The History Behind How Americans View Higher Education

Download Audio
University of California Berkeley students march through campus during a strike in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011. (Max Whittaker/Getty Images)
University of California Berkeley students march through campus during a strike in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011. (Max Whittaker/Getty Images)

Fifty-eight percent of Republicans in America now say that colleges and universities have a negative impact on the direction of the country, according to an annual survey conducted by Pew Research Center.

The same survey found that 72 percent of responding Democrats hold a positive view, raising the question: When did higher education become a partisan issue?

Historians Ed Ayers (@edward_l_ayers) and Nathan Connolly (@ndbconnolly) say the history of colleges and universities is intrinsically tied to conflict and difference of opinion. Here & Now's Lisa Mullins speaks with Ayers and Connolly, co-hosts of the podcast BackStory, which is produced at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

Interview Highlights

On how long higher education has been a partisan issue in America

Nathan Connolly: "It's important to keep in mind that colleges are older than the country itself, that they're older than any business. And they have been fraught with conflicts of various kinds. You have gentlemen scholars and kind of hardcore intellectuals. You have, obviously, the conflicts that arose around the incorporation of women and people of color in the 19th century. Even whether or not someone would study classics or vocations became a site of bitter contest.

"To really appreciate where we are with the narrative and the headlines now, you have to understand that conflict is built in to the enterprise of higher education. I think it's also important to bear in mind that what we're seeing is really a 20th-century story insofar as, most people didn't need college to enter the middle class, or didn't believe they needed college to enter the middle class, and so you're going to get fresh conflicts and really, stark divides around what it simply means to be a member of the middle class in America revolving around colleges and universities."

Ed Ayers: "There's all these different layers of conflict and of continuity and change. I think the real origins of all of this lie after World War II, when American higher education was transformed by the GI Bill, and then 15, 20 years later by the integration of women who now account for the majority of college students, which is a very rapid change. And by the incorporation of people from all different kinds of ethnic backgrounds, financial aid. What you're seeing is kind of a partisan overlay over a big cultural divide, over a fundamental economic and demographic transition. So it's got as many elements as you can imagine."

On the origins of partisan debates over higher education

EA: "One of the reasons there are so many colleges is that every denomination felt that it had to have its own in order to teach its children the right version. Then of course you have, every kind of religious faith creates its own colleges and universities. So in many ways that partisan divide was the engine behind one reason we have 4,000 colleges and universities now. What you're talking about with partisan divide is the Democrats and Republicans. You would have found for a long time, it was good business for everybody to build this infrastructure of higher education."

NC: "As much as we focus on partisanship, there's a way in which that emphasis really does conceal deeper fault lines and deeper divides. Even as we talk about the creation of the middle class in the mid part of the 20th century, we have to bear in mind that our current understanding of higher education is really framed by a number of different economic factors, and one of them has to be understood as the flatlining of wages in America over the last 50 years. You can find a number of different ways to look at this, but for me, one of the most compelling numbers is $1.49, which is the amount in real wages that working people have had as an increase over the last 50 years. So with all the expectation, that one is supposed to go to college and one is supposed to work a decent, white-collar job, you're not seeing wages increase in any amount that is commensurate with the kind of investment that college currently represents for most working families."

On the finding that 58 percent of Republicans in America don't think higher education serves the best interest of the country

EA: "I am a university professor. I'm also a former dean and a former president. So I've seen what this looks like up close, and what I can tell you is that people may say this in a poll, but I don't find any shortage of Democrats or Republicans who want their kids to go to the very best college that they can. So there's a disconnect between the rhetoric and reality on this front."

NC: "I think it's also important to keep in mind that, despite that we're seeing in people on the right being suspicious of higher education, has a strange correlation with our election of the professor in chief in terms of Barack Obama. There was a way in which he was cast as being out of touch and elite, almost by default disconnected from middle America as a former law school professor. There are obviously other kinds of questions around whether or not universities are really the kinds of hiding places of radicals of various kinds that lead to a certain suspicion on the part of those who are on the right about higher education.

"But the other thing too is that, even when you talk about some of the more elite institutions, the vast majority of Americans go to our public institutions in this country. They're part of various state systems in Florida, in Texas and elsewhere. And there really is an important effort on the part of many people to really just understand that these institutions have to be responsive to the needs of everyday folk, whether you're talking about keeping tuition costs low, whether you're talking about the ways in which tuition is climbing in many of these places relative to the expenses of these educational systems. At a less lofty level, there are people who are concerned with really basic things like open carry laws that you see being put forward in states like Kansas or in Texas. And I think each one of these moments is an affirmation of what Ed said earlier, which is that politics is always going to be involved in higher education. It has long been a place where you look to institutions like universities to kind of set the next generation of political things in order. And I guess I would simply just say that even if we have a partisan fault line of one kind or another, that our success as a society will really depend on our ability to deal with those deepest fault lines — the economic ones and the ones that really are invisible beyond some of the chatter."

This article was originally published on July 21, 2017.

This segment aired on July 21, 2017.



More from Here & Now

Listen Live