Inside Higher Education has recently joined the chorus of–or at least, provided fodder to– those who equate more education with leftist indoctrination.
Americans with college degrees are to the left of the majority of Americans who lack a college degree. And a new study by the Pew Research Center shows that those who have attended graduate school are even farther to the left than those who have only an undergraduate degree.
File this under “And what else is new?”
The academy has been accused of inculcating “elitist,” liberal, unrealistic attitudes ever since I can remember. The widespread suspicion of people who choose the “life of the mind” over commerce or honest labor is at the heart of contemporary efforts to judge the value of universities by comparing job placement statistics. (It’s okay if you just attend college to acquire skills for the marketplace, but be careful that your job training isn’t subverted by some artsy-fartsy detour into learning for its own sake.)
When you learn more, evidently, it turns you liberal.
To some extent, that’s undoubtedly true. The real problem with today’s facile equation of educated people and political liberalism, however, is that the definition of terms like conservative and liberal, never very precise, have changed over the years–and rather dramatically, at that.
Today, we dismiss as “liberal” the person who sees issues as complex, who changes her mind about a policy if new evidence suggests that previous understandings were incomplete, who relies on evidence rather than unsupported assertion. (A contemporary liberal is unlikely to sign that petition to keep trans people out of restrooms, for example, because there has never been a reported problem.) Today’s liberal is less likely to believe something because a religious figure has proclaimed that “God said so,” and more likely to accept scientific consensus about things like the age of the earth, evolution and climate change.
In short, today’s liberal looks a lot like the 18th Century Enlightenment figures who gave us science, empiricism and the social contract.
While my students have difficult believing it, liberalism so understood used to be common in the Republican party. Republicans and Democrats used to occupy broad areas of agreement, differing primarily over the policies most likely to achieve agreed-upon ends. Back then, those shared worldviews were labeled “moderate.”
As the GOP turned into the God Squad, and those areas of agreement diminished, “Republican” became synonymous with “conservative” and “Democrat” became another word for liberal.
As a result, when educated people identify as liberal these days, they don’t necessarily mean left-wing populist or socialist. They certainly don’t identify with the Left as it developed in Europe. They don’t even necessarily “feel the Bern.”
These days, what they mean is something like “I’m not one of the nut-cases doing grocery shopping with my open-carry weapon. I don’t throw rocks at gay people, or burn copies of the Koran, and I don’t forward racist, sexist and anti-Semitic emails. I’m not one of the people calling myself ‘pro life’ when I’m really just pro-birth and anti-woman. I’m not stupid enough to think American can deport twelve million people, or carpet-bomb the Middle East or reverse same-sex marriage. I understand that issues are complicated, that facts matter, and that people who don’t look like me have rights too.”
Today, someone who says those things is a Democrat. Or– in contemporary parlance– a liberal.
It wasn’t always that way.