Last December, President Sean Decatur wrote a blog post titled “A Crisis of Confidence in Higher Education” where he commented on a startling Pew Research Center poll that found that a majority of Republicans now think colleges have a negative effect on America.
Decatur’s assessment was that we need to address the “elite” identity often ascribed to schools like Kenyon. In some sense I agree with him: The rising cost of a place like Kenyon is a problem.
But I think President Decatur failed to address an elephant in the room. The problem is not simply colleges’ “elite” status, but their perceived function, among part of the country, as factories to produce elitist, left-leaning activists. I contend that Professor of Religious Studies Vernon Schubel’s letter in last week’s Collegian feeds right into this perception.
Whether or not this perception is fair, the fact that it is widespread is undeniable. Recently, some elected Republicans expressed interest in decreasing federal assistance to colleges, which would likely play out well with a base who despises liberal elitism. I tend to think that even college-educated Republicans at least partially share in these concerns, wondering why they should support federal funding for what appear to be leftist incubators. Furthermore, I think any Democrat would feel the same way if the positions were reversed.
I have been pondering this crisis of confidence since President Decatur first wrote about it, but I decided it was time to share my thoughts after Professor Schubel’s letter. In the piece, he tried to redirect student anger over the recently canceled play onto a department heavily implied to be political science (considering his comment alluding to the recent CSAD conference). This seems to suggest that student-led pressure to change the reading list of the widely popular Quest for Justice course would have any effect on the actual experiences of Dreamers on our campus or around the nation.
There are some completely false depictions in Professor Schubel’s letter. My peers in political science who are both pro-Palestinian and far-left exemplify his mischaracterization. What’s more, something which I have always thought set Kenyon apart is that students can experience different approaches to liberal education and choose the approach that they prefer. Evidently Professor Schubel doesn’t agree. But I think the most damaging effect of his letter is how it feeds the concerns of conservatives who are losing confidence in institutions like ours: Here is a liberal professor attempting to turn student anger against a department that teaches a classical curriculum.
There is an emerging tension when it comes to changing how we are percieved. Obviously, cutting funding is not the answer; federal support for colleges is a key part of ensuring education’s accessibility, and educated citizens are crucial for a well-functioning liberal democracy. But allowing the government to set some sort of ideologically neutral standards for colleges would be illiberal and thus equally as damaging.
It seems, then, that our only achievable solution lies in how outsiders view our institutional mission. A fundamental goal of a place like Kenyon must be to create citizens who know how to disagree thoughtfully, students who can offer criticisms of things like immigration policy without dehumanizing people, unlike fellow citizens in the comment section of Breitbart. Such an education to moderation is far more likely to lead those who may be otherwise conservative on immigration to still fight — and vote — for the permanent protection of our undocumented peers.
Professor Schubel’s letter will only exacerbate the crisis of confidence and repel prospective students who might be conservative. In order to counteract the effects of Trumpism, we need conservative leaders to engage in a moderating, liberal education now more than ever.
If we as an institution want to take this crisis of confidence seriously, it seems to me the first place to begin is by tolerating departments who approach liberal education differently. It is our responsibility to remind the world that liberal education aims not to create leftists nor conservatives, but rather tolerant, moderate, thoughtful humans of all political leanings.
Evan Cree Gee ’18 is a political science major from Norfolk, Mass. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.