The Elections, Education and a Path to Reality

Steven S. Volk

It’s been a while. Some months have passed since I last posted to “After Class.” To those who have written wondering whether I’ve been stricken with COVID, fallen into a ditch, or just tired of writing: thanks for your concern. I’m fine, and actually have spent these last many months writing a book with my colleague, Beth Benedix of DePauw University. The Post-Pandemic Liberal Arts College: A Manifesto for Reinvention (Belt Publications) came out at the end of September. The book reaffirms our intense pride at having taught a (combined) half century in liberal arts colleges and seen generations of our students, regardless of their myriad career paths, remain engaged with their communities and devoted to what in Hebrew is called tikkun olam, repairing and making the world a better place. And, holy crap, is that ever needed now!

At the same time, we express our concern that, rather than taking advantage of their small size and residential nature, our colleges are replicating the departmental structures characteristic of much larger universities and holding fast to traditional pedagogies and curricula that do not adequately prepare students for the world they will enter. What is more, we have become increasingly frustrated by how these colleges, including our own, reproduce wider structures of economic exclusion and systemic racism. Although they are hardly alone in this, they have frequently become engines of inequality, using selectivity as a mask for elitism. Our “manifesto” suggests how, coming back from the COVID-19 pandemic, as we will, small liberal arts colleges should reimagine, reinvent, and redesign themselves to address these problems.

Anyway, I didn’t intend this to be so self-promotional, but (now that I’ve got your attention), should you be interested, you can order the book here and support an independent publisher in the process! Thanks.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Needless to say, I, with millions of others, have been concerned with the relatively rapid consolidation of a fact-free world, whose denizens now include a hefty chunk of the U.S. population and embrace the vast majority of those who identify with one of our two major political parties. According to a recent study, 70% of Republicans now say they don’t believe the 2020 election was free and fair, a doubling of the percentage of GOP voters who held similar beliefs just a few weeks earlier. And this despite the fact – fact – that no evidence has surfaced that could support such a claim. It appears that the less tethered to reality an allegation is, the more the Republican base believes it. I don’t need to replay for you the intense apprehension that comes with living in a society where people trust their social media feeds over a reality which they literally can see with their own eyes. Jodi Doering, an emergency room nurse in South Dakota wrote in anguish of her COVID-19 patients who, needing 100-percent-oxygen breathing assistance, still swear that the virus doesn’t exist. Those patients are drinking from the same well as Marvin Loftis, a Montana resident, who, when interviewed recently on NPR, characterized the pandemic as just “a big joke…It’s just another cold.” Which, I suppose, was a less jarring response than that delivered by Craig Mann, interviewed in the same report, who said of the virus that has now killed a quarter of a million people in the United States and infected over 55 million people worldwide, “It’s garbage. It’s absolute garbage. And there’s been plenty of proof behind the whole COVID pandemic, if you will, that links back to communist China. And it’s communist Marxism that they’re trying to push on this country.” (“Marxism” is now held to be responsible for everything from COVID and Joe Biden, to the “the steady feminization of our men.” Who knew that Marx was to blame for Harry Styles fashion choices?)

As educators at all levels and in all fields, much of our professional responsibility lies in the ability to bring evidence to our arguments, thereby distinguishing fact from fiction, reality from fantasy. If we are to be respected and considered seriously, we need to do this well, always mindful that new evidence can emerge, and that social constructs (epistemes) can and do shape the ways we represent the world. As Harriet Washington pointed out some years ago in Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, in the 18th and 19th centuries, scientific racism was simply “science,” and it was promulgated by the very best minds at the most prestigious institutions. We should never lack for humility and self-reflection.

And yet, what we are witnessing today is of a different level, not just a particularly racist social construction (which it certainly is), but a determination to lie, and lie big: a post-election rally of a few thousand Trump supporters was actually “More than one MILLION marchers,” protesters in Portland had created a situation “worse than Afghanistan.” As Bill Moyers remarked, “One of the biggest changes in politics in my lifetime is that the delusional is no longer marginal.”

Eons ago (2008), in The Age of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby wrote that “America is now ill with a powerful mutant strain of intertwined ignorance, anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism.” Fast forward a dozen years and it is utterly terrifying to see how rapidly demagogic leaders can find millions to follow them down their deranged and dangerous rabbit holes. For historians, like myself, there is no comfort in reminding others that we’ve seen it all before, because we know that it doesn’t turn out well.

