Higher education has an intellectual elitism problem

“Raise your hand if you know an intelligent person that will be voting for President Donald J. Trump.”

Slowly but surely, all the while looking around for some gesture of approval from peers, approximately a third of the 40-person class raised their hands.

Now to preface, I consider myself politically independent, closer to the middle than to either pole of the ideological spectrum. I am also far from a fiery Trump supporter. But none of this is relevant. After all, the objective of my professor Dr. Michael Munger’s thought experiment was not to gauge the political leanings of his students, nor was it to poke fun at those willing to admit that they are friends with potential Trump voters. Rather, the purpose had been to challenge the 2/3 of the class who did not raise their hands. Namely, for this group, one or both of the following conditions must be true:

1. Such student chooses to not engage with any person that would consider voting for President Trump.


2. Such student cannot fathom that someone could be both (i) intelligent and (ii) a Trump voter.

Yet, here are the facts: In 2020, 74.2 million Americans went to the ballots and voted for President Trump. And if our current polling data is accurate (though this is an entirely separate discussion), Donald J. Trump will likely be elected back into office this coming November. Therefore, if two thirds of the class truly cannot conceive that “someone could be both intelligent and a Trump voter,” this presents a reality whereby many university students consider themselves intellectually and/or morally superior. 

“You are right, Alex. I absolutely and unequivocally consider myself above the average American.”

“I admire your shamelessness. But may I ask why?”

“Well, for starters, I recently completed Math 545 at the top of my class, had memorized Plato’s 'The Republic' by the time I was 12, and just last Friday, NASA awarded me with a grant to perform independent research. Oh, and I am a freshman.”

Okay, well I did not realize Jimmy Neutron attended Duke. 

Nonetheless, when a student body demonstrates a consistent inability to empathize, resonate, or at the very least be open to understanding the rationale of over half of America’s voting constituents, there may be but one takeaway — that higher education is comprised of an intellectually elitist body, not an intellectually open one. 

And of note, there may be no political issue that better exemplifies this as well as the disconnect between higher education and the ordinary American than climate change.

It is no secret that young people are passionate about climate change. “Divest” is likely Gen Z’s favorite word, and just this past Sunday, student groups held an Alumni Weekend Protest calling for Duke to (you guessed it!) “divest” from fossil fuels and incorporate sustainable campus infrastructure. But should we be surprised by this? After all, our generation will be the ones that inherit a planet burdened by the environmental recklessness of those before us. So, to the students who have dedicated so much time and effort to this cause, I commend you. Truly. 

What I take issue with is the dialogue surrounding those who do not view climate change as a top priority. Namely, I’ve observed a certain sentiment in higher education arguing that those who are unwilling to protect our planet at the cost of individual financial loss must simply be short-sighted, misinformed or just plain selfish. Now, we can argue the validity of these claims on an individual level, but what we must not do is make condescending generalizations without attempting to understand the alternative view. Quite simply, refusing to prioritize climate change does not equal climate change denial. In fact, 85% of Americans believe climate change poses some form of threat, and 74% of Americans support coordinated international efforts to reduce climate change. Still, according to a February Pew Research Poll, climate change only ranked 17th out of 21 issues Americans think should be prioritized by the President and Congress. In other words, Americans recognize that climate change is real, but it is admittedly not on the forefront of their minds. Let’s examine why.

Here’s a hypothetical that may illustrate the perspective of the person previously described. 

You may pick but one to survive: 50 strangers or one member of your immediate family. You have 10 minutes to decide, and your time starts … now!

Now, this precise scenario is not realistic, at least I’d hope not. However, when a coal miner from West Virginia or an oil driller from Texas heads to the ballots, a similar conundrum (one with much lower stakes) is faced. By supporting progressive climate change reform and a Green New Deal, you are asking that they sacrifice their job security and family’s livelihood (the one family member) in order to spare future generations from climate disaster (the 50 strangers). Moreover, we must recognize that good climate change policy is not always consistent with a strong economy, which has consistently ranked as the most important issue for American voters. For example, the replacement of all fossil fuel power systems in the United States could cost up to 4.7 trillion dollars and by 2050 would displace more than 1.7 million American workers. Thus, the pushback among some parts of the American populace, especially those in the fossil fuel industry, is understandable and rational. 

Now, in response, a climate expert will likely argue that renewable energy will actually save trillions in the long run and create jobs for working Americans, a completely valid point in its own right. But, as we return to the hypothetical that had been posed, we should also be empathic of the right-leaning West Virginia coal miner, who chooses to prioritize the well-being of his own family over the potential well being of future families. By the way Mom and Dad, I would have chosen the family member in a heartbeat (of course under the condition that that family member was my dog Ollie).

Notably, I am not here to deliberate over whether the coal miner’s reasoning is “right” or “just.” Taking sides or posing judgements has never been the purpose of this piece. The purpose, rather, is to simply suggest that we be more open to hearing the lived experiences and perspectives of real people — that we not immediately dismiss someone solely based on the box they will check on Tuesday, November 5. And with this, I raise the question of how we go about becoming more intellectually open and less intellectually elitist. 

Perhaps most importantly, we must continue to relentlessly support free speech, even if it means giving a platform to those with whom we disagree. According to an annual undergraduate survey conducted at the Buckley Institute at Yale University, in 2023, 46% of students agreed that, “It is sometimes acceptable to shout down or disrupt a speaker on my campus.” Now, I first take the time to affirm that hate speech is not okay. However, this intolerant environment is likely not motivated by anti-hate speech. For example, in this same survey, a plurality of college students, 48% to 44% agreed that they “cannot bring [themselves] to being close friends with someone who affiliates with a different political party than them.” And perhaps you disagree, but I would argue that it is completely unreasonable to say that someone is inherently hateful for being a member of a different party. 

However, despite these clearly strong views on partisan issues, 61% of respondents stated they are often intimidated from sharing beliefs different from their professors in class. What I am hearing right now is two things: (i) students are censoring other students and (ii) students are censoring themselves — both of which are directly at odds with the type of learning atmosphere we should be seeking to create. 

So, as I wrap up this piece, may I make clear that I do not ask that any of you compromise on your own views. I simply request that you recognize that disagreement is more often rooted in a difference in values and circumstance than it is in ignorance and/or unintelligence. With this, I urge that you be open to engaging with those outside of your sphere and with those who do disagree. After all, a middle ground may never be found if we do not take the time to stop and simply listen.

Simply listen. 

I hope you enjoyed the read.

Alex Berkman is a Trinity sophomore. His column typically runs on alternate Tuesdays.


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