It’s back to school time, and back to college — for students thus inclined who can muster the financing. The past few years have seen a debate about the role and value of college in American life. Some of that debate is new, but most of it isn’t.
In John Kennedy Toole’s famous novel, “A Confederacy of Dunces,” the mother of the iconic protagonist, Ignatius Reilly, is always trying to figure out what’s wrong with her highly educated son. Her friend Claude Robichaux offers his interpretation: “Maybe your boy went to school too long…They got plenty communiss in them colleges.”
Fast forward over 50 years, and the charge that America’s colleges and universities are “indoctrinating” students in socialist ideology is a point of faith among card-carrying Trump conservatives. The National Rifle Association even blames mass shootings in high schools on the presence of Karl Marx on college reading lists.
The more reality-based concern is the cost of college. Democratic socialists like Bernie Sanders say it should be free, which is a solution that appeals to students and parents as much as it fuels anti-college hysteria on the right.
Conservative attacks on liberal arts education, and on the people engaged in it, are not new, but they’ve intensified under Trump. I can’t help but take their attacks personally, since I am part of the craven “cultural elite” that conservatives love to demonize. My paycheck isn’t very elite, however — after 20 years of teaching, I make less than a New Orleans cop in her first year on the NOPD payroll.
But the whole point of rhetoric against “cultural elites” is to distract from the economic elites who actually wield power in our society. Oops, I did it again! — spouting socialist ideology, the idea that rich people are the ones who hold power in a capitalist society. Conservatives can call that point of view “elitist” (according to their twisted Orwellian logic), and they can call it “ideological,” but they can’t call it untrue.
Conservative fears about a rising socialist tide on today’s college campuses are less fanciful than they were a scant two years ago. What they’re wrong about is the role of professors in promoting the growing receptiveness toward democratic socialism among young Americans. Even a conservative study looking for socialist bias on campus has concluded as much.
No, the year 2016 was not witness to a mass hiring of rock star Marxist professors. But it did see in Bernie Sanders the credible candidacy of an avowed democratic socialist. Old white guy though he was, he connected in an extraordinary way with young voters of varying races and backgrounds. Since his charisma probably didn’t reside in his sex appeal, fashion sense, or tact, it must have been the policies he dared to promote. Universal health care and free college are now out of the box and people have yet to be convinced that we can’t have nice things like that because they’re associated with vague abstractions like “socialism.”
The other thing that happened in 2016 was the increasingly disastrous election of a fluke president whose core ideology, if he has one, is the politics of resentment — against minorities, for sure, but also against intellectuals.
There are many brilliant conservative intellectuals, but Trump isn’t one of them, and neither are any of his supporters. Indeed, thoughtful conservatives are among the most vocal opponents of the Trump movement — David Brooks, Jennifer Rubin, Bret Stephens, George Will, Rich Lowry, Kathleen Parker, Michael Gerson; the list goes on and on.
This is because Trump’s brand of “conservatism” is not really conservatism, but a war on science, scholarship, reasoning, historical fact, intelligence (in multiple senses of that word), and everything that colleges and universities are dedicated to promoting.
Conservatives like Adam Smith and Edmund Burke continue to be taught, alongside Marx, Nietzsche, and other giants of intellectual history, but that’s not good enough for today’s conservative college bashers. What they really need to do is compile a Little Gold Book of Trump’s most visionary tweets, then wave them around like the Little Red Books brandished by campus Maoists in the 1960s.
One of the key rhetorical strategies of the conservative anti-college movement is terminological obfuscation. The leading organ of the conservative attack on contemporary campus culture is Campus Reform, an online journal that outs professors who have criticized the Dear Leader (Trump) or whose courses include analysis of intellectual heavyweights (like Marx) whom they feel should be erased from memory and the syllabus. A typical Campus Reform screed against “socialism” on campus commits the usual breezy distortions: “The intellectual appeal of socialism — and postmodern ideology in general — is incredibly strong … and professors are the perfect conduits for postmodern thought.”
Since when did socialism become postmodernism? Pardon my elitism, but these are two very different theoretical systems. Marxism (also not the same as “socialism”) and postmodernism have in fact had a very contentious relationship. Certainly there are elements of Marx’s critique of capitalism in the postmodern understanding of how meaning is disseminated (or discarded), but there are many more differences.
The most notable of them is the postmodern suspicion of teleological interpretations of history — the faith that history is moving toward some goal, such as socialism. Postmodern thinkers also reject the Marxian idea that cultural life is primarily a reflection of economic relations. Many recent Marxists have responded respectfully to postmodern critiques and adapted their theories accordingly, but attitudes among Marxists vary widely today, and very few scholars have the guts to identify themselves with the M word.
Cross-pollination among different schools of thought is how intellectual history happens, but critics of intellectualism itself (which is what Trumpist conservatives have become) refuse to recognize distinctions and nuances and the way they play off each other.
The wide range of difference among adherents to “socialism” itself is also lost on the neo-McCarthyites, who can’t shut up about it. Anarchist socialism, state socialism, Christian socialism, market socialism, libertarian socialism, democratic socialism — a lot of people put a little sugar in their red gravy, but that doesn’t make spaghetti a chocolate cake.
Predictably, right-wing arguments are against the word itself more than the variety of political persuasions under the “socialist” umbrella. They love to point to the repressiveness of Maoist China, the Soviet Union, North Korea and today’s Venezuela. They are absolutely correct that all of these regimes did or do proudly bear the “socialist” label, but almost always married to terms even Republicans deem virtuous — such as “Republic” and “Democratic.”
