Around the same time President Trump’s U.S. Department of Justice announced that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not, in its view, protect LGBT workers from on-the-job discrimination, just as the President himself was trying to ban transgender warriors from the military, the prejudice and oppressive ignorance of this new Republican Dark Age became even more life sapping when a major new survey showed that a majority of conservatives and Republicans don’t trust higher education.
And this antagonism to the role and purpose of colleges and universities in modern life has slipped into New Mexico when a former Republican Governor, Gary Carruthers, who now serves as the president of New Mexico State University, and the state’s biggest and probably most conservative newspaper, the Albuquerque Journal, both called for shrinking New Mexico’s system of higher education and weeding of the state’s 31 colleges and universities of superfluous schools.
The poll from the Pew Research Center released this month found, “A majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (58%) now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country, up from 45% last year.” Pew reports that 72% of Democrats says higher education has a “positive effect.”
Dark Age bigotry, hateful small minded tribalism, fear of difference, hatred of strangers — all scourges of a good, peaceful and productive life — are best challenged by information, learning, insight, critical judgment and expanded experience, the heart and soul of higher education.
In a vast, rural state like New Mexico, small towns with colleges, community colleges and universities stand a chance to better appreciate the economic and personal benefits of the open-minded, well-informed life. Residents can be in closer contact with the rest of the world in a way the World Wide Web can never provide. A community of scholars in any town can add an intangible but positive impact on the quality of social discourse and perhaps improve and inspire better teaching in the local K through 12 school system. Young people in such towns have a decent shot at getting the kind of practical and intellectual experience they need to build good lives for themselves and to better the economies of their communities. And even branch colleges in small towns can become an economic anchor.
If the trend of the future is ever expanding megacities where more than 75% of the population lives worldwide, rural people who still provide the food and raw materials for those city dwellers will need all the education they can get to compete with expanding urban businesses. Taking higher education away from the rural New Mexicans and their children, for instance, really dooms them to either being second-class citizens or forces young people to migrate to megacities, leaving rural cultures and economies to further shrink and disintegrate. Rural towns like Las Vegas, Portales, Silver City, and Socorro still thrive, in part, because of their universities.
One could build a strong case for higher education as being one reason for New Mexico remaining a bastion of diversity and tolerance, even if it does take the occasional fall into the racist sewer, a history most every place on earth tragically shares. One could also argue that the pain spread across New Mexico by unemployment, isolation, and hopelessness is in some perhaps small way mitigated by the contribution higher education makes to local culture.
Of New Mexico’s 31 institutions of higher learning, seven are mandated by the New Mexico Constitution: the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, Eastern New Mexico University in Portales, Western New Mexico University in Silver City, New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, and New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro, along with the New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell which is both a high school and junior college, the New Mexico School for the Blind in Alamogordo, and the New Mexico School for the Deaf in Santa Fe. It would take a constitutional amendment to weed out any of them.
In addition, there’s the Northern New Mexico College in Espanola. Eastern New Mexico University has branches in Roswell and Ruidoso. New Mexico State has branches in Alamogordo, Carlsbad, Dona Ana and Grants. UNM has branches in Los Alamos, Gallup, Taos, and Valencia County. And there are community colleges in Albuquerque, Clovis, Tucumcari, Hobbs, San Juan, Santa Fe, and Las Vegas.
Which one of these communities will be weeded out and deprived of higher education and, in the process, weeded out of what hope they might have for prosperity though a diversified economy. Five or six colleges and universities removed from New Mexico would result in the loss of many hundreds of jobs.
Some might think New Mexico is rich in higher education. I’m one of them. The fact that there are colleges, universities, and community colleges in every part of the state, rural and urban, is not a social or economic weakness. It is an enormous untold strength and asset that has never been fully assessed and appreciated. Others complain that all those little schools cost the state too much money. Tell that to their students and alumni, and do the local businesses than depend on them. The existence of 31 libraries of higher learning across the state alone, not to mention their well-educated staffs of librarians, is of incalculable benefit to perhaps hundreds of thousands of New Mexicans, if you include faculty, students, staff and community members.
If higher education costs “too much money” in New Mexico it is the fault of government-hating, anti-tax conservatives who are only willing to subsidize big out of state corporations, not the young people and the future of our state. The expansion of higher education in America was the great achievement of the 1960s and 1970s. It has ebbed and flowed with conservative and progressive political leadership and shifts in economic patterns. Fifty years ago one didn’t have to sell the voter on the value of learning. People understood that colleges and universities weren’t just places to learn a trade but also environments where the arts of citizenship were given a primary place in which students were provided the skills and knowledge needed for leadership roles. People also understood that college campuses were places where students had a chance to meet people from across the country and, sometimes, from around the world. They helped students rid themselves of provincial myopia and narrow-minded bias.
No one is saying that higher education makes for more compassionate and generous citizens. Educated people can be small-minded bigots too. But I believe colleges and universities help tilt a society toward tolerance, if for no other reason than they provide an environment for people from different backgrounds to get to know each other and discuss the issues of the day.
And, perhaps most importantly, we saw in the 1980s and 1990s colleges and universities greatly increase their enrollments with women, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian American students, along with students of other nationalities. Colleges and universities remain great generators of equal opportunity in an increasingly stratified and class conflicted American society.
If we want to have a chance to improve New Mexico’s economy and its way of life, it’s far more useful to tax ourselves to better pay for higher education than it is to undermine our tax base by luring big corporations from out of state with tax incentives and other extravagant perks with no promise from them of hiring New Mexicans to perform well-paying jobs.
Nothing shows the descent of America into a conservative Dark Age more poignantly than the necessity of having to explain and defend the overall cultural importance of higher education in the life of New Mexicans. Let’s weed out the corporate freeloaders hiring our people to do menial jobs for menial pay and work to make higher education in New Mexico a gold standard of diversity, tolerance, and the nurturing of curiosity and research, all key ingredients to a prosperous and enlightening way of life in the American West.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it