There’s Another Explanation….

Inside Higher Education has recently joined the chorus of–or at least, provided fodder to– those who equate more education with leftist indoctrination.

Americans with college degrees are to the left of the majority of Americans who lack a college degree. And a new study by the Pew Research Center shows that those who have attended graduate school are even farther to the left than those who have only an undergraduate degree.

File this under “And what else is new?”

The academy has been accused of inculcating “elitist,” liberal, unrealistic attitudes ever since I can remember. The widespread suspicion of people who choose the “life of the mind” over commerce or honest labor is at the heart of contemporary efforts to judge the value of universities by comparing job placement statistics. (It’s okay if you just attend college to acquire skills for the marketplace, but be careful that your job training isn’t subverted by some artsy-fartsy detour into learning for its own sake.)

When you learn more, evidently, it turns you liberal.

To some extent, that’s undoubtedly true. The real problem with today’s facile equation of educated people and political liberalism, however, is that the definition of  terms like conservative and liberal, never very precise, have changed over the years–and rather dramatically, at that.

Today, we dismiss as “liberal” the person who sees issues as complex, who changes her mind about a policy if new evidence suggests that previous understandings were incomplete, who relies on evidence rather than unsupported assertion. (A contemporary liberal is unlikely to sign that petition to keep trans people out of restrooms, for example, because there has never been a reported problem.) Today’s liberal is less likely to believe something because a religious figure has proclaimed that “God said so,” and more likely to accept scientific consensus about things like the age of the earth, evolution and climate change.

In short, today’s liberal looks a lot like the 18th Century Enlightenment figures who gave us science, empiricism and the social contract.

While my students have difficult believing it, liberalism so understood used to be common in the Republican party. Republicans and Democrats used to occupy broad areas of agreement, differing primarily over the policies most likely to achieve agreed-upon ends. Back then, those shared worldviews were labeled “moderate.”

As the GOP turned into the God Squad, and those areas of agreement diminished, “Republican” became synonymous with “conservative” and “Democrat” became another word for liberal.

As a result, when educated people identify as liberal these days, they don’t necessarily mean left-wing populist or socialist.  They certainly don’t identify with the Left as it developed in Europe. They don’t even necessarily “feel the Bern.”

These days, what they mean is something like “I’m not one of the nut-cases doing grocery shopping with my open-carry weapon. I don’t throw rocks at gay people, or burn copies of the Koran, and I don’t forward racist, sexist and anti-Semitic emails. I’m not one of the people calling myself ‘pro life’ when I’m really just pro-birth and anti-woman. I’m not stupid enough to think American can deport twelve million people, or carpet-bomb the Middle East or reverse same-sex marriage. I understand that issues are complicated, that facts matter, and that people who don’t look like me have rights too.”

Today, someone who says those things is a Democrat. Or– in contemporary parlance– a liberal.

It wasn’t always that way.


  1. Good points. You even hear the confusion among Republican candidates when they argue over who is a “true” conservative.

  2. The same pull to the extremes is happening on the political left. It will not be long before moderates in the Democratic Party go the way of dinosaur…. And it too will be as ugly as it has been on the right.

  3. Ironically, it was a clergyman, Cardinal Henry Neuman, who wrote the enlightened piece in the 1800s entitled “The Value of a Liberal Education”. You are correct, political thought has devolved.

  4. I am a 79 year old, high school dropout with a GED, took a few Continuing Education courses (self improvement, not educational) at IUPUI a few decades ago…but I am considered far left and a liberal by today’s standards (per the GOP). I am pro-death penalty and do not believe all college tuitions should be free to everyone; on a few other issues today I am a moderate. How can I be considered a leftist and liberal – to the point I have lost family members and friends – when I don’t have a “higher education”? As Ricky so often said, “…’splain, Lucy?”

    Can it simply be that I disagree with the far right-wing, pseudo religious conservatives (a blatant misnomer) removing our rights; including the right to quality education at all levels of learning and wish to continue learning in my dotage? I am truly frightened today; two more Trump yard signs have sprouted in my small neighborhood, bringing the total to four. The two newest signs in the yards of seniors; the other two in the yards of middle-age couples. Only two “Bernie 2016” signs, mine and my next door neighbor’s. He is a young, educated, military veteran…and then there’s me! I don’t know about the others but, I don’t like being classified and stuffed in a box with a label. They (those making these decisions) know no more about me than I know about them. I don’t even agree with everything Bernie is touting in his campaign speeches but will support him till the fat lady sings…being one of the uneducated but somehow reaching many of the same conclusions as those with higher education.

  5. Greetings T Lentych. In what way will it (the change) be ugly? Irvin
    and Greetings to you J. Michael. It was also a clergyman who wrote the Pledge to the flag and it did not include the god word. Happy Sunday all. Irvin

  6. Thank you for your brilliant insights into our severely flawed political system. I have been sharing your blog with the Henderson County North Carolina Democratic Party via our Facebook pages and your writings are much appreciated.

