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The Path Across America’s Divide Starts at Its Colleges
Higher education is now a fault line in American politics; the 2016 election made this crystal clear. Hillary Clinton won the support of college graduates by an estimated 21 percentage points and graduates of color by twice that margin; Donald Trump won noncollege voters 50-43 and white voters without degrees — nearly half the electorate — by 36 points.
Similar divisions surfaced in Americans’ attitudes toward higher education. One 2017 survey showed that Democrats viewed higher education positively by 72 percent to 19 percent, while 58 percent of Republicans judged its effects to be negative. Thus alongside race (and entwined with it), education has become a primary predictor of the red-blue divide, more salient than income, age, or gender.
Pundits, partisans, and a million social-media feeds are debating the political implications of this news. But what does it mean for higher education? If left to fester, educational polarization poses a significant threat. At a time of turmoil within the academy, as we face growing pressures to instrumentalize postsecondary education into shorter, cheaper job training, it erodes the legitimacy·and public support on which our work depends. Equally important, it threatens our public mission. An academy locked in mutual alienation with half the society cannot fully pursue its commitments to democratic engagement and social justice.
That alarm may seem overwrought. After all, higher education has been a lightning rod of public conflict for 30 years. Yet it is only recently — despite longstanding fights over affirmative action, multiculturalism, and campus speech — that those culture wars hardened into political enmity. Throughout the 2000s, surveys of Republicans offered strikingly positive assessments of higher education — until these turned abruptly south in 2015. Something has happened to bring simmering tensions about the role of colleges and universities in American society to a political boil.
It is tempting to lay this at the feet of Donald Trump. His rhetoric has certainly weaponized attacks on students and campuses, legitimizing not only alt-right confrontations in Charlottesville and elsewhere but also hundreds of incidents of racist and xenophobic leafleting, graffiti, and harassment.
Yet Trump is less a cause than a symptom of larger divides. On the one hand, colleges and universities have pursued commitments to equity and multicultural inclusion: commitments rooted in our traditions of cosmopolitanism and liberal learning but also driven by the demands of students — Dreamers, students of color, members of religious and sexual communities — to be seen, recognized, and welcomed. I passionately support the uneven progress we have made toward those values and goals.
On the other hand, many in rural and Rust Belt America have viewed higher education as an otherworld, whose mores and demographics are at odds with their way of life. My experience as a civic-engagement activist, especially in rural and deindustrialized communities, teaches me to take seriously·their sense of being unseen, unrecognized, and unwelcome.
The point here is not to equate or rank the struggles of different communities, or to ignore the differences in history and power with which they face those struggles. It is certainly not to minimize the role of race in the culture wars and the red-blue divide. But higher education cannot grapple with any of these issues if we do not find ways to cross that divide and begin to undo it. Our public mission depends on it.
So does our need for public support. There is always a compact of accountability between higher education and the larger society, one that justifies the resources and autonomy on which our work depends. That social compact has been fraying for some time, due not only to cultural conflict but also to the growing sense that a college education — particularly a liberal education — is too expensive,·inefficient, and disconnected from the·needs of the job market. The hardening of educational polarization only reinforces this legitimation crisis.
The good news is that academic institutions and their communities already have at hand opportunities to cross the divides of our current politics. The assumption that most campuses are dug in deep behind a blue Maginot Line of political correctness is importantly misleading. My experience teaching in southeast Michigan and mill-town Maine suggests just the opposite: that many institutions — perhaps most — live adjacent to communities that are often alienated from one another and from their local campuses. The red-blue divide is not a Great Wall separating distant worlds. It is a·web of purple seams, a regional mosaic of diverse communities and diverse academic institutions, each with its own multicultural mix.
Both on campus and beyond, this more complex reality opens up pathways out of polarization. Most colleges — especially public or nonelite colleges — draw students and staff members from the mosaic of places that surround them. Many already use dialogue and story-telling practices to engage students in exploring their differences and building a shared, campus community.·
The University of Michigan’s Program on Intergroup Relations, for instance, now more than 30 years old, has catalyzed similar initiatives at the University of Maryland, Skidmore College, and elsewhere. Other campuses borrow the practice of story circles pioneered by the Highlander Research and Education Center, a leadership-training school in Tennessee, to open up conversation and shared problem-solving from different communities. More recently, Better Angels — founded as a sustained dialogue initiative between Trump and Clinton supporters — leads red-blue workshops in many colleges and communities.
Ultimately, however, academic institutions and polarized communities will need to build on deep listening and honest conversation to create new relationships of trust, action, and problem-solving across their purple seams. This won’t mean setting aside conflicts of race and class, religious values, and sexuality in order to get along — just the opposite. It will mean recognizing the similarities, differences, and conflicts that campuses and communities share, and undertaking the hard work of confronting them together.