Ignorance and democracy: Capitalism's long war against higher education

My alma mater, and dozens of other colleges, are ditching the liberal arts. That's a good way to kill off democracy

By David Masciotra

Contributing Writer

Published March 16, 2024 5:45AM (EDT)

Cuts to higher education (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Cuts to higher education (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Donald Trump exposed his profound condescension and blatant manipulation with the notorious 2016 declaration, “I love the poorly educated.” Election results and polling data consistently show that the most poorly-educated Americans — at least, those who are white — love him back with almost religious reverence, treating him as guru, despot and pop-culture idol all in one. While it is easy to chortle at the hillbilly-Deadhead vibe surrounding Trump rallies, it is more important to consider how the better-educated are weakening their country by rejecting the tools necessary to maintain the structure of liberal democracy.

Decades ago, universities across the country began making cuts to the liberal arts. The humanities, fine arts and social sciences are endangered everywhere, as evident by the staggering variety of state colleges and private universities no longer invested in their survival. In 2023, West Virginia University eliminated its world languages department, reduced its education department by a third and slashed its programs in art history, music, architecture and natural resource management. In the same year, Lasell University, a small private school in Massachusetts, killed five majors, including English and history. In Ohio, numerous of the state's best-known institutions of learning have announced cuts to the liberal arts, including Kent State, the University of Toledo, Miami University, Youngstown State, Baldwin Wallace University and Marietta College.

But the academic carnage in the Buckeye State is hardly an outlier. A quick Google search reveals intellectual wreckage piling up across the nation. The University of New Hampshire permanently closed its art museum, the University of Tulsa eliminated degrees in history, and the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin system has instructed all 25 of its campuses — which enroll more than 160,000 students every year — to prepare for reductions in liberal arts programs.

My alma mater, Valparaiso University, is now preparing to join in the self-destruction. A Lutheran liberal arts college on the shores of Lake Michigan, 50 miles or so southeast of Chicago, Valparaiso recently announced that it is considering the “discontinuation” of 28 programs, including philosophy, public health, theology and the graduate program in English Studies and Communication, where I earned a master's degree. When I graduated in 2010, Valparaiso had a regional reputation as a small, private institution with excellent educational standards, bolstered by an emphasis on the arts and humanities.

The English Studies and Communication program was a hybrid, requiring study of creative writing, journalism, English literature and mass communication theory. Professors collaborated with the directors of the campus art museum and instructors in the social sciences and business departments, to demonstrate that knowledge is impossible to segregate or compartmentalize. A truly educated person should be adept at making connections across disciplines, cultures and different sectors of society.

Time and again, college and university leaders across the country have cited a business-model imperative for transforming their institutions into glorified vocational schools.

Gore Vidal defined an intellectual as “someone who can deal with abstractions.” Valparaiso, at its best, did exactly that — equipping its graduates with an ability to handle abstractions, while showing that abstractions aren’t all that abstract. What might seem abstract in the academic context, as recent American history ought to have taught us, may soon transform into the concrete, creating situations of urgent social consequence. Arguments about democracy, disinformation, the public good and moral philosophy are inseparable from such issues as climate change, gun violence, the effects of new communication technology and the struggle to defeat autocracy.

In the 14 years since my graduation, Valparaiso has suffered from poor leadership that has caused consistent damage to its reputation. In 2020, it shut down its law school after years of lowering its standards to attract enough more students. Last year, the university's current president, José Padilla, launched a bizarre crusade to fund the renovation of a first-year dormitory by selling off a Georgia O’Keeffe painting, along with other signature works of art from the campus museum. Despite widespread opposition from students and faculty, and condemnation from the American Alliance of Museums, Padilla seems determined to proceed with this philistine maneuver (I wrote about the proposed sale for the New Republic.)

The potential gutting of Valparaiso's liberal arts programs is one small part of a much larger social and cultural trend of viewing education as nothing more than a business proposition. As Matthew Becker, a theology professor at Valparaiso, wrote, this decision, "if implemented, will completely dismantle the stated mission of the university":

Valpo will no longer be "grounded in the Lutheran tradition of scholarship, freedom, and faith," nor will it really be preparing students "to serve in both church and society." With the elimination of foreign languages, music, the theology programs, and other programs in the humanities, Valpo will no longer be a liberal arts university.”

My nephew, Justin McClain, a recent graduate of the endangered public health program, stated the obvious: “On the heels of a pandemic that resulted in millions of lives lost and trillions in economic losses … educational institutions should be embracing students interested in joining a field that has proved far too valuable to the functioning of society at large yet remains chronically understaffed.”

Becker identified Valpo's plan of self-destruction as “completely market-driven,” and that's a critical point. Padilla and other university leaders have offered exclusively economic reasons to explain their agenda.

Time and again, college and university leaders across the country have cited financial justification and a business-model imperative for transforming their institutions into glorified vocational schools. And this wrecking-ball campaign runs in parallel with an ideologically motivated war on learning.

Right-wing governors and legislatures in many states, including Florida, Texas and Tennessee, have attempted to strip-mine universities, often by eliminating diversity, equity and Inclusion programs, prohibiting instruction in topics related to race and gender, and even threatening to deny loans to students who want to major in an “impractical” discipline.

This anti-intellectual campaign of destruction against higher education takes place alongside book-ban campaigns in many of the same states, where astroturf organizations funded by right-wing groups have worked to remove books from school curricula and libraries that focus on issues of racial justice or LGBTQ equality. 

