The summer I stayed at college to work as a counselor for 25 English-seeking Korean students, before the program started and after it ended, my dining hall was Subway. I’d managed to collect quite a few copies of a student newspaper with a 2-for-1 footlong sub coupon and every afternoon I’d present that coupon for two footlong veggies – my one meal of the day.
Last year, I was talking to my college roommate Dave about Subway and he dropped a bombshell (or at least a sub-prise). He said that back in the 60s, his dad was in the army with the founder of Subway. As Dave’s from Connecticut and Subway’s a Connecticut company, it sounded plausible. But how was his dad certain it was the Subway founder? Easy: “He’d always bring huge sandwiches for the bus ride to Fort Drum.”
While some people never change, I no longer eat two Subway footlongs every day. That’s a good thing because Subway’s bread has been determined by a court of law to be “not bread” (too much sugar, legally closer to cake), and earlier this year, following a forensic analysis that was anything but fishy, the New York Times was unable to identify any tuna DNA in Subway’s tuna fish sandwich. Luckily for Subway, lots of people who eat its franken-sandwiches have changed; they no longer believe judicial decisions or the New York Times. If polls are to be believed, a huge swath of the U.S. population now maintains demonstrably false and irrational beliefs about the so-called mainstream media, science, vaccines, climate change, and elections.
Millions of Americans are having a hard thinking straight. Some argue it’s a sign of a broken education system. They're right, but not for the reason they think. It’s not a byproduct of America's various and sundry K-12 challenges; I’d bet the vast majority of high school students in the reddest states wouldn't be confused about masks, vaccines, or elections if not for Fox News and Facebook. The reason is misinformation for sure, and more fundamentally a lacuna in thinking prompted by an emotional reaction.
In just one generation, populist Republicans – of which Donald Trump is now il Duce – have convinced Americans who operate fishing rigs, oil rigs, and big rigs that “elites” are looking down on them. (Ironic considering that Trump’s cry-wolf claims of election rigging – including before elections are even held – have done more than anything to malign rigging and rigs.) As David Brooks commented in the New York Times, we’re talking about “a group of people so enraged by a lack of respect that they are willing to risk death by Covid if they get to stick a middle finger in the air against those who they think look down on them.”
While the left has tried to galvanize popular support with the epithet “predatory” ( predatory lenders, predatory colleges, predatory hospital billing, now even predatory dentists), the right has succeeded beyond their wildest conservative dreams with sanctimony shaming. And now that tens of millions of Trump true believers think anything they hear from so-called elites (including their own government) not only cannot be trusted, but is more likely than not to be sinisterly wrong, it’s clear that sanctimony > predation when it comes to emotions.
It must be noted that casting sanctimony is not a uniquely American move. A rogue’s gallery of dictators have gained power with this tactic. Xi Jinping’s China “will not… accept sanctimonious preaching from those who feel they have the right to lecture us.” Chinese Communist Party media reinforce the perception that foreign powers continue to look down on the Chinese, with the goal of continuing to humiliate them. Under Xi ( says Xi), “the Chinese people will never allow any foreign forces to bully, oppress, or enslave us. Anyone who dares to try to do that will have their heads bashed bloody against a Great Wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people.” And so supposed sanctimony has been key to Xi’s consolidation of power as well as China’s uber-aggressive, undiplomatic “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy,” named after the highest grossing film in Chinese box office history, Wolf Warrior 2. (At my eldest son’s school, where the sports teams are Wolverines, my suggestion that the school attempt to manage difficult neighbors with “Wolverine Warrior Diplomacy” appears to have fallen on deaf ears.)
Short of un-American regulation of the media and social media landscape, what’s the best salve for a divided America? Bizarro David Brooks thinks it’s more government spending. Johns Hopkins President Ron Daniels thinks it’s colleges and universities teaching civics. I think it’s changing American higher education so institutions and their graduates aren’t such easy targets for sanctimony seekers.
Since America’s new Great Wall is the college divide, Colleges and universities have played a key role in this sanctimony story. What percentage of white Republicans without college degrees believes the 2020 election was stolen from Trump? An unfathomable 69%. As the Chronicle of Higher Education acknowledges, “the college degree is dividing America.” College has become such a dividing line that some Republicans think it could overwhelm race and attract millions of non-college Latinos and Blacks to the GOP.
America has always had an economic elite. It’s also always had an intellectual elite. But never the twain did meet until college became the country’s sole (respectable, reliable) pathway to economic advancement. The college monopoly established a single identifiable group of wealthy, educated Americans who have become a prime target for wealthy, educated opportunists like Tucker Carlson. And it’s not as though college gets full credit for the wealthy, educated result: most students who complete college are wealthy to begin with; families with household incomes over $116,000 represent more than half of all degrees awarded to traditional age students.
While some political scientists claim college is increasingly instilling an intellectual identity that breeds hubris and possibly disdain and Michael Sandel refers to college as the “last acceptable prejudice,” I don’t think colleges and college graduates actually look down on their countrymen and women on the other side of the college divide. Who has the time to look down on Republicans, let alone 1.4 billion Chinese? It’s exhausting. (You know who I find the time to look down on? People who tell people they’re being looked down on in order to manipulate them.) But the lie rings true because of how colleges and universities continue to position themselves. Look at their Web sites and viewbooks: paeans to the joy of learning, rumination, and self-discovery, pictured in palaces and palazzos. It’s the 21st century version of the European Grand Tour with comparable prices.
On the other side of the divide, college is viewed as meandering, luxurious, usurious, and somehow unmasculine, which explains the increasing college gender gap (not only in enrollment, but increasingly completion). College is seen as purposeless rather than purposeful, which explains why self-identified Republicans are now net negative on college as an institution.
What’s the alternative? A more honest approach recognizing that learning for its own sake was a laudable goal in the 1970s and 80s when tuition was a few thousand dollars a year and cost of living wasn’t insane, but is no longer sustainable for most. The alternative is more directed and purposeful postsecondary education: a pathway to a good job.
In order to turn back the clock on sanctimony, colleges and universities should:
If every institution – particularly the most selective schools that suck all the air out of the common room – could undertake just a handful of the above, it would make a difference. As Michael Sorrell advises, it’s time to stop being more in love with your traditions than your students. Meanwhile, other players have culpability as well:
In an essay in the Washington Post that’s as important as it is depressing, Robert Kagan imagines upcoming electoral scenarios that make the events of January 6 look like a tempest in a teapot (“a reasonable chance over the next three to four years of incidents of mass violence”) and describes the resulting risk to the Republic as the “greatest political and constitutional crisis since the Civil War.”
With the Union in peril, we may not have the luxury of self-discovery for much longer. A single, narrow, lengthy, and costly path to the economic and intellectual elite is the stuff of which revolutions are made, and not the glorious or good kind. Although few colleges and universities are currently set up for broad-based purposeful learning – and even if they were, are fearful of acknowledging it – they don’t have a choice. I’m not going to say the barbarians are at the gate because that would be sanctimonious, but... Whoops.
Colleges have an obligation to not only make it easier for those who currently feel – rightly or wrongly – shut out, but also to blur the currently way-too-bright line between college and not-college. As Farah Stockman noted last week in the New York Times, “The American experiment is unraveling. The only way to knit it back together is for decision makers in this country, nearly all of whom have college degrees, to reconnect with the working class, who make up a majority of voters.” As decision makers go, college trustees, administrators, faculty, and staff have a unique responsibility. Taking the aforementioned steps may not be a panacea for white working class alienation, but would go a long way to stopping the sanctimony scam.