“What responsibility do members of the academy bear for the shocking devolution of American politics that has just occurred? Quite a bit, I’d say.”
This is the thesis of Richard Wolin in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education essay entitled “How Did Trump Get Elected?: Take a Look in the Mirror.”
Here is a taste:
For one, the university’s historical role in purveying “truth” has diminished qualitatively. That it has become obligatory to put this term in quotation marks is a good indication of how far we have fallen. Whereas the pursuit of truth may retain its value at those bastions of educational privilege where a liberal education has remained meaningful, elsewhere the ideals of humanistic study have been essentially left for dead. In this respect, we have met the enemy and he is “us.”
The triumph of identity politics has also played a deleterious role. Amid the vogue of multiculturalism, the humanities have exempted strong claims to group identity — so-called “subject positions” that are embraced, sometimes inflexibly, by ethnic and cultural groups — from scrutiny, thereby sparing them from the type of withering interrogations that, since the Renaissance, have defined the culture of critical discourse.
Historically, one of the central missions of higher education, in addition to preparing students for the rigors of the job market, has been to nurture the values of active citizenship — the encouragement and cultivation of character traits that are epitomized by the idea of “autonomy.” Brusquely put, this means producing individuals who are capable of making thoughtful and mature political judgments as well as intelligent life decisions
After I read Wolin’s piece, I read Jack Stripling‘s article in The Chronicle of Higher Education: “A Humbling of Higher Ed.” Stripling argues that the Trump victory was a rebuke to “elite,” “politically correct,” and “liberal” professors.
We are learning more every day about the Trump coalition. It is a coalition made up largely non-college educated white people and evangelical Christians. Neither of these groups like universities and the professors who work for them. While I agree entirely with Wolin’s call for reform in the university, I think it is going to be a long time before Trump supporters trust the ideas emanating from these institutions of higher education.
Because of this, much of the mantle of bringing civic education (history, government, and the skills that come through the study of the humanities) to bear on young men and women who distrust public universities may fall to institutions on the academic/intellectual periphery.
If 81% of American evangelicals helped carry Trump to victory, then Christian academics intellectuals, and thoughtful ministry leaders have the responsibility of teaching young evangelicals how to think critically, make evidence-based arguments, empathize with those who have differing viewpoints, practice civility, and understand their place in the larger history of American democracy.
This is a big responsibility. If Donald Trump’s presidency is disturbing because of the things he has said about immigrants, women, Muslim, and African Americans, and his failure to make evidence-based arguments and tell the truth, then evangelical scholars need to take seriously their role in educating the 81%. This has to happen in Christian colleges, para-churches agencies on secular campuses, and in evangelical churches.
Are the churches and Christian colleges up to the task? If history is any indication, they are not.
Evangelicals in the pew do not seem interested in thinking Christianly about politics. They choose instead to sit back passively and opt for one of the two major candidates without any interest in bringing their faith convictions to bear on a reform of the American political system that goes beyond the old playbook of the Christian Right.
This year many evangelicals complained that both major candidates were flawed. In four years they may be faced with two awful candidates again and, as they always do, they will scratch their heads and wonder why.
And what about Christian colleges? They should be in the business of educating evangelical citizens. Unfortunately, most of them have sacrificed civics, humanities, and liberal arts to professional programs, online classes, continuing education, and cash-cow graduate programs. Yes, evangelical Christian colleges still offer liberal arts courses and give lip service to those courses, but the liberal arts, as I have argued before, no longer define the educational culture of these institutions.
Let’s hope evangelical churches and colleges can buck the trends of their own history and step up to the plate in the age of Trump.