The social sciences and humanities are the boogey man that conservatives fight the hardest against in higher-education. These classes are often the courses that force students to think critically about what and why they hold the beliefs that they do, which often destroys the exposed students past social norms and beliefs as these past traditions can rarely withstand a well-thought-out argument against them. This horrifies my conservative students and their parents because they see these classes as a threat to the validity of their past beliefs as well as the validity of the beliefs and traditions that their social power and privilege is based upon. Essentially, it threatens to make their lives uncomfortable.
Due to my past membership in the Christian far right, I can empathize heavily with their fear. Not wanting to give up the comfort of the bubble of conservatism and ignorance is natural. Not wanting to recognize one’s privilege because to do so would challenge one’s world view is natural. Not wanting to cede any of that privilege is also natural and understandable in this world-view. More importantly, that sense of knowing that one’s beliefs and traditions are the “correct” beliefs gives an individual inner peace, and my class essentially destroys that peace. I can empathize with the conservative fear, but my empathy only goes so far. There is no excuse for what the anti-intellectualism being promoted by the Republican Party is doing to this country
Conservative Republican leadership has taken advantage of this fear to the point that they have been able to successfully lobby state and local legislators across America to cut $9 billion for funding to higher-education over the past decade. These budget cuts, due the capitalist nature of how our universities are ran as for-profit enterprises, has led to universities increasing their tuition in order to make up for said losses, which only strengthens the barriers that prevent the working poor and marginalized people of color from obtaining a university degree that would improve their socio-economic-status.
Republicans have not only cut off funding to programs that would help pull people out poverty, they have convinced the working-white poor that they do not need to attend college in the first place. They have convinced poor white folks that they are better off remaining poor and not attempting to advance themselves because Mr. Wood isn’t teaching students critical thinking skills, he isn’t teaching students to appreciate diversity in thought, gender, race, and religion; he is grooming students to be lazy communists who hate white Christians.
There is a reason that conservatives fight so fiercely to silence academics and prevent people from becoming educated: knowledge is power. Sociologists, and anyone who teaches in the social sciences and humanities, are a direct threat to conservative leaders because we teach open mindedness and critical thinking about the social world. If people understand that reality is not black and white but different shades of grey, then established norms and authority figures become replaceable. The leaders of our communities and country become replaceable. The power of the wealthy elite is taken down a notch.
Worse yet, and I do not think this is hyperbole, Republicans know that under-paid poor people who can barely afford to put food on their table do not have the time to sit-down and process the information that is given to them. That makes the propaganda of theatrics in the 24-hour news cycle even more powerful. Have any of you talked to a Fox News enthusiast lately?
These are scary times. I say this not only as an academic, but as an American. It is shocking the level of rage that I have seen in the classroom when I dare to pose the question “How does capitalism work for those who do not hold capital?” It is amazing how people can completely and utterly reject the science of climate change, placing the lives of the future inhabitants of this planet in danger. The overall general lack of critical thinking skills has turned most Americans into to sheep because they do not process what they are told, they simply accept it.
We, any of us who are educated or work in education, must fight back against the rising tide of anti-intellectualism. We must let people know that our social sciences and humanities classes may make them feel uncomfortable, but something beautiful can rise from the ashes of their old beliefs. We must try our hardest to get our friends and relatives to critically think about their beliefs and articulate why they are adamant to defend their old ways of thinking; I can guarantee that if you can get someone to try to articulate a logical defense of the illogical that the lightbulb will turn on for them.
If we do not do a better of job of this, if I do not do a better job in the classroom, then the population that sees education as a threat and not a benefit to society will grow. That means the budgets cuts will grow, that tuition will increase, that critical thinking skills will continue to erode, and that the working poor and people of color will continue to suffer. Our planet and our society can survive a lot of things, but anti-intellectualism and a loss of critical thought is not one of them.