Climate Change: the Kind You Can't See

Yes, climate change is real. I’m talking about cultural climate change. It’s lapping like the surf at the beaches and inlets of our minds, cooking our brains, and spreading like smog over our vision.

A recent Pew research study found that 58 percent of political conservatives think higher education has a negative effect on the country. Fifty years ago, Republicans were more likely to be college-educated professionals than were Democrats; now the opposite pattern is emerging, with corresponding attitudes. Seventy-two percent of Democrats today believe higher education is beneficial to the country.

How can a college education benefit the country? There are two ways to evaluate an education:

1) as job training, and 2) as an introduction to one’s own culture—culture in the anthropological sense.

There’s no question that we need job training at all skill levels. This use of post-secondary education is good for the country. It boosts the economy and fights poverty. But denigrating other uses of education is an example of zero-sum thinking: that if you favor one thing, you must devalue the other. This kind of thinking is causing our mental and emotional climate change.

The second use of higher education requires students to look beneath the surfaces of events and understand them, just as we can understand our bodies by knowing a little about physiology. By understanding history, we can see the present in a clearer light. By reading imaginative literature, we can learn empathy and universal truths. By studying music and art, we discover our own humanity and learn to experience joy. By learning psychology, we find out how to connect with others.

If we educate ourselves in this way, we’re tapping into the accumulated experience of human life on this planet. But when we do, opponents of traditional higher education call us “elitists.” We are “politically correct”—a behavior now scorned—if we respect all persons equally, make the world safer for the vulnerable, and value generosity over wealth.

Writer friends, keep writing. Resist!

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