The Conservative Critique of Higher Education Misses the Mark

Prius Politics -- Seen at a campus near you!
Prius Politics — Seen at a campus near you!

W.J. Astore

I have conservative friends (Yes, I do!) who express disfavor with higher education.  They see higher ed as being in lockstep with liberal/leftist agendas.  Things like gay marriage, aggressive feminism, multiculturalism, and diversity that focuses not on wide-ranging political views but on the politics of gender and race.  They further see higher ed as being unfriendly to conservatives, hostile to organized religion (especially Christianity), and intolerant of alternative views that challenge leftist shibboleths.

There’s truth to this critique.  I’ve been around enough liberal faculty members to recognize a certain collectivism, often manifested by smug superiority, in their treatment of anyone who challenges their views.  So-called Birkenstock Bolsheviks are hardly immune to prejudice, including the refusal of job interviews or the denial of tenure to conservatives.  Such prejudice is especially galling among faculties that pride themselves on tolerance.

But while conservatives fight loud skirmishes against conformist liberals in higher ed, they ignore real battles of enormous significance.  The middle class in America continues to wither, even as the cost of higher ed spirals ever upwards (Americans now carry more student loan debt than credit card debt); financial and corporate elites continue to gain more power at the expense of the little guy, even in higher ed, which is increasingly obedient to business imperatives; the American empire continues to grow, and the individual rights of Americans continue to atrophy, even as higher ed willingly genuflects before the military-industrial-homeland security complex.

Everywhere in American society, including in higher ed, we see the exercise of power without regard to communal functions.  And most liberals (and conservatives) in higher ed either kowtow to power or hunker down in their own little academic fiefs. 

To liberals in higher ed, the power elites basically say: We’ll give you gay marriage, we’ll give you your left-leaning courses on feminist basket making in the Punjab.  But we reserve real power, the power that translates into money and influence, for ourselves.  Even liberal icons like President Obama are just the multicultural happy face on a power structure that continues to screw the little guy and gal. 

Think about it.  Whether you’re liberal or conservative, do you believe you have any real say in America?  Any real power?  Any real speech?  Compared to financial and corporate elites, who are now citizens and who can outshout you with billions of dollars in political campaign “donations”?

Again, those wine-drinking and cheese-eating liberals in academe, with their smug, Prius- and Volvo-driven politics, may be annoying, but they have no real power except to annoy.

Of course, in some ways this is nothing new.  President Dwight Eisenhower identified part of the problem: the growing domination of militarized corporate agendas in the name of “security.”  What has made it worse is our permanent war footing, which both drives and justifies fascism-lite, and which works to break down the social contract.  Even Ike couldn’t foresee the extent to which Washington and the Congress have become beholden to, and virtually owned by, major corporate and financial interests.

The character Gordon Gekko’s quote of “greed is good” from the movie Wall Street caught the Zeitgeist of the 1980s.  Then in the recent sequel Gekko adds: “Now it seems it’s legal,” a statement as sardonically funny as it is indicative of America’s new 21st century Zeitgeist.

To preserve their power and perks, the rich and powerful use their usual divide and conquer strategy, in which they sic the middling orders on the welfare class.  Look over there!  A lazy welfare mom buying king crab legs using food stamps!  Even as another CEO cashes in his golden parachute for $10 million and another luxury yacht.

The media serve power, the politicians serve money/power, and when politicians leave office, they cash in as well.  It’s all a circle jerk in which the little guy gets hosed.

Colleges and universities, in the meantime, are divided or distracted by identity politics and the usual grievances and petty animosities, even as administrators increasingly align themselves with corporate types, who promise to run a tighter ship while cutting benefits (including health care) to temporary/contingent faculty.

So, my message to my conservative friends is this: Don’t worry about the leftist types in higher ed who get under your skin: they’re just parlor pinks.  They have the power to annoy, and within academe they have a smidgen of authority.  But they have no real power, especially when compared to our corporatist state, to multinationals, to the big banks, Wall Street, and the K Street lobbyists.

If you don’t believe me, if you continue to chew the carpet at midnight, pause for a moment and ask yourself this question: When was the last time Prius-driving liberals with their “Coexist” bumper stickers got $700 billion from American taxpayers in the TARP to bail them out?

A Bumper Sticker Collage

A collage of bumper stickers in Great Barrington, Mass.
A collage of bumper stickers in Great Barrington, Mass.  Photo by the author.

A sequel to our recent article, Dueling Bumper Stickers

I remember making collages in grade school; they were always good fun.  I came across this collage of bumper stickers yesterday at the Gypsy Joint Cafe in Great Barrington, Mass.  (They make scrumptious sandwiches and salads, by the way.)

It’s a representative sample of sentiments that are common to progressive places.  (But note the “Don’t mess with Texas,” which is representative of, well, Texans.)

It’s hard to argue with “Teach Peace” or “Peace Is Patriotic.”  “Folk the War” is pretty straightforward.  And I do like the idea of living the life that I love.  And I hope that the more I know, the less I need.

Now I need to find a similar collage of conservative stickers.  Will those stickers be as idealistic, as upbeat, as focused on sustainable food and education and music and peace?

I’m betting not.

W.J. Astore

Dueling Bumper Stickers

Coexist_by_Chima1B52SuperiorFirepower

I occasionally travel from north central Pennsylvania, a mostly rural, generally conservative, area to Amherst, Massachusetts, home of generally liberal colleges like Amherst and Smith.  It’s an adventure in dueling bumper stickers.

In Amherst, I’m told to “coexist” with my neighbors, to “enlighten up,” to seek “peace.”  I’m told to go organic and to support my local farmers.  Perhaps my favorite Amherst bumper sticker was the one that told me, “I’m already against the next war.”

Just today in Pennsylvania, I was taught different lessons by different stickers.  I was told to seek “peace thru superior firepower.”  I was encouraged to join the NRA (National Rifle Association, of course) and to “stand and fight.”  I was reminded that “All gave some — some gave all,” with the image of a soldier kneeling next to the grave of a comrade in arms.  “Don’t tread on me,” the slogan of tea partiers, is a common t-shirt and flag.

I suppose these are visible reminders of red versus blue America.  The America of “freedom isn’t free,” that we need to be tough and strong and assertive to defend ourselves against evil-doers, versus the America of harmony and accord to be achieved through greater understanding and tolerance.

The conservatives always seem to have the funnier stickers.  My all-time favorite (seen many years ago in Colorado) is “Ted Kennedy’s Car Has Killed More People Than My Gun.”

Perhaps there’s a lesson in this.  Always suspect slogans, especially those that fit on a bumper sticker.  And not only conservative ones.  Let’s not forget the vapid “hope” and “change” of the Obama campaign, words that were so malleable and fuzzy that they basically meant nothing.  Or they meant what you wanted them to mean, which is almost the same thing.

Maybe a friend of mine is right when he expresses a wish that Americans would just shut up and stop airing their political and social views on their cars and trucks.

It is something that is peculiarly American.  Can we imagine a German citizen with a sticker on his BMW that says “Peace thru superior firepower,” with a Stuka dive bomber featured?  Yet Americans think little of having such a sticker featuring the image of a B-52 Stratofortress.

Lessons?  I don’t know.  I catch the humor in some of these stickers, but some of them really make me wonder.

America is a bellicose land: even our bumper stickers are at war with each other!

W.J. Astore