It’s now widely known that the educational divide — or the diploma divide, as some leading scholars have put it — is a major driver across most Western democracies in explaining voting patterns and the realignment of the parties of the left and right. Over at The Dispatch, David French has an interesting essay (behind a paywall) related to these issues.
I’m going to start by asking you two questions to help you determine where you fall on America’s great educational divide. This is for parents and grandparents only.
1. When you hear that your child (or grandchild) has done remarkably well on the SAT, is your first thought, “They can get into a GREAT school” or “They can go to school for FREE”?
2. When you heard of the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal—where parents engaged a broker to help bribe their children into elite colleges—did the parental obsession with elite college admissions feel utterly alien to you? Or did it resonate in some small way with your own parenting experience?
The reason I’m asking is that I think one of America’s great political, cultural, and class divides is driven in part by parenting cultures that possess fundamentally different educational priorities.
The piece continues:
I’m thinking through parenting differences in part because of a rather dramatic statistic that made waves online yesterday. It turns out that Donald Trump finished third in the presidential vote of Harvard University’s incoming freshman class. Joe Biden earned a whopping 87 percent of the vote, Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins won 6.7 percent, and Trump gained a paltry 6.3 percent…..
I’ve spent my entire adult life (including of course my entire parenting life) living in either deep-blue or deep-red regions of the United States, and I can tell you that the parenting cultures are substantially different. To go back to the questions above, in my experience the upper-middle-class families in deep-blue America are extremely focused on accessing prestige education. In some small way they understand the obsessions of the Varsity Blues parents, and they look at high test scores primarily as an opportunity to gain access to elite schools.
Where I live, however, the Varsity Blues parents might as well live on a different planet, and tremendous test scores are much more often viewed as the ticket to free tuition. College prestige is much less important than the overall college experience. Parents and kids set their sights on, say, the University of Alabama, and the difference between a 1200 SAT and a 1500 SAT lies in the cost, not the choice of school. And in fact in 2018-2019, more National Merit Scholars joined the Crimson Tide than enrolled in Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Michigan the University of Chicago, and virtually every other top university in the land.
What’s one school that beat Alabama? The University of Florida. So the Gators can occasionally beat ‘Bama in something.
Parents (rightly) understand that graduating from Alabama or Florida not only is no impediment to prosperity, in Southern communities it can bond you to your peers for life. Indeed, this can be a healthy way to approach college. The prestige of your school is hardly make-or-break, and placing that level of stress on your children can make them anxious and unhappy.
But here’s the catch—while you can do very, very well coming from, say, an SEC school, there is still an Ivy or Ivy-equivalent hiring preference in many of the nation’s top institutions. Choices always involve tradeoffs.
The result, then, is the world we live in now, where many millions of Americans can live prosperous lives and enjoy the respect of their communities, yet still feel as if they’re not quite fully respected by the American cultural elite. They don’t feel welcome everywhere in American life. There’s a barrier to entry to the apex of American cultural and economic institutions that not all their high-performing peers face….
Moreover, the sense of cultural isolation can be self-reinforcing and self-sustaining. The fewer conservatives who attend the Ivy League, the more alien it can feel. The fewer conservatives who work in Silicon Valley or in the white shoe law firms, the more alien they can feel. As important as those institutions may be, they’re just not part of the normal conservative career plan.
This level of ideological and educational separation is bad for our culture and our nation. It breeds groupthink and extremism. As Cass Sunstein argued years ago in his brilliant formulation of the “law of group polarization,” when like-minded people gather and deliberate, they tend to grow more extreme, sometimes dramatically more extreme. In many ways, the “Great Awokening” is a product of group polarization.
Should more conservative parents orient their kids towards Harvard and away from Alabama? Yes, I think so. Should more companies intentionally recruit top students from a deeper and more diverse pool of schools? Sure. But when competing American cultures are locked deeply into habits of life, it becomes increasingly difficult to cross the streams.
In the meantime we’re left with two Americas living two very different educational realities. At Harvard, Joe Biden wins almost 90 percent, and Donald Trump finishes third. At the University of Tennessee? Two weeks ago I sat in the student section with my son as the students led an entire stadium in a sing-song chant, “F**k Joe Biden.”
College students are woke? Not everywhere and not at the same rates. Different cultures yield different choices, and those different choices continue to drive this nation apart.