The real bogeyman conservatives try to pass off as “socialism” is “authoritarianism” — a term more readily applied to Trump’s assaults on the First Amendment, voting rights and judicial due process than to “socialist” arguments for economic reform. I might add that nothing is more obnoxious — or less credible — than to hear followers of Donald Trump warn against abuse of democratic norms and civic engagement.
But what bothers Trump conservatives most about today’s campus culture isn’t really socialism at all. “Socialism” just serves as a convenient smear, a catch-all term of opprobrium. Before evidence of Sanders’ unexpected popularity in 2016, they used the more general pejorative, “radical,” to trash collegiate lefties.
Radical was the more useful word if only because it’s less precise. Among other political stirrings, it covers feminism and anti-racism, which are, I believe, the true target of Trumpnik ire. Are feminism and anti-racism socialist? Yes, they can be, in the sense that mainstream socialist movements have tended to embrace equality across racial and gender lines for over a hundred years. But not all feminists and anti-racists are also socialists. And not all socialists (if we consider the breadth of theories and movements under that broad umbrella) are feminist and anti-racist.
Actually, though race and gender studies remain all the rage on campus, the more purely Marxist concern with social class, labor exploitation, and economic disparity (as distinct from intersections with race and gender) is rare. Marxism was in vogue among humanities scholars in the 1970s, maybe even the 1980s, but it has long since been replaced by critiques that are more concerned with other “radical” lines of division: race, gender, and, the latest craze, eco-criticism.
There’s a reason that Marxism is not popular among today’s academics, and it has to do with how profoundly un-socialist the academic workplace has become. Tenure-track professors are among the most privileged employees of any middle-class institution in America, but they make up less than half of the people actually teaching students in a college classroom or online.
When my mentors began teaching, in the 1970s and ‘80s, many were hired as adjuncts and eventually promoted to the tenure track. But that doesn’t happen anymore. For those of us, the majority of college faculty, who broke from lockstep careerism and ventured forth from the groves of academe for even a year or two after getting our degrees, the tenure track is forever out of reach. It’s the gig economy for us. We will be teaching on one-year contracts, with low pay and no hope of advancement, for our entire careers. If tenure-track professors were so socialist, they would take a stand against this. Instead, they’re more inclined to jealously guard their own privileges, while congratulating themselves for trendily assuring that the next tenured position will be a “diversity hire” (anyone but a white straight male).
It’s feminist and anti-racist to increase the presence of non-white and women faculty, and it’s a project that I’m on board for, but there’s nothing distinctly socialist about it. The socialist thing to do would be to insure that some academic workers aren’t benefitting from the exploitation of other workers (like having their sabbaticals paid for by the labor of teachers who will never get a sabbatical). Another socialist thing to do would be for exploited intellectual labor to forge bonds with the millions of Americans in similarly precarious positions and demand greater economic security for all. The improbability of that ever happening is a testament to conservative success in dividing Americans along cultural rather than economic lines.
The old conservative goal of keeping a critical mass of white working-class voters from joining in solidarity with people who share their economic needs has been greatly advanced in the Trump era, even if the white working class presence among the minority of voters who put Trump in the White House is often overstated.
More and more, it’s not (only) income but education level that divides us. The animus toward universities and the people associated with them is a big part of the glue that binds Trump’s base together. Because of Trump we’ve seen, for the first time, the political lines of left and right polarize along levels of educational attainment. Trump is payback for that C-minus some stuck-up English teacher gave a voter in high school, and his supporters love it when members of the snobby cultural elite cringe at the president’s latest crude tweet.
There are many ways to do college, but the traditional four-year liberal arts institution, with a beautiful residential campus, is what conservative hate mongers are getting at with their imaginative slurs about “snowflakes” being coddled and indoctrinated in “safe spaces” free of conservative ideas. They’re wrong about the range of ideas covered in the liberal arts, and their caricature of intellectuals as whiny, weak children is, of course, offensive and typically stupid. We just need to remember that, as with all bullies, it’s their own insecurities that cause them to demonize people who have skills that they lack.
But they’re right about this much: four-year liberal arts colleges are elite institutions. They shouldn’t be. The solution is to make them less elite by making the experience more accessible. Not everyone wants to sit around and talk about big ideas for four years, but many more people would like to than can afford it. The outrageous price tag is what makes the experience seem like a frivolous luxury. Making college free, or close to it, is the only solution to the biggest problem with college today. Free college would be more accessible to people who want to do it. Equally valuable, it would be less of an emblem of privilege for those whose talents lie in other areas.
But our era is defined by the politics of resentment. The conservative infotainment juggernaut that got Trump elected is far more interested in stoking distrust between different groups than in celebrating difference as strength. One of the conservatives I most admire, the late John McCain, put it well in his final speech on the floor of the Senate, in the summer of 2017: “Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio and television and the Internet. To hell with them. They don’t want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood.”
As long as the people who want to do something about college affordability continue to be demonized as “socialists” by people who have no interest in figuring out what the term really means, college will become more and more the preserve of the economically elite, and the gap between levels of educational attainment will only grow. So will the hatefulness and spite that are the most distinctive contributions Trump and his admirers have made to our political culture.
The problem with higher education today is the cost. Period. The only worthwhile discussion to have is how to bring that cost down, to levels asked of students and parents in “socialist” strongholds like Canada, the U.K., France, Holland, and Germany.
If you think citizens of those countries have traded their freedom for the great public services their governments guarantee, maybe you could use a couple of college courses yourself.
C.W. Cannon’s latest novel is “Sleepytime Down South.”
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