The modern Republican Party hates education.
A bold statement, I know, but it’s becoming more evident all the time.
Oh sure, they oppose Critical Race Theory and all forms of anti-racist curriculum, comprehensive sex education, and the Common Core standards proposed during the Obama Administration.
But I’m not talking about any of that.
Conservatives’ objections aren’t simply about specific types of instruction — they’re about the very process of schooling itself.
They oppose it and regularly make their disdain for education and the educated evident.
I first noticed it nearly 20 years ago, when then-president George W. Bush joked to students at Yale about having been a C student there. As W explained it, grades obviously didn’t matter; after all, you could be thoroughly unremarkable from an academic standpoint, as he had been, and still go on to run the country.
As bizarre as the moment was — it was odd to see an American president dismiss the importance of academic achievement — at least W’s embrace of intellectual mediocrity came from a place of humility and self-deprecation. Bush wasn’t trying to dunk on the process of education itself, so much as poking fun at his own advance despite having been an average student.
Compared to what we have now, this would be preferable, even endearing.
Because today, Cs at Yale aren’t sufficient evidence of one’s ordinariness — not enough to mark one as a “regular” person in the eyes of the right.
The modern right is increasingly hostile to “book learnin’.”
Most recently, conservatism has gone all-in on their hostility to formal education, with Congressman Madison Cawthorn telling college students at the Turning Point USA conference to drop out — as he had done — because higher education is a “scam.”
Noting that he was homeschooled all of his life (as if we couldn’t tell), Cawthorn insisted he was proud to be a dropout and that anyone in college now should drop out and start a family while they’re young. Well, unless they were planning to be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer, in which case even he allows that perhaps a few more years of school might be advisable.
Conservatives’ objections aren’t simply about specific types of instruction — like Critical Race Theory, comprehensive sex education or Common Core — they’re about the very process of schooling itself.
Indeed, Cawthorn said he thinks everyone should be homeschooled, as well, suggesting that it isn’t just higher education he opposes but schooling in general, outside the confines of one’s family in a presumably Christian environment.
Likewise, Turning Point’s director Charlie Kirk (also a college dropout) dismissed the importance of higher education. To Kirk, the only reason one might want to go — to meet people and make connections, because learning things, one supposes, is for losers — isn’t really worth it. After all, he explained, you can meet more people and make better contacts at one of his conferences than in college.
The right’s hostility to higher education is so ascendant that even those in the party educated at the world’s most elite institutions feel obliged to play along as just ordinary folks — as if they had been satisfied with a high school diploma or the local state college.
From Ron DeSantis (Yale and Harvard Law) to Senators Cruz (Princeton and Harvard Law) and Hawley (Stanford and Yale Law), today’s Republicans preen as regular Joes despite their own coveted academic credentials.
Right-wing populism is driving anti-intellectualism — and it’s going to get worse
In some ways, it’s not surprising that the right has become a movement hostile to higher ed. Over the past few decades, three of its most prominent media personalities — persons who have defined the ideological terrain for the modern Republican Party — failed to obtain (or even seek) college degrees: Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck.
And the disdain for “book learnin” has been a growing tendency among the right as it has drifted increasingly towards reactionary populism and away from the conservatism of the William F. Buckley school.
A 2017 Pew Research Center Survey found increasing hostility to colleges among conservatives and Republicans, with nearly 6 in 10 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents saying that colleges and universities “have a negative effect” on the nation, a dramatic increase from the previous year when 45 percent felt that way.
No doubt this trend explains why Donald Trump felt comfortable famously bragging about winning the votes of those with less education — noting that he “(loves) the poorly educated” — and why, throughout his administration, dismissal of credentialed knowledge was a common theme.
The poorly educated are, in fact, rock stars of the new right now.
Even 25 years ago, the GOP would have been embarrassed to have prominent spokespeople like Lauren Boebert — someone who dropped out of high school and only completed her GED once she decided to run for Congress.
