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)