In mid-November, the chancellor of California State University, the largest four-year public university system in the country, announced that CSU wouldn’t help federal authorities deport undocumented students. On the same day, students at as many as 100 higher education institutions across the country staged walkouts to demand their schools become sanctuary campuses, a concept that stems from the sanctuary movement of the 1980s, when churches across the U.S. provided a safe haven to Central American refugees. Now, sanctuary activists at the City University of New York, the country’s third-largest public system, have planned a walkout for December 1, ending in a march straight to Trump Tower.
America’s public universities are transforming themselves into the front line in the fight against mass deportation, becoming some of the staunchest defendants of the disenfranchised. Yet their faculties are often smeared as agents of an aloof intelligentsia, and students as members of a coddled elite. You’ll have heard that word a lot recently: the global elite, the liberal elite, the political elite, the cultural elite, the media elite, the coastal elite. There are various prefixes but the premise is always the same: They have rigged the system and plundered our resources, leaving nothing for the ordinary folk. As the Trump campaign has told it, there is a division between the powerful and the people: campuses, coasts, and cities against the honest hayseeds of Middle America who felt disenfranchised by the conspiracies of the alleged aristocracy. Pointing out that separation was a shrewd strategy, disguising the white nationalist revanchism that swept Trump into power as a righteous mandate to rule.
This narrative, broadly speaking, is correct. A global elite does exist — it’s just not the one Trump rails against. The richest 1 percent now have more wealth than the rest of the world’s population combined. The rapid rise in global income inequality has been described as one of the most worrying developments of the past 200 years. They haven’t just taken control of our economy, they’ve taken control of our language, our framework of thought. After all, in a post-truth world, reality is whatever you want it to be, and words, to paraphrase Humpty Dumpty, mean whatever you choose them to mean. We are now faced with the spectacle of a self-proclaimed billionaire who lives in an all-gold-everything penthouse in a tower bearing his name who nonetheless paints himself as an ordinary man. Yet middle-class journalists are the “elite,” and liberals everywhere are self-flagellating about their inward-looking “elitism.”
The critique of liberals’ condescension is really a euphemism for what makes them liberal in the first place: After race and gender, educational attainment was by far the best
predictor of who voted red or blue in 2016 — and Trump knew it, too. “I love the poorly educated. We’re the smartest people, we’re the most loyal people,” he said earlier this year, practically equating education and sedition.
In fact, there is a long history of anti-intellectualism that runs through America. In his classic work Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter wrote that “the subordination of men of ideas to men of emotional power or manipulative skill are hardly innovations of the twentieth century; they are inheritances from American Protestantism.” America has always privileged the doer over the thinker. The archetypal American is the self-made man, and he made himself through hard work, not by knowing hard words. Anti-intellectualism has been a consistent thread in presidential campaigns, and candidates throughout history have deliberately dumbed themselves down to appeal to what Hofstadter described as a tradition of Know-Nothingism, named after the Know-Nothings, a mid-nineteenth-century anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic political party whose platform was later revived in the form of the Ku Klux Klan. More recently, it found new life in the Tea Party and Birther movements — the latter of which Donald Trump himself stoked.
Universities have long been a target of suspicion for the followers of Know-Nothingism, criticized as breeding grounds for “eggheads” and characterized as un-American as far back as the days of Puritan settlement. Today, one of the most vocal proponents of this narrative is Trump adviser and billionaire tech titan Peter Thiel. The Silicon Valley baron has crusaded against universities since at least 2010, when he announced the Thiel Fellowship, which would pay young people $100,000 to drop out of college in order pursue “radical innovation that will benefit society.” Thiel explained his antipathy toward tertiary education in a 2014 Washington Post op-ed, in which he wrote that “higher education sorts us all into a hierarchy. Kids at the top enjoy prestige because they’ve defeated everybody else in a competition to reach the schools that proudly exclude the most people.”
When privatized and motivated by profit then, yes, higher education does sort people into a hierarchy. Top-tier private schools do propagate an out-of-touch elite (Thiel’s op-ed never mentions his two degrees from Stanford). The educational system in America has grown more expensive and exclusive over the years, governed by market forces rather than intellectual curiosity. Public universities have seen their funding slashed, relying more and more on increasing tuition fees that put them out of reach to the very communities they were established to serve. But, at their heart, universities are our best hope for a more equitable society. Hofstadter viewed universities, those “citadels of intellectual individualism,” as powerful agents of change. The futures of society and of universities, he believed, were interwoven. Now, with the sanctuary campus movement, universities — more specifically, public universities — are becoming agents of change again. The ivory towers are becoming battlegrounds for equality. If we are to triumph over Trump’s brand of ignorance, it will be through education.