But now, her lack of formal education gives her legitimacy to vast swaths of the Republican base.
It’s precisely the fact that she hasn’t been corrupted by professors in tweed jackets with elbow patches — or, for that matter, even by a 12th-grade chemistry class — that makes her a poster child for modern conservatism.
This anti-intellectualism will only intensify as the party becomes more enamored of populism. Populist sentiment has long revered the wisdom of the “common man,” so to speak, and has long distrusted elites — whether perceived in economic, political, or academic terms.
Conservative insecurities require an anti-education ideology
In addition to populism, conservative insecurities push the GOP towards an anti-intellectual stance
One hallmark of conservative thinking is being less open to nuance, ambiguity, and new experiences. This is why folks on the right tend to be more rigid, more religious, and more given to straightforward notions of morality and righteousness.
Liberals and progressives, on the other hand, tend to be open to experience and ambiguity, sometimes to a fault, and in ways that make it hard for them to get things done.
Openness to experience and ambiguity, almost by definition, is a mindset that encourages exploration and deepening one’s base of knowledge. Such things aren’t threatening to liberals because they play to the thing that animates liberal-minded people.
Because they are more fixed in their thinking, conservatives see nuance and deepening of knowledge — beyond what one already knows to be true because one’s family or the Bible says so — to be threatening.
Education and schooling, especially in the modern era, encourage young people to think for themselves and learn things beyond the provincial boundaries of the families whence they come.
To liberals, this is the very point of school.
To conservatives, this is a harbinger of doom. They view it as an assault on the sanctity of the family, the prerogatives of parents, and the eternal truths of Scripture.
This is why, in case you were confused about it, right-wing Christians rarely go to seminary or study theology. They go to Bible Colleges, where they are told how to interpret the Bible, not encouraged to think about Scripture in historical context or consider multiple interpretations.
The right prefers closed circles. And education is not about closed circles — it’s about open minds.
Because conservatives are insecure about threats to their traditionalist worldview, they see education as the enemy, so long as that education encourages any form of critical thinking, as good schooling is wont to do.
But because of their hostility to formal education and the critical thinking it encourages, the right also must attack and demean those who obtain such education.
This, too, is about insecurity — insecurity about the base of knowledge others have, which they don’t.
When confronted by others who know more than you about something, you can either obtain the knowledge (which is time-consuming and undesired in any event by most on the right) or demean the very process by which those others “got so smart” in the first place.
By dis-identifying with academic achievement, conservatives can articulate hostility to the highly educated as if their credentials are what make them the enemy.
It’s why — along with racism — so many right-wingers complained about Barack Obama speaking “like a professor.” Professors are the people who make you feel stupid because they know more than you. And conservatives are too insecure to allow that others know more than them about anything.
So with something like COVID, the very fact that doctors and scientists study these issues and have spent years doing so is what makes them unreliable.
It’s as if they’re trying to prove how much better they are than the rest of us — how much smarter.
And that means they’re arrogant and haughty and need to be brought down a notch. At least, that’s what some folks’ egos are telling them needs to happen.
It’s a never-ending loop of anti-intellectual fuckery, and it’s only going to get worse.
. . .
The irony of all this is how much the modern American right resembles the very forces they hate most.
Here are people who make a point of their disdain for fundamentalist and extremist Islam but, as with the Taliban, don’t value education — especially for women and girls, and even for the men if that education strays from religious dogma.
Or Boko Haram, which literally translates to, wait for it…“Education is Forbidden.”
At the rate we’re going now, it’s only a matter of time before yelling at school board members is not enough for these people. Soon, they’ll be dragging teachers out of the classrooms, burning books in open pyres, and reinstating Christian prayers in public schools, non-believers and the Constitution be damned.
Unless that is, we stand up for education, learning, critical thought, and democracy.
And unless we do it now.
This post was previously published on Tim Wise’s blog.
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