Paul Prather

Republicans now say higher education does more harm to America than good

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Not long after I graduated from high school, I had a conversation with my grandfather, Papa Prather, that has stayed with me.

Normally, Papa didn’t talk much. He mainly sat in his easy chair and chewed tobacco.

But this balmy day, as we lounged beneath an apple tree in his backyard in Somerset, I told him I’d lined up a job in Lexington and had decided not to go to college.

He arched an eyebrow, and as he sliced an apple with his pocketknife, he shook his head.

“Son, stay in school and get your education, so you won’t have to work hard like I’ve always done,” he said.

Papa, whose father had died when he was a small boy, had completed only the third grade before hunger forced him to quit school to become a farm laborer, earning a dollar a day.

Across the decades, he’d also dug ditches, driven coal trucks, pumped gas and shoveled coal into a blast furnace — any tough, dead-end job he could find that might put pinto beans on the table to feed his and Granny’s five kids.

His advice impressed me so much, being such a rarity, that I took it. I went to college.

Papa and Granny were dyed-in-the-wool Republicans, and Bible-believing fundamentalists.

I don’t imagine either of them ever cast a ballot for a Democrat in their lengthy lives. Granny believed that you couldn’t even go to heaven if you weren’t Republican and Baptist, pretty much in that order.

Yet both also believed that education was the holy grail. It could improve your mind and ease your road in life. Granny pushed my dad so hard in his studies that he became not only a schoolteacher but a college administrator.

Today, the majority of Republicans have turned against higher education.

This, I must say, baffles me. I thought virtually everyone believed in college education.

A couple of weeks ago, the Pew Research Center released a new study of how Republicans and Democrats view five major institutions: churches, banks, labor unions, the news media, and colleges and universities.

The findings that most got my attention were the ones on higher education.

According to the report, some 58 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents now say that colleges and universities have a negative impact on the nation. Only 36 percent think higher education’s effect is positive. The older and more conservative the Republican polled, the less he or she approves of colleges.

This perception is growing, too. Last year, 45 percent of Republicans overall thought institutions of higher education had a negative impact.

By comparison, 72 percent of Democrats (twice as many as Republicans) approve of the influence of colleges and universities; 19 percent disapprove.

The Pew study also shows that Republicans distrust banks, labor unions and the media. Church is the only institution in which they maintain confidence.

I knew that Republicans didn’t trust labor unions and the media.

And even though their party is traditionally the party of big business, I recognized that some despise banks and financial institutions, probably a legacy of the 2008 Wall Street meltdown and bailout.

Truly, though, I was startled by their grudge against higher education.

I wonder where it’s coming from.

Maybe it’s the often-voiced paranoia that university faculties are chock-full of godless, liberal zealots who lie awake nights plotting ways to turn dewy-eyed, conservative, Kumbaya-singing church kids into minions of Satan.

Maybe it’s because large swaths of our citizenry, not confined to Republicans necessarily, are suspicious of anyone or anything that smacks of intellectualism. Or even of documentable intelligence.

Maybe it’s because a lot of Americans currently inhabit a post-truth, anti-expert, anti-science place where anyone with a Twitter feed or a Facebook page, not to mention a bundle of crackpot “feelings,” considers his opinions as valid as those of a busload of astrophysicists.

One thing’s certain. Universities have taken a lot of guff in the culture wars lately — much of it deserved — over their trigger warnings and their unwillingness to recognize First Amendment rights and their sometimes-surreal gender politics.

College campuses can indeed be wacky places. But they’ve always been wacky.

In the 1920s, students ate goldfish and sat for days atop flagpoles. In the 1970s, when Papa Prather and I had our conversation, campus activists had not long since been blowing up ROTC buildings and sponsoring love-ins and just pretty much burning academe to its charcoal embers.

Still, Papa, a staunch Republican Baptist, urged me to haul myself to campus and get educated, no matter how many heathen professors or free-loving, doped-up, bomb-throwing hippies I had to dodge.

He and Granny considered higher education the path out from poverty, ignorance and social-class discrimination.

They weren’t educated themselves. By some standards, they weren’t even particularly enlightened, I suppose, God love them.

But they believed that real facts existed, and you should learn as many of them as possible.

They believed that if you went to college and read books and discussed grand ideas, you’d be better off in the long run, despite the dangers of having your mind enlarged. You’d learn valuable lessons from people who knew important answers.

There’s a sizable portion of our citizenry that simply doesn’t believe that anymore. They see little value in public education, critical thinking or possibly even self-improvement.

Papa secretly might have been leery about his grandson getting educated. I don’t know. But he was even more afraid that I’d remain uneducated.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at