College Has Gone to the Dogs

Who hates college? Nobody, really. But if you squinted your eyes a little when you read the recent Pew poll results, you might be fooled into thinking conservatives had suddenly turned against higher education.PP_17.06.30_institutions_lede_party

Here’s what we know: Since 2010, Pew has surveyed American adults about their feelings toward major institutions. In just the last few years, more and more respondents who identify as Republican or Republican-ish say that higher education is having a negative overall effect on American society. In 2010, only a third of Republicans thought so. Today, it is up to 58%.

What’s going on? As always, Pew wisely doesn’t jump to hasty conclusions. My guess is that many of us chatterers will rush to say that conservatives in general are anti-intellectual, or that conservatives think college is a waste of time. Or, given the sudden shift in numbers, maybe that conservatives are dismayed by the snowflake protests that seem to be sweeping American campuses.

Maybe, but I think there’s more to it.

First of all, obviously, we can’t equate “conservative” with “Republican.” True enough, these days most conservatives’ votes have been captured by the GOP. Not all, though. And certainly not all Republicans are conservatives.pp second graph

I think there’s also something more important going on. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing, I’ve been up to my eyeballs for the past few years in research about American higher education. The group of conservative dissenting college founders I’m studying was often accused of being anti-intellectual and anti-college. They were neither.

As I’m arguing in my upcoming book, Protestant fundamentalists cared a lot about ideas and about college. They loved college. But if you only listened to their rhetoric, it would be easy to assume too quickly that they were somehow opposed to higher education.

Consider, for example, one apocryphal story that made the rounds among 1920s fundamentalist pundits. It was supposed to be a letter home from an evangelical college grad. As he supposedly told his mother,

My soul is a starving skeleton; my heart a petrified rock; my mind is poisoned and fickle as the wind, and my faith is as unstable as water. . . . I wish that I had never seen a college.  I hope you will warn the young men of the impending danger just ahead of them.

For fundamentalists in the 1920s, college was a terrible spiritual danger. But that didn’t mean they were against college. Rather, they were fervently against college done wrong. They were against the trends that they correctly perceived to be driving mainstream trends in higher ed.

What did they do? They didn’t stop sending their kids to college. Rather, they founded their own institutions, reliably fundamentalist colleges such as Bob Jones College (now Bob Jones University) and Bryan University (now Bryan College). They also flocked to existing reliably fundamentalist institutions such as Wheaton College and the Moody Bible Institute.

My hunch is that today’s Pew respondents are similar. When they tell pollsters they don’t trust college or “the media,” it doesn’t mean they don’t like higher education or newspapers. Rather, it means they don’t trust the smarmy elites that they think run such institutions.

Here’s what I wish I could do: Have the Pewsters add some follow-up questions. When people say they don’t trust colleges, ask them if they want their kids to go to college anyway. And then ask them what would restore their trust in higher education.

Here’s what I think people would say: Even if they don’t trust college, they want their children to attend. But they would prefer to find a school that reflected their own values, instead of the radical leftism that many people think dominates colleges today.