ed.), “120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait” (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, 1993) (.pdf here)

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Nice post, Ben. My thinking on the Gross piece is similar. McCarthyite-style anticommunism was more important as anti-liberalism than as anti-communism. How else do we explain McCarthy’s attacks on the “effete” eastern establishment types like Red Dean Acheson?

    Just to add a bit to your analysis about how the growth of higher education contributed to right-wing populist attacks on the professoriate. It became so plausible (like the closely related neoconservative “new class” theory) because the university credential system had become the principal gateway to the professional world, a sorting mechanism for white-collar hierarchy. The numbers tell the story: in 1960, there were about 3.5 million Americans enrolled in universities; by 1970, this number had more than doubled to around 7.5 million, as the size of faculties grew proportionally. In “The World Turned Upside Down,” Jim Livingston nicely relates this demographic explosion on the nation’s college campuses to what he generally describes as the “debates about the promise of American life.” “By the 1970s, the principal residence of that promise was widely assumed to be the new ‘meritocracy’ enabled by universal access to higher education.” To this extent, class resentment aimed at intellectuals makes sense, in a misplaced sort of way, since intellectuals indeed hold the levers to any given individual’s future economic stability. (Similarly, and recently, Eric Hobsbawm also relates the growing importance of a university education to the redirection of class resentment against “toffs of one kind or another—intellectuals, liberal elites, people who are putting it over on us.”)

  2. Using Buckley as a historical threshold between anticommunism and anti-elitism is particularly bizarre, given that “God and Man at Yale” is the quintessential combination. Here’s a paragraph from my book “Education on the Cold War”:

    Buckley wrote “God and Man at Yale” soon after his colorful career as a Yale undergraduate, during which time he edited the student newspaper, routinely generating controversy with a torrent of anti-faculty editorials. His mission in writing the book was to convince the Yale Board of Trustees and alumni to retake the university from the atheist and socialist professors who subverted the curriculum to their “secularist and collectivist” ends. Buckley embodied conservative fusionism: as both a traditionalist and a libertarian, he trusted that the only two guarantors of freedom were Christianity and individualism. Convinced that the large majority of Yale alums agreed with him, especially those who endowed the university with its riches, Buckley believed the Board of Trustees was perfectly within its rights to purge the university of those teachers unwilling to inculcate their charges with Christian individualist values. Buckley opposed “academic freedom,” a phrase he typically surrounded with ironic quotation marks, insofar as it meant “freedom of the faculty member to teach what he sees fit as he sees fit.” Academic freedom, according to Buckley, “has produced one of the most extraordinary incongruities of our time: the institution that derives its moral and financial support from Christian individualists and then addresses itself to the task of persuading the sons of these supporters to be atheistic socialists.”

  3. To build on Ben’s point about anti-liberal critiques of academia predating McCarthyism, one need only open the pages of Novick’s *That Noble Dream* to find conservative reactions to “the American historian” of the interwar years, Charles Beard, that mimic problems conservatives found with academia in the post-war years (Novick, 240). Though couched in Novick’s objective-subjective dichotomy, one sees in his work that conservatives have long been upset with academics who questioned Whiggish narratives of American progress and triumphalism. That’s almost THE critique of mid-century liberalism and liberals. One might argue that Charles and Mary Beard were seen more as public intellectuals than academic liberal intellectuals. I think that’s wrong, but I won’t entertain that argument here, in this comment. But, insofar as liberalism and relativism are intertwined, the conservative attack on academic elitism and liberalism has been a long, drawn-out affair. The question is whether the critics of the Beards focused only on them (i.e. individual scholars), or if they attacked academia in larger ways. I would argue academia.

    Apart from Ben’s example of Pitchfork Ben Tillman, one could include other attacks on higher education from across the nation from the likes of Andrew Carnegie and various newspaper editorials. This is all documented (along with Tillman) in Laurence Veysey’s *The Emergence of the American University* (Chicago Press, 1965, pp. 13-15).

    In other words, the conservative critique of academia, whether it be student participants, faculty, or individual institutions, dates from the point of time that higher education made itself socially and politically relevant: namely, the late Gilded Age and Progressive Era. – TL

  4. A relatively minor note: in Fritz Lang’s Fury (1936), there’s a scene set in a barbershop (if that link doesn’t work, it’s at about 4:35) that begins in mid-conversation with one character saying:

    “Let me tell you, professor, if you young geniuses at the high school fill our children’s heads with radical ideas we parents will have to get a law.”

    In this case, I guess the “professor” is a high school teacher, but the critique is along the same lines.

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