But there are signs of hope. It will take some time to fully analyze voting patterns in the 2020 elections: why the top-of-the-ticket results diverged from those further down the ballot, or why progressive issues such as affirmative action failed in deep-blue California while sheriffs pledging to halting cooperation with ICE prevailed in red states. But preliminary exit-poll data did catch my attention, particularly to the extent that they confirmed trends regarding educational background and the youth vote.

Now, to be sure, educational attainment should not correlate with party preference in the normal course of events. But we are not experiencing anything like a normal course of events. The Republican Party has cemented itself to a grifter who rose to political prominence on the back of a racist lie (birtherism) and will exit the White House surely still clinging to the belief that he actually won the 2020 election, and by “millions of votes” at that. Together, Trump and the Republicans have turned mask-wearing, a common sense, low-cost public health measure, into a partisan battle about freedom, and they’ve done it in the midst of the worst pandemic we have faced in a century. But even before Trump, the Republican Party (both leaders and the grassroots) denied climate science (in their defense of fossil fuel producers) and evolution (to bolster its growing evangelical base). Nor should we forget that back in 2002 an aide to President George W. Bush, generally assumed to be Karl Rove, chided the journalist Ron Suskind saying that “that guys like me [Suskind] were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’” adding, “That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” It may be partisan, but there is both fact and reality behind the argument that the Republican Party has staked out a strong claim to the title of the party of “ignorance, anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism.”

Trump, whether as a political figure, a real estate developer, or a reality-TV personality, has always relied on the his ability to sell his audience something that’s much better than reality. The coal mines will come roaring back; Mexico will pay for the wall, trade wars are easily won. When, in 2016, Trump gushed, “I love the poorly educated,” you can be sure that he wasn’t conveying a brotherly love for the downtrodden. To sell to the gullible, you need those who will believe you more than their reality, who will deny COVID while languishing on a ventilator in a South Dakota ICU. Trump doesn’t just “love” the poorly educated, he requires them.

For an educator, then, it was encouraging to see that support for the Democrats in this election, which we will read as a proxy for support for a “reality-based community,” increased with the voter’s education level. Here’s the ABC News exit poll results for the presidential race, results which are quite similar to those of other polling agencies.

Analysis of the youth vote (voters between 18-29) was similarly tilted toward Biden. Here’s a fascinating map of the United States produced by CIRCLE (Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement) from Tufts, answering the question: What would the map look like If only young people voted?

The turnout of young voters in the 2020 election was also significantly higher than in the 2016 election. When all the counting is done, it is expected to show that 53-56% of eligible young voters went to the polls.

While the increasing impact of college educated and young voters is positive for educators and others who insist that the problems we face can only be solved on the basis of an actual reality, the increasingly vast chasm – political, economic, and cultural – between those with a college education and those without raises concerns, as Eric Kelderman noted in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Kelderman quotes Hasan Kwame Jeffries, an associate professor of history at Ohio State University, who observed that while the split among voters of different education levels is also defined by race, education has become politicized because Trump, in particular, has made it “the enemy to the white working class.” Trump’s attacks on higher education have created (yet another) convenient scapegoat for white voters who feel they have been left behind by the economy, can’t afford a college education, and are looked down upon by those who have a college degree.

If the polling data suggests that more (and better) education can provide one path out of our current crisis, It no less indicates how important it is to fight to expand educational access, whether via free community colleges, expanded Pell grants, the cancellation of student debt, the development of curricula that address real world problems, loan forgiveness to those who go into public sector and “essential” jobs, or in a myriad of other ways. In the simplest of terms, if more education can help “tame” demagoguery and authoritarian attitudes, as the research indicates it can, then much broader educational access is one solution to the problems we confront. It is truly tragic that this has to be framed in partisan terms, for it is not a conflict between liberals and conservatives, both of whom should value education as an ideological premise. But Republican voters have continued to be suspicious of higher education, and this has led Republican office holders – most likely college graduates – to withdraw their support under the largely false premise that colleges are breeding grounds for radicals.

The Trump Administration, and the Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, are leaving behind a number of land mines that the new administration, with the support of educators, will have to dismantle. Threats to police speech on campus, Executive Order 13950, which prevents workplace training designed to combat racism or sexism (Stanford recently circulated a “Checklist to Evaluate Diversity Training to Comply with Executive Order 13950” warning any statement that the United States is “fundamentally racist or sexist” or that “Meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist…” can land the university in hot water), and pressures on the National Endowment for the Humanities to support the “development of a pro-American curriculum,” are just a few of the measures that will need to be undone. [UPDATE: Stanford’s provost nixed the order on Nov. 19.]

But if we are to return to a world of facts and evidence, a world in which we can actually work collaboratively to solve our problems, then we, as educators, know where to begin.

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