As I write in October 2018, criticism of Donald Trump’s competence and respect for the law as President of the United States has ceased to be a partisan affair and has become a duty of the citizenry. But all he is is a symptom, I’d argue, of a larger problem. From my perspective as an university professor, colleges haven’t been successful enough at iberal arts education in the last 40-50 years to prevent a Trump-like political event.
Consider these numbers.
First, 50% of voters in the 2016 exit polls claimed a college degree or higher, with another 32% “some college.” Pew has corrected this to 37% of voters having degrees. Either is higher than the national average of college degree holders, which is 33.4% as of 2016. Overall, 39% of registered Democrats have degrees and 31% have some college experience; 28% of registered Republicans have degrees, with another 35% having some college experience. Thus, I submit that less than one-third of the electorate had no college experience, one-third had some, and one-third graduated. I further suggest, then, that the majority of voters had encountered the basic required curriculum of any college, including a composition/writing course like the ones I teach.
Second, according to Pew, among white voters with a college degree, Clinton took 55% to Trump’s 38%, with initial exit polls claiming the reverse of Trump winning 49%-45%. Overall, among all college graduates, Clinton took 52% and Trump 42%, with a gender split among whites: white women with degrees, Clinton 51%, Trump 41%, and white men with degrees, Trump 53%, Clinton 39%. I cannot find numbers on non-white degree holders. I find these numbers incredible, whether or not you favor Pew or the exit polls.
Third, the default explanation that Trump voters were left behind economically is partially mistaken; rather, “growing domestic racial diversity and globalization contributed to a sense that white Americans are under siege by these engines of change” – a polite way of saying those same voters tended to be (but were not necessarily) racist, anti-immigrant, and isolationist.
Fourth, there were about 18 million college-degree-holding Trump voters; my estimate based on 36% of degreed voters being affiliated with the GOP. In accordance with the third point, they tended to view diversity as threatening, immigrants with fear, and their culture – predominately white – as under siege.
These four points form prima facie evidence that college, as the supposed champion of critical thinking and citizenship, has been a crapshoot for fostering critical thinking or citizenship. If those core courses, like composition, had reliably done the citizen-building job that they claimed to do, the degree holders voting for Trump would much be closer to zero. This failure is more apparent when factoring in the millions of graduates that did not vote at all. Turnout for college-educated citizens was about 70% and post-graduate was 80%.
Writing classrooms in 2016 were not the lone culprit, of course; this was a failure to vote against an authoritarian candidate that has its deep origins in previous decades, as most degree recipients got their degrees many years ago. Still, past Republican candidates – Romney, McCain, Dole, the Bushes, Reagan, McCain – were all moderates, worthy of some democratic consideration, compared to Trump’s odious strongman.
I could blame history or philosophy or political science – how can one get a post-WWII college degree without knowing that electing an authoritarian demagogue is undesirable? But no. Few undergraduates take many courses from these disciplines, but exposure to composition is almost guaranteed. My discipline must share some blame, too. We could have done more.
I used to think my teaching was formative of critical thinking and ethics and built at least a motte and bailey defense against the worst excesses. Writing needed teaching to all comers as a communicative civil right. All that seems dangerously stupid now. Increased writing skill does not magically lead to responsible citizenship. If you knew 42% of your composition class was going to note your citizen-building pedagogy and vote for Donald Trump, would you not change your strategy? Or would you “do your job” to “teach writing” like thousands of others, especially as an adjunct or lecturer if you did not have a reasonably secure job or control over your curriculum?
Repeatedly, we have thrown the difficult and lengthy task of teaching skilled writing to instructors that were underprepared, underpaid, and overworked. When we surrendered collectively and unconditionally to the conclusion that the task was not important enough for the best trained, best paid, and best-motivated instructors – who got to become “scholars” with minor teaching responsibilities – that was when the seeds were planted. Now the entire country pays for our neglect; a constitutional crisis that makes Nixon look like a paragon of integrity. If we could have taught just 1% more responsibility – just 1% – Trump would not be president.
Facing our miserable 58% showing (and I refuse to count those college degree holders that didn’t vote for Trump but didn’t vote; that’s sin by omission), we could salvage our idealistic faith in citizenship-building with a dose of realpolitik. Yes, I have the glimmerings of a solution. Still working it out, but I think writing classrooms, at least, need to explore and learn the techniques of the direct opposites of “ethical” citizenship – falsehood, obfuscation, and emotion. Our link between the teaching of writing and the promotion of citizenship has clearly failed to prevent the development of “anti-citizens” that willfully voted in a demagogue without critical reflection as voting one into the highest office of the land undercuts the purpose of the system.We could teach writing as a neutral tool used for good, evil, and all the gray points in between, as much as we did the practice of democracy and the performance of citizenship – a marriage of realpolitik and idealism. We could study how to compose “unethical” communication through not just the increasingly prevalent examples, but practice, and thus stress the real-world consequences of rhetoric and writing used for nefarious purposes, particularly in civic/political contexts, using the lessons of history – and starting with Trump as Bad Example #1. We have to stress the consequences of dishonest communication and condemn them when we see them.
Or, is it too late? Have we bled out from a self-inflicted wound, and my musings here are part of the last flickers of a dying brain? Certainly, waiting passively for Robert Mueller to save America is a losing bet. The poison has settled in, and the problem is now long-term. Behind Trump is Pence, and behind Pence are other emboldened strongmen, many overseas in parallel tracks. Times are dire.
A college education, on the front lines of voting, may be the best hope for holding the democratic line, but blind idealism, our old pedagogical strategy, is not enough in the face of an evil that conceals its true nature all too well. There are many “anti-citizens” out there that think Trump is the second coming. Lower taxes, reduced immigration, tough trade talk, white male Supreme Court justices, racism and sexism carefully enshrined – all the little things they want, and at what they think is a great price, their souls bundled with the future.
You may note that I used the word evil. I did so purposefully. This is a path of evil we’re on. The election of Trump in 2016 was not a blip. It was a game-changer, a culmination of decades of poor education and careful politicking. Whatever happens in the midterms next month, even a Democratic takeover of both the House and the Senate, will not reverse it. It takes decades to make this kind of mess, and it will take decades to change it. I wonder, though, if we have decades left.