  7. The right wing money machine has been trying to change that. They have created and funded centers for “conservative” thought on university campuses across the country. That’s why so many of today’s bright young conservatives follow the gospel of Ayn Rand. Rand was barely a blip on the radar screen when I studied political science. After studying Aristotle, she seemed purile and overly simplistic. Maybe we need more Aristotle.

  8. Said another way, liberals believe in facts, logic, science, evidence, math, and dialogue while conservatives … don’t. They believe all of those things are liberal constructs meant to hold them back or tear down America.

  9. @irvin… There has been a vilification of persons who believe that good government is about discussion, argument, and compromise. The extremes on both sides seem to think that if you don’t get 100% of what you want, you are a loser or you are a sellout. Our government is becoming one of those awful 6th grade dances with boys on one side of the gym and the girls on the other… and no dancing ever happens because the bullies are mocking those who want to go dance.

  10. @MSWallack: Some of us overeducated liberals are careful not to use the word “believe” too casually these days. We don’t believe in facts; we either know them or don’t know them.

  11. One of the ways that the Koch funded Tea Party was insidious is that they stole from the general public and appropriated to their own use certain words like “conservative”, “”Constitution “, “freedom”, “democracy”, “government”, “media”, “science”, “right and left wing”, various “ists” and “isms” and built myths from their new meanings. This was all before the rest of us even new that it could be done and there was a conspiracy doing it.

    It’s taken us awhile to recognize and accept that plot but we have and now are undoing it. We were too trusting, naive, and had more faith that “American” meant some fundamental things.

    Close call.

    There is still some undercurrent of misusing those words to mean the Koch definitions but more and more we call folks on that and are restoring their meaning to the traditional English.

    This is just another case proving that Dunning – Kruger was and is insightful. It takes knowledge, education to have questioned the Koch Newspeak. Those without adequate knowledge of Engish language, customs, history, politics, science, etc never questioned those new uses. They were absolutely certain of the Newspeak. Those with more knowledge and education were less certain and therefore never stopped questioning.

    And now that the confusing is cleared up we are taking back what got us here. Unfortunately what got us here is not going to get us there: to the future.

    Time for more thoughtful, open minded, objective awakened, reconsideration.

  12. I did not become a liberal because of right wing excesses; I became a liberal because I once almost starved to death and lost my country. The Great Depression arose directly from the so-called Roaring Twenties, which was nothing more than a stock market bubble that punctured while Republican presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover did nothing to advance regulations to control Wall Street’s fun and games. Result? World wide depression. There was political mishandling of the situation both before and after the stock market bust of 1929. We were headed toward a failed state. I recall vividly during the 30’s seeing newsreels of marchers in New York City with both Nazi and hammer and sickle emblems on their shoulders. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I now have some understanding of how we were on the verge of failing as a state and how the radicals were moving in for the kill.

    It took a while, but a newly-elected FDR with his ABC agencies took over regulatory control of the stock market (SEC), insured bank deposits (FDIC), put some work projects together (WPA), and the country began to recover. Gone were the newsreels at the local theaters which showed us swastikas and hammers and sickles. We, after many agonizing years, finally began to believe in ourselves. Roosevelt told us that the only fear we have is fear itself. He remains my favorite president of all time.

    I suppose liberals become liberals for various reasons. Mine has nothing to do with the silly to crazy antics of right wing fruitcakes we see today. It involved national survival, not toilet seats.

  13. There are many moderate Republicans in this country that believe compromise can be good and is necessary. What I find so perplexing is that most of them are so fearful of pushing back against the hateful rhetoric of their extreme conservative party members. Is is because they would be accused of going against God’s will if they openly disagreed with their tea party members? Or are they afraid of being viciously attacked and ostracized by friends and family members?

  14. The amazingly sad observation I will make is no matter where you seem to turn here in the USA there is some form of primitive behavior.

    Per the Guardian >> In Mississippi an abused spouse must remain in a violent marriage, according to the state legislature. A bill that would have made domestic abuse grounds for divorce died in the state senate last week, and the decision shocked victims’ rights advocates around the state.

    Strange and disgusting, you could have the spouse arrested for giving you a beating, but you cannot use the beating as grounds for divorce.

  15. Nancy, moderate Republicans are in a bind. There are not enough of them to form a competitive political party. They had a choice and took what in retrospect was the wrong alternative. Rather than try to grow the brand they elected to ally with the floor sweepings; the Evangelists, the NRAs, those with foreignphobia, the racists, the angry and the Kochs.

    The rest is history.

  16. T Lentych “The same pull to the extremes is happening on the political left. It will not be long before moderates in the Democratic Party go the way of dinosaur…. And it too will be as ugly as it has been on the right.”

    I’m on the Left, the passing lane, and I’m passing there to help stem the cruel push from the Right, especially the WrongRight in all its manifestations of ignorance, superstition and fear.
    Don’t worry about the Left going downhill. Join the opposition, enhance liberal education, save society from medieval oppression. Beware of false prophets.

  17. Thanks OMG. Hopefully someone occasionally finds a thought worth thinking among my wreck of the English language. I try to be provocative as a means to dislodge conventional thinking which tends to outlive its usefulness.

