Political Correctness, False News, and the Attack on Education

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This is a tough time for colleges and universities.  Many of them—particularly the public ones—are being squeezed for money, and they’ve all got to deal with conflicting standards for sexual harassment, trigger warnings, and political polarization of the student body.

And then there’s “political correctness”.  It’s a difficult issue, with arguments on multiple sides, and with something quite sinister lurking in the background.

On one hand there is the classic liberal argument for universal openness.  Constraints on the intellectual environment are bad, because truth can be unpopular.   Furthermore, once you allow constraints you never know who is going to do the deciding.

It’s hard to argue with that position in an ideal world, but the real world makes the situation less clear.

First there is the question of safety or feelings of safety for the student body.   You can’t allow some people to attack others they don’t like, and the only question is how far that prohibition goes.  In the real world, the university must guarantee that every student is safe and valued.  That has to apply to all groups, religious beliefs, and sexual attitudes (liberal, Christian, or anything else).  That’s not a simple criterion to enforce, but universities cannot be faulted for setting such rules.

A second problem is harder.  Today we’re dealing with an environment where not all ideas have an equal chance, as more and more intellectual discourse is bought.  The prime example is the Koch organization, that has plowed hundreds of millions of dollars into institutes that promote their ideas.  Everyday examples are the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, and the Mercatus Center at George Mason.  People working for these institutes (e.g. Charles Murray) can do legitimate research, but they are paid for reaching correct conclusions, and their ideas are heavily promoted to serve their masters.  This isn’t exactly false news, but any implication of unbiased research is certainly false.

In such cases it is understandable that some students feel that their ideas are being squashed by the power of money—a feeling that is particularly acute in a time of Citizens United and Trump.  But it’s also true that the student intellectual environments are prey to their own fads, with self-righteous acts directed at others. (I personally remember unbridled enthusiasm for Chinese communism and Mao’s little red book.  I also remember reading Simon Leys’ Chinese Shadows, with the comment that Western fascination with Mao was proof of how little anyone really cared about China!)

So there is some justice in decrying political correctness, but that doesn’t mean that student concerns about speakers are wrong.   Any opinions can be expressed (subject to valuing all students), but it also seems that sponsors of a speaker should be required to enforce standards for on-campus speech and also to make clear the nature of the institutions represented.  And it should be part of everyone’s education to understand how intellectual discourse is bought.  With the profusion of institutes and representatives, it’s not simple to keep track of all the Koch tentacles!  Even when the subject is government, people aren’t reminded frequently enough that Pence, Pruitt, and Pompeo are all Koch creations.

However, we have not yet reached the crux of the issue.  Thus far we have treated political correctness as a real issue where there can be legitimate areas of disagreement.   That’s true for some of the discussion, but certainly not all.  You have to go back to the core Koch motivations:  shrink government, shrink controls, and above all shrink taxes.  Colleges are expensive and turn out liberals.  The Koch’s attack on political correctness is actually just a pretext for a full-bore attack on college education overall.  The whole system has to go.

A recent best-seller on Amazon could not be more explicit—“The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money”.  College education teaches nothing useful, it’s just a game to certify the capabilities of students to potential employers.  It teaches people things they don’t want to learn and will just forget anyway.  In particular nobody needs to know history, because no one is going to get a job as a historian.  Scrap the whole thing, save a fortune, and give people some useful vocational education to get a job!

The author is an academic from a reputable institution, nominally talking about what he as a teacher really thinks needs to be done.   Almost all reviews on Amazon take that at face value.  You have to know that he comes from the Mercatus Institute at George Mason, where Charles Koch sits on the board!

The argument is of course self-serving.  There’s no question about the value of education—both financial and personal—to those who complete it, and also no question about what kind of education people with money will chose for their own children.   The “just a game” story ignores the value of intellectual activity—the real goal of education—and focuses on memorized facts.  In the end the proposal comes down to a two-tiered educational model, where the world is wide open to children whose parents can afford the real thing, but not to the rest.   The Kochs are willing to pay for the basics needed to produce employees and nothing more.  Just like the good old days.

Nonetheless the argument has a scary amount of currency.  Mainstream Republicans are hostile to education in general and college education in particular (but richer ones send their kids to college anyway).  Identity politics and vilification of liberals have convinced some people against their interests to keep their kids from being corrupted by education.   Some state governments (Wisconsin, North Carolina) have deliberately attacked their state universities.  Trump’s State of the Union speech pointedly talked about “vocational education” only.  (A more recent NY Times college education overview is perhaps scariest of all in the amount of Republican rhetoric it swallows whole in its effort to be even-handed.)

We can’t claim all colleges have always paid enough attention to getting their students jobs, but the value of education has been undeniable and increasing.  Further, broad-based college education has always been one of the major strengths of this country, and the rest of the world has learned its value as well.  College at its best prepares students for a world where they will have to adapt continually to changes and opportunities, whatever those might be.  A two-tiered system would be a nightmarish step backward both for students and for the country.

Education is one of the most important battlegrounds where our collective future will be won or lost.

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