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A student asked me after the last election, “Why are more highly educated people more liberal?”

November 16, 2016

It has been a while since I have sat down and contributed to my own blog. I have been really busy teaching classes and being a department chair and trying to get some research done.

And then we had an election and the day after classes were not held because of an advising day and so, on Friday, Nov. 11, 2016, there had been a few days for some hateful things to be done on our campus. The President of our college sent a letter to all faculty, staff and students explaining that this is not how we behave on a liberal arts campus. And I had to grapple with what I do with my students in an increasingly divided and  post-factual world. This is especially problematic in that I have been stressing evidence-based decision making in my general education course, a course that focuses on the ecology, economics, policy, history and ethics of food production in the 21st century.

So I began asking the class if anyone felt that they needed to talk about things. Not very far into it, one student asked me the question in the title to this post. And I am afraid I did not give her a particularly good answer. I told her that the more education you have, the more perspectives you can bring to decision-making and the more diversity of experiences you probably (but not necessarily) have to bring to that decision-making and this often leads to decisions that tend to swing more toward the middle (which actually makes you more moderate, not liberal). I should also mention that not all well-educated people are on the liberal side of the political divide. Not a bad answer but, this morning, I read a really interesting post that made me think of my own experiences.

I graduated with my PhD in 1996 and could not find a job. So I went with my then wife to the Peruvian rainforest and lived for 3.5 months among the Shipibo and, to a lesser extent, the Yaminahua people of central and eastern Peru. She was working on her dissertation research examining the effectiveness of language education program. I remember flying around in small airplanes, called Helio Couriers (the people at JAARS told me that they were designed to crash in the jungle and have you walk away from the wreckage). At 7000 ft altitude on my way to a village near the Peruvian-Brazilian border, I remember looking out and seeing nothing but unbroken lowland rain forest from horizon to horizon, 360 degrees around the airplane. I was invited to go on a “monkey hunt” with the village leader. While on the hunt, he killed eight monkeys, a guan, and we captured a red-footed tortoise. The village leader created a harness for the tortoise out of palm leaves and then strapped the tortoise, which must have weighed 30-40 lbs, onto the back of his 6 year old daughter. And off we went, running through the forest looking for more prey, the tortoise clawing into the back of the village leader’s daughter.

As a herpetologist, I could not bring myself to carry the tortoise back to the village. But as a human, I could not let this little girl carry the tortoise back to the village. I carried the tortoise back to the village where the village leader cooked the tortoise and the monkeys and the guan and asked me over for dinner.

At the time, I had travelled to Mexico, both border towns (since I lived in Texas) and deeper into the interior of Mexico. But until the set of experiences I had in Peru, I think I carried around a certain air of arrogance that comes from being raised in America without the benefit of outside influences. I wanted to judge that village leader, first, for hunting primates and tortoises (I did not care that much about the guan at the time) but then for recruiting the little girl in the act. And, over the course of the day, I lost my ability to pass judgement on them.

Somewhere along the way that day, and it was all day, these people became human to me. In a concrete rather than abstract way. They shared their food with me. They waited for me when I fell behind. I left the village that morning with one bottle of water because I did not realize it would turn into an all day event and, when I was becoming dehydrated, they advised me on where it was safe to drink. And, in the end, they shared the bounty of the hunt with me.

I had lots of experiences that trip. I was seen as the “other” when Shipibo children surrounded me in a school where I was quietly sitting and taking field notes. They boxed me in and then one girl ran her finger lightly up my arm. And all the children laughed because I was hairy…and white…and they were not. Then another did the same. And soon all of them were lightly running their fingers over my arm hairs. And when I occasionally relate this story, it comes across as special (invoke Dana Carvey’s Church Lady voice if you wish) and enlightening and life changing, which it was. But it was also creepy and uncomfortable and otherworldly, this state of being the “other” when I had lived my whole life to that point being the opposite of the “other”.

I went on a hike one day with a Shipibo guide and we ended up walking all the way to another village. As we entered the village, a group of children came around a palm bark hut and saw me and screamed and ran in the opposite direction. I asked why the children ran away and was told that they think that I am “pela cara”…someone who has come to town to “peel their faces”. This is what they think white people do to the Shipibo (possibly because white people have done so in the past?).

But what these, and many more, experiences taught me was a little of what the “other” feels like in our own society even though, in Peru, I was seen as “other” but always in a position of prestige because of my education and the color of my skin. I will never know what it means to be a black man in America, dealing with overt and institutional racism as well as all the implicit bias present in our society. But I can realistically imagine what that is like because I have had some experiences that have given me insight into what that might feel like.

So, Grace, here is a better answer. The presidential election of 2016 revealed a division in the American voting populace along socioeconomic and educational lines which prompted you to ask me, “Why are better educated people more liberal?” My better answer is this:

More education, especially if that education involves significant study abroad experiences, provides you with a deeper and broader pool of knowledge from which to draw when making decisions so that you can, perhaps, see a little more clearly the influence of a decision on people who are not just like yourself. This does make you more liberal and I am happy to be aligned with liberally thinking people.

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