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Leonard Pitts: Knowledge is valuable currency, not the enemy

Columnist

Leonard Pitts

By Leonard Pitts

You’d think it would be the one thing we could all agree upon.

Life grows ever more complex. Planetary overheating threatens a future of floods, food shortages and mass migration. We carry supercomputers in our pockets. Robots are taking our jobs.

So you’d think, for all the partisan and ideological rancor in this country, the one thing upon which we could come together is education. You’d think we’d all agree it’s a good thing.

And you’d be wrong.

Monday, the Pew Research Center published a new study, “The Growing Partisan Divide in Views of Higher Education,” which found that the share of Americans who say colleges and universities have a negative impact on the country has jumped by 12 percentage points since 2012. But here’s the kicker: “The increase in negative views,” said Pew, “has come almost entirely from Republicans and independents who lean Republican.”

GOP antipathy toward higher education is driven in part, the study says, by a belief that colleges have gone overboard in protecting students from views they deem offensive.

On the other hand, most Republicans also think professors should stop bringing their social and political views into the classroom.

We will pass lightly over the contradiction of saying students should not be sheltered from differing opinions while at the same time, wanting to shelter students from differing opinions.

The larger issue here is this notion that education is the enemy. Not that this is new. Pew merely codifies something that has been anecdotally clear for years. Who can forget Rick Santorum’s 2012 complaint: “President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob.”

Pass lightly — again — over the fact that Obama never said any such thing. What’s more fascinating is that Santorum — holder of an MBA from the University of Pittsburgh and a juris doctor from Dickinson School of Law — would identify higher education as a mark of elitism.

But he understood something about his base and its suspicion toward education that the rest of us are only belatedly catching up to. Indeed, for all the attention that has (rightly) been paid to how bigotry (whether theirs or his) motivated Donald Trump’s voters, we need to recognize that education — and the lack thereof — also determined who did and did not support him.

Shortly after the 2016 election, Nate Silver of the influential FiveThirtyEight blog documented how Trump trounced Hillary Clinton in the 50 largest counties with the lowest percentage of college graduates. His headline: “Education, Not Income, Predicted Who Would Vote for Trump.” So when Trump said, “I love the poorly educated,” he had good reason to do so.

The rest of us cannot be so sanguine. Not simply because the education gap helped elect our present embarrassment, but also because of what it portends for America’s ability to effectively govern itself and meet its challenges.

It is a telling, chilling and ominous sign of the times that a nation that once engineered missions to the moon now regards climate change with a helpless shrug.

If the great divisions of the past centered on race and class, the divisions of the future will likely also be along lines of knowledge.

Yet Republicans are hostile toward knowledge right at the moment when it is becoming a valuable international currency. That may make sense as a short-term political strategy, but it is a long-term existential threat.

Yes, the poet Thomas Gray famously said that “ignorance is bliss.” But he died in 1771.

There were no robots then.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, Fla., 33172. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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