As president of Kenyon College, I had the incredibly good fortune of inviting author David Foster Wallace to deliver the commencement address in 2005. This is the speech that has been called the greatest commencement address, that goes viral anew every graduation season, and that eventually became a small book, This Is Water.
The title comes from a little joke that Wallace told at the beginning:
“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How's the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’ “ The point of the story is that fish don’t really think much about water; it’s just the medium in which they exist. As Wallace put it: “The most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see.”
The Pew Research Center recently published a brief report about the public’s view of whether certain national institutions have an overall positive or negative impact on “the way things are going in the country.” Wallace’s insight may help us to interpret the results of that report for colleges and universities.
The report indicates that attitudes of Republicans toward higher education have flipped from positive to negative for the first time. Specifically, 58 percent of Republicans polled indicated that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country. A majority of all poll respondents (55 percent) hold a positive view of higher education, and 72 percent of Democrats do.
For Republicans, the negative perceptions are consistent across all levels of education, income levels, and ages (except that 18-29 year-olds—presumably, students or recent graduates--are considerably more positive).
But let’s look at another Pew report from 2016. That study probed the value placed on a college degree by different demographic groups, specifically, white, black, and Hispanic families. The outcome tells a starkly different story. Among those with children under 18, 86 percent of Hispanic respondents and 79 percent of black respondents said that it is “extremely important” or “very important” that their children earn a college degree. For white respondents, that number was lower: 67 percent.
In that study as well, 49 percent of black and 43 percent of Hispanic respondents said that a college education is a requirement to be part of the middle class. Only 22 percent of whites said the same. One researcher speculated: “White adults are more likely than black or Hispanic adults to already be in the middle class. (On the eve of the 2016 election, data showed* that 86 percent of Republican voters were white.)
Let’s look at the value placed on higher education from a different angle: the views of educational “haves and have nots,” if you will. A joint College Board/National Journal study, published in 2014, found that “90 percent of those who pursued higher education immediately after high school said they would do so again.” In sharp contrast, the majority of high school graduates who went directly into the workforce said that they would not make that choice again, but would seek more education. In addition, a third of the people who initially skipped higher education said they later reconsidered and sought a degree.
What does this have to do with This Is Water? This is water. If you were born into it, there’s a good chance you take it for granted. Republican voters surveyed by Pew, largely white and often better educated than other demographic groups, may express the opinion that higher education is negative or unnecessary. But actions speak louder than words. These same voters—as many widely cited recent studies show—are sending their children from high school to college and university, not to vocational school or directly into the workforce. Higher education will provide better opportunities for their children to flourish. They know this, both from personal experience and from empirical data; it’s just “in the water.” As Wallace concluded his Kenyon address: “The real value of a real education has everything to do with what is hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time…. We have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: ‘This is water. This is water.’ ”
*Pew Research Center Fact Tank, News in the Numbers, November 7, 2016, “America’s Political Divisions in 5 Charts”