Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Education as the Great Divider

You read about how a master’s degree is the new bachelor’s degree. And while our top colleges and universities remain globally competitive – the platinum standard, if you will – for state institutions, budget cuts at every level are resulting in larger class size combined with rising tuition and staggering student loans. Quality is harder to achieve and maintain, yet there are lots very highly-educated people in this country “running stuff.” As populism grips this nation, as we are splintering over religious beliefs, ethnicity and race, gender, income inequality, NY Times writer and Colby College Professor of Sociology, Neil Gross, began examining how advanced (post-bachelor’s degree) education has both shaped our policies and increased the distance between government (people “running stuff”) and the people governed.
In a May 13th piece, Gross asked the question, “Why Are the Highly Educated So Liberal?” He was inspired to pursue this question based upon Alvin Gouldner’s 1979 book, The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class. Gouldner believed that the campus protest movements of the 1960s (UC Berkeley is pictured above) signaled that the highly educated were on their way to becoming a major political force in American society. Gross wanted to take a look back to see if that perception was correct… and if so, what impact such changes have had on the fracturing of America. Had this super-educated elite become an unstoppably powerful political bloc?
In April, “the Pew Research Center released a study showing that nearly a third of those who went to graduate or professional school have ‘down the line’ liberal views on social, economic and environmental matters, whereas this is true for just one in 10 Americans generally. An additional quarter of postgrads have mostly liberal views. These numbers reflect drastic change: While professionals have been in the Democratic column for a while, in 1994 only 7 percent of postgrads held consistently liberal political opinions.” NY Times. An amazing attitudinal shift!
The need for highly-educated specialists accelerated as society became increasingly reliant on complex technology, as globalization exploded, and as increasing commercial and political interaction required sophisticated financial and legal expertise just to function. A new class of professionals – wedged between the “old” wealthiest classes and the working classes – generated a new political force to be reckoned with. They were smart and had real incomes.
“A distinguishing feature of this new class, according to Dr. Gouldner, was the way it spoke and argued. Steeped in science and expert knowledge, it embraced a ‘culture of critical discourse.’ Evidence and logic were valued; appeals to traditional sources of authority were not. Members of the new class raised their children in such a culture. And it was these children, allergic to authoritarian values, who as young adults were at the center of the student revolts, finding common ground with disaffected ‘humanistic’ intellectuals bent on changing the world.” NY Times.
Gross dug deeper: “While there’s ample evidence of the professional class using its economic and educational capital to preserve its advantages — think of the clustering of professionals into exclusive neighborhoods, or the early immersion of professional-class children into a world of literacy, art and science — its move left is evident even on questions of economic redistribution. My own analysis of data from the General Social Survey shows that in recent decades, as class inequality has increased, Americans who hold advanced degrees have grown more supportive of government efforts to reduce income differences, whether through changes to taxes or strengthening the welfare system.
“On this issue, the views of the highly educated are now similar to those of groups with much lower levels of education, who have a real material stake in reducing inequalities. Even higher-income advanced degree holders have become more redistributionist, if less so than others.
“What explains the consolidation of the highly educated into a liberal bloc? The growing number of women with advanced degrees is part of it, as well-educated women tend to be especially left-leaning. Equally important is the Republican Party’s move to the right since the 1980s — at odds with the social liberalism that has long characterized the well-educated — alongside the perception that conservatives are anti-intellectual, hostile to science and at war with the university.
“This phenomenon is mostly a boon for the Democratic Party. While only 10 percent of American adults hold advanced degrees, that number is expected to rise. The group is active politically and influential.” Even on issues that are not directly-linked to income inequality, unsurprisingly, educated people prioritize their analyses from a logical, critical, scientific perspective. Think of issues like evolution, abortion and climate change. Apply conservative biblical teachings and you get one result. Apply logic and scientific method and you usually get the opposite.
Further, as society imposes an uncertain future with strong downward economic vectors on the vast majority of its citizens – 70% of our workforce has faced over two and a half decades of declining buying power – frustration grows even as the number of contributing factors are exceptionally complex. Global competition, productivity realignment, technology and automation, increased battles for diminishing resources, damage (drought, flooding, fires, etc.) from climate change, terrorism, rapid urbanization, teen pregnancy, and struggles between nations and cultures, to name a few.
Highly educated people understand the complexity of the interweaving of causation, know that there are no simple solutions and understand that tweaking and adjusting the system is simply part of coping with it all. Those without the competency to understand this nexus of complexity, if they even care to have an opinion, are more likely to outsource their opinions to those with easy-to-understand catchy slogans, unable to discern the fallacy of such directives, or fallback on the Great Problem Solver – God. The chasm widens.
Each side often looks upon the other with a level of disdain and frustration. Some of the mega-bright take advantage of those without training to lead self-serving political careers based on crass manipulation. Others in the mega-bright class use that intelligence to foment income inequality for their own benefit. The chasm is becoming a canyon.
Another cadre of these educated classes go into law and government (or believe that government is the proper venue to address complex issues). Generally, you don’t get to the highest levels of military or governmental bureaucracies by being under-educated. But if you apply the emotional reactions noted above, you can see two aspects of the rising populism around us. One is a sense of betrayal even from the rising educated young against those in the mega-educated elite who are, in their eyes, only serving the rich incumbent elites. Enter Bernie Sanders. But the other, more threatening reaction, comes from those who do not have that educational bent who deeply resent that these mega-educated elites have led a government during a period of their precipitous economic decline, who seem to scoff at their religious or patriotic values. Donald Trump.
Combine both these factions, add a government that seems unable to address their concerns because of its own gridlock (inability to compromise), and you have a recipe for serious social change – okay, I’ll use the words, “regime change” – right here in the good old U.S.A. Democrats have always assumed that they represent those citizens not at the top of the food chain, but they seem to miss the point that too many Dems don’t remotely speak the same language of that constituency.
“The challenge for the Democrats moving forward will be to develop appeals to voters that resonate not just with this important [educated] constituency, but also with other crucial groups in the Democratic coalition. Some of the draw of Donald Trump for white working-class male voters, for example, is that he does not speak in a culture of critical discourse. Indeed, he mocks that culture, tapping into class resentments.
“The Democrats may find they need to give up a little of their wonkiness if they want resounding victories. It’s not in their long-term interest to be too much what Pat Buchanan once referred to as the party of the Ph.D.s.’ NY Times. If we are unable to embrace compromise, sympathize with those with contrary opinions (whatever the basis) and become Americans first, America simply won’t last.
I’m Peter Dekom, and the political canary on our geopolitical coal mine is really, really sick, gasping for air.

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