Pundit reader Kate Hannah muses on anti-intellectualism in the United States and New Zealand
The preferred mythology about academia goes something like this: innocent students arrive at university, largely untainted by politics, and are corrupted into radical views through the influence of their left-wing professors, who use the lecture theatre as a bully pulpit for postmodern relativism and politically correct thought.
Three American studies in recent years suggest that this myth is just that—a myth. Despite much of the neo-conservative rhetoric about Barack Obama being based on his so-called ‘elitism’, which is shorthand for being too well spoken and over-educated, the studies draw similar conclusions: that the politics of academics have little or no impact on those of their students, even in political science departments. It seems that other old standby—peer pressure—is to blame.
In a 2006 article published in PS: Political Science and Politics, the journal of the American Political Science Association, associate professor of political science at Elizabethtown College April Kelly-Woessner (a liberal Democrat) and her husband, assistant professor of public policy at Penn State University Matthew Woessner (a conservative Republican), found that while students do tend to move towards left-wing politics while at university, this is largely because of the influence of their peers and what is going on outside the classroom.
What has been going on outside the classroom? Well, in the last six years, there’s been an unjustifiable war and a consciously anti-elitist president. Before that, in the 90s, there was another war, and another neo-con, slightly more elitist president. And overarching all of that has been the ‘culture wars’, from whence the basis for these studies originates. Since the late 1980s, conservative thinkers and think tanks have tended towards a position that equates education with liberalism, wishy-washy thinking and weasel words.
Thus fell the legacy of conservative intellectuals such as William F Buckley and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose contributions to American society were once necessary reading for anyone at all interested in the
All that has now changed: the election of the consciously intellectual and well-spoken Barack Obama, and the serendipitous release of these studies, suggests that perhaps intellectuals may be in for some better press. Obama’s embrace of the education that made him who he is today, like his unashamed embracing of the less than PR-perfect influences on his life (Rev Jeremiah Wright, his grandmother), suggests that we might be able to talk about education now outside the premises of the culture wars, and instead talk about what exposure to ideas can do for a young mind.
Which brings us to
Obama’s election has reconfigured the traditional discourse of power—and has relocated presidentiality into the person of a black man, a community organiser, a reconciler. Let’s hope that in
Historian Kate Hannah is a researcher and analyst at the University of Auckland.