  18. Perhaps it’s worthwhile adding to what I said above that Republicans made the wrong choice out of expediency, impatience. They wanted immediate results.

    Building the brand is slow hard work. Perhaps after the 2017 elections they’ll find the necessary patience to do what’s facing them right.

    I hope so.

  19. Our economy is about 2/3 from Capitalism and 1/3 from socialism. We need both to work well and efficiently. Government regulates Capitalism to that end and we the people regulate socialism by democracy: we choose who governs.

  20. I put forth an idea that less than one-half of the US voters as represented by roughly equal numbers from both the Democrat and the Republican parties possess a broad liberal education, as in a culturally literate education preparing one for critical thinking and problem-solving.

    Billy Bob in his 4 WD pickup truck w/mud flaps can no more articulate why he votes Republican than Lil’ Dre in his sagging pants can articulate why he votes Democrat.

    Billy Bob and Lil’ Dre are not victims of higher education, but rather they’re victims of our current K-12 public school education system where literacy, critical thinking, and problem-solving have been on the back-burner since the early 1970’s.

    Billy Bob and Lil’ Dre are easy prey for propaganda.

  21. Pete! I truly admire your insight in so many topics, but it boggles the mind that you only see the foibles of the right while you seem oblivious to similar but opposite issues with the dogma of the left.

  22. What is the evidence that right wing and left wing supporters are equally right and wrong?

    My beliefs are empirical, based on actual results. I don’t much care about faith and philosophy but about results of times when people who call themselves conservative governed vs times governed by those who call themselves liberal.

    I try to explain first to myself then to others what about the foundations of those beliefs seem to bring about the results recorded by history.

    I’m also independent enough to be a big fan of freedom. I am confident in my abilities and don’t think that I need much input from others to run my life. I am realistic enough though to accept that lots of people have an inordinate need to control and think that they know better than others how lives should be run.

    I don’t think that anyone changes based on what I want and I am the same.

  23. Shiela: My parents live in Luke Messer territory and want to know which Democrat (Congressional 6th District) should they vote for in Tuesday Primary to nominate best hopeful to unseat Republican Messer?

  24. Pete! I didn’t say equally right or wrong, but you seem to lack any apprehension about the human frailties of left leaning politicians, and bureaucrats. Lots of complaints in this site about Indiana state supermajority and republican dominated state government. You claim to measure success of left or right based on progress during their reigns. I am wondering what examples of left dominance created a more positive outcome. I won’t bait you with various failures of left dominance. I would ask for one or two of the periods of left leadership that produced the results that give you confidence.

  25. Ken, I believe that good government is essential to civilization and democracy is the only path to it. Conservatism does not seem to support either idea.

  26. I believe good government is important as well, but the emphasis is on “good”. My concern is that your view always seems to be business, bad; government good! I believe you are far too trusting. You have oft said that you do not want a government run like a business and I agree, but what we have currently is a bureaucracy accountable to no one and it has run amok in many, many areas. No one seems to evaluate any program that gets started to determine if it is working. The only remedy for troubled federal programs seems to be more control and more money. Since education has become more federalize, the country has lost its competitive advantage. Not to say there is a causal relationship but the “solution” was NCLB which added reporting burdens and has accomplished nothing. Still losing ground, so let’s get the government in the curriculum business. Common Core is an even bigger fiasco. Or how about energy. In 1978, With foreign oil accounting for about 30% of our consumption, Carter established the Dept of Energy with the mission of reducing our dependence on foreign oil. 30 years later, more than 70% of our oil is foreign. Liberals beg for control of health care for the entire country, but somehow cannot even manage the VA. Pete, I ask again; what is it about government that makes you so confident they will do anything right?

  27. The government is as good as we elect it. It’s absolutely necessary, there is no alternative for getting along without it.

    Do you really believe that the Federal Education Dept of is the only factor in the quality of education? I would say that it’s near the bottom of the list.

  28. Pete! As I suggested there is not necessarily a causal link between deteriorating education and Federal involvement, but one would expect that finding an abysmal failure, they might try some innovation. Never happens in education or any other arena as far as I can see.

  29. One thing that sometimes I think that people of your pursuasion overlook. There is no such thing as business. Only millions of independent businesses each marching only to make more money regardless of the impact on others.

    Not one could exist without government and laws.

    I’m afraid that I can’t be as pessimistic as you are. Mankind has made great progress. The point that you continuously make is that things could be better and I personally hope that will always be the case.

  30. I have a few questions. Ms. Kennedy is a law school professor, correct? Law school is considered graduate school, correct? Somehow the education system must have failed me. I can’t remember where we learned that stereotyping is ok. Is there a first-year law class called “Stereotyping 101?” If one Baptist minister burns a Koran, according to her all non-Democrats/non-liberals are Koran burners? All non-Democrats/non-liberals are woman haters? Only Democrats/liberals think it is wrong to forward anti-Semitic emails? Only Democrats/liberals think its wrong to throw rocks at gays? Really? According to Ms. Kennedy, I guess stereotyping is ok as long as it is against someone whose political views are different than hers. Tell me she is not a paid professor.

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