It may be worth noting that many of those who claim to hate education are blatant hypocrites. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Yale and a law degree from Harvard. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a defender of book bans who routinely bashes institutions of learning, also has a Harvard Law degree, as well as a B.A. in public policy from Princeton. Even Donald Trump — despite his incoherent rambling and his impressive lack of knowledge on almost every conceivable topic — doesn't technically qualify as “poorly educated.” Although exactly how and why Trump was admitted to the University of Pennsylvania in the first place remains unclear, he holds a B.S. in real estate from Penn's Wharton School. 

Many of those who claim to hate education are blatant hypocrites. Ron DeSantis holds a history degree from Yale and a law degree from Harvard. Ted Cruz also has a Harvard Law degree, as well as a B.A. from Princeton.

For all their phony anti-educational posturing, Republican officials and pundits have succeeded in selling ignorance as virtuous to their voters and viewers. A 2022 Pew Research survey found that 76 percent of Republicans now believe that colleges “affect the country negatively,” while 76 percent of Democrats said they believe colleges “affect the country positively.”

A good rule to follow is never to trust highly educated people who tell you that education is a waste of time. A good question to ask, after that, is why they want so many people to remain ignorant.

If democracy is to function as intended, it demands a well-informed and reasonably sophisticated citizenry. Without an intelligent electorate, democratic governance is under threat from despots and demagogues who can acquire power by appealing to base emotions and instincts. Thomas Jefferson called information the “currency of democracy.” America is now at risk of bankruptcy.

Jefferson was also one of the founders of the University of Virginia, where organized a committee to develop a holistic program of learning that, in today’s ruthless, profit-obsessed climate, would not survive at Valparaiso, at West Virginia University or at countless other schools. Its program was to include “ancient and modern languages, mathematics, physio-mathematics, physics, botany and zoology, anatomy and medicine, government and political economy and history, municipal law, and Ideology (rhetoric, ethics, belles lettres, fine arts).”

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George Washington advocated for a national university that would teach the arts and natural sciences, along with literature, rhetoric and criticism. But the father of our country might now have pariah status on most campuses — perhaps as an adjunct instructor with no health benefits, begging for a summer course.

In an age of extreme partisan rancor, there is dispiriting bipartisan unity on one point: Most Americans are increasingly hostile to the liberal arts. While only Republicans are overtly hateful of higher education as a whole, many students and administrators no longer claim to see the value in programs that, according to their standards, lack immediate and practical application to the job market. Recent data indicate that only 10.2 percent of college students major in any humanities discipline, and barely over 1 percent major in history or political science.

High schools across the country, meanwhile, have been cutting courses in civics, the social sciences, humanities and fine arts for decades.

Divorcing education from philosophical, political and social ambitions creates a culture in which people view public-health measures during a pandemic as stepping stones to the gulag.

Richard Hofstadter, one of the premier historians and public intellectuals of the 20th century, explained in his 1963 classic, “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” that most Americans view intelligence as merely functional. Brainpower, in this view, should serve some practical and tangible purpose, typically one that can be measured in dollars and cents. Abstractions, to return to Gore Vidal’s remark, are seen as irrelevant distractions from learning the skills that can earn a bigger paycheck.

One of the numerous things people seem to have forgotten amid this rat-race competition is the question of how to maintain a democratic system of governance. Representative government is complicated, and often moves slowly. It requires sustained wrestling with the complex and thorny questions of ethics, personal freedom versus social responsibility, and balancing the progress driven by new knowledge and new ideas with the benefits of existing norms and traditions.

That kind of intellectual labor is taxing enough for those with a decent formal education, but with no training in the study of government, culture or mass communication, Americans are increasingly likely to fall for bad arguments and stupid ideas. Divorcing education from philosophical, political and social ambitions creates a culture in which people view public-health measures during a pandemic as stepping stones to the gulag, convince themselves that a racist con man most famous for hosting a game show could not possibly have lost a free and fair election, or believe that information about transgender people is more dangerous than assault rifles.

Democratic voters hope — as should everyone else with a conscience — that Joe Biden can overcome his poor approval ratings and doubts about his age by appealing to Americans' belief in democracy. He will have to consistently remind the electorate that his opponent presents an unprecedented threat to the system that millions of voters take for granted. For many Americans, however, democracy is a hazy concept at best. Survey results consistently show that large proportions of the American public don't understand the Bill of Rights, cannot name the three branches of government and are unfamiliar with the most important and basic facts of U.S. history.

Tech journalist Kara Swisher, author of the new history and memoir “Burn Book,” recently observed that leading figures in Silicon Valley, including Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, have "no sense of history." If so, they are little different from the average citizen in that regard, yet they are routinely heralded as geniuses. It is hardly surprising that they’ve allowed hate speech, deceitful propaganda and other harmful material to proliferate on their platforms.

A society actually grounded in the liberal arts might see Zuckerberg and Musk as allegorical characters, perhaps as archetypal warnings against the reckless pursuit of wealth and the refusal to balance technical wizardry with more mature forms of insight and wisdom. But that is not our society. The outsized influence of Zuckerberg and Musk — not to mention Donald Trump —makes clear that we are at risk of handing our country over to cynical, power-mad morons who are, at best, indifferent to hate, poverty and violence. A little education might help.

By David Masciotra

David Masciotra is the author of six books, including "Exurbia Now: The Battleground of American Democracy" and "I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters." He has written for the New Republic, Washington Monthly, CrimeReads, No Depression and many other publications about politics, music and literature.

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