An Educator’s Personal Perspective on the Big Divide

Recently I wrote a post about my concerns about the current election process and how I found inspiration to counter my fears and doubts with hope (click here to read that post). One of my long-time readers and faithful commenters left a great comment that made me think about things a little deeper, and so I decided to write another post about my thoughts.

She was responding to a recent New York Times opinion piece by David Brooks, who is an eminent journalist who is also a writer of best-selling books, a commentator on several television or radio shows, and a teacher at Yale. She stated that she respects him even though she doesn’t always agree with him–which is true for me as well.

Let me start by saying what follows is just my ideas and questions and wondering about our political divisions. I offer the following not as FACTS or THE TRUTH but things that I am suggesting and considering myself.

Mr. Brooks has been traveling the country trying to understand the Great Divide among Americans. In his latest opinion piece entitled “Why Aren’t the Democrats Trouncing These Guys?” (link is, although I don’t know if it will work if you don’t have a subscription to the NYTimes), Brooks attributed the big issue as being college educated citizens versus non-college educated citizens. My commenter took issue with that categorization, as do I. So I thought I would respond to her comment with a follow-up post.

Now, I will start with an admission that Mr. Brooks has a lot more experience and data points as he has been traveling the country and talking to people in both highly blue and highly red communities. And I am not up on the studies and statistics and such that he includes in his article, so I’m not going to dispute them. However, as the commenter said, correlation is not the same as causation. And as an educator, I’m thinking perhaps Mr. Brooks is attributing causation to what is instead a correlation.

To explain the difference, long-term research says the greatest predictor of student success in schools is parental income. So there can be a tendency to think, “Oh, the parents are smarter because they were able to succeed in higher-income professions, so they passed that smart DNA down to their children.” But education is so much more complicated than that. Children in families with more money have more continuous access to higher quality food (it’s hard to do well in school if you are hungry or if your food at home consists mostly of cheap calories like potato chips and soft drinks), more continuous access to health care including vision and dental and such (hard to do well in school if you are sick and can’t afford doctor visit and/or medication or can’t see well for uncorrected vision issues, etc.), more consistent oversight when out of school (families who can’t afford day care or after school programs that usually include some academic focus often have to leave children unsupervised, which usually is not a good thing), more educational resources during vacation (instead of going to camps or library reading programs or trips to museums or travel out of town, many lower-income children spend much of their vacation time watching TV or other low-educational-content activities), among other factors. It is very hard to attribute the difference in student success to any of the many factors that differ between higher-income and lower-income families. Research has not pinned down any one factor, or a combination of specific factors, as the “cause” of the educational differences between these groups.

So here is my concern about Mr. Brook’s article. Unfortunately, we tend to have judgements embedded in some of these terms we use to describe the two sides we find in US politics these days. Democratic/Blue groups tend to use the phrase non-college-educated for the Republican/Red population. Now, I assume this “non-college-educated” phrase is reserved for people who achieved a four-year college baccalaureate degree. Millions of Americans have two-year community college degrees, but unfortunately many of us disrespect those as being low quality or lacking academic rigor. That is a judgment, not a matter of fact. I used to work for the American Association of Community Colleges, and I got to see what a great and effective job so many two-year colleges are doing. My own son took classes at two different local community colleges in addition to his four-year college classes, and really grew and learned from most of them. Plus there are also millions of people who start college and don’t complete a degree, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t learn a lot.

My concern is that we are using “non-college-educated” as a code word for “uneducated” or “unintelligent.” But that is not necessarily true at all.

On the other side Republicans/Red populations refer to the Democrats/Blues as “elite.” So what is that a code word for? I’m not on the side of the divide that tends to use this word, but I think it can mean “privileged, pretentious, condescending, and as it relates to many of the dangers of the world, delusional.”

So first of all, while we may use more polite terms, these kinds of negative judgments we might imbed in those terms do not support us in working together.

However, to address the “non-college-educated” aka “less intelligent” phrase, as an educator I would say that is totally inaccurate. What I would say is that the non-college-educated may be extremely intelligent, but perhaps in a way that we elites don’t recognize or value enough.

In the 1980s, Harvard Professor Howard Gardner’s research came up with a new educational theory called “Multiple Intelligence Theory.” He disputed the reigning belief that there was one single type of intelligence, which was general cognitive intelligence. Instead, he argued that humans had a number of different intelligences, the primary ones being:

  • Linguistical/Communication Intelligence
  • Logical/Mathematical Intelligenc
  • Musical/Artistic Intelligence
  • Spacial/Physical Intelligence
  • Body/Kinesthetic Intelligence
  • Naturalist/Outdoors Intelligences
  • Interpersonal/Relationship Intelligence
  • Intrapersonal/Self Understanding Intelligence

Personally, especially as an educator, I totally agree with this. However, although things have been getting better since I went to school, traditional schools and colleges primarily focus on teaching the first three intelligences and not so much the next three intelligences. The final two schools may or may not be trying to teach but may not the best place to develop them.

For the most part, I would label the first three as “conceptual” intelligences, since they mostly involve ideas or non-material abilities (maybe not the musical/artistic as much, but at least the inspiration behind them). The next three are much more “concrete” intelligences, because they relate more to physical reality. The last two I would label as “personal” because they involve our relationship with people, either others or ourselves.

The thing is, most traditional schools are really focused on developing those first three conceptual intelligences. However, they tend to minimize or even discourage the three concrete intelligences. This tendency in schools is exacerbated by computer programs, most of which are really very conceptual.

Or to put it more in a way non-educators might explain it… How many of your daily homework assignments, or the homework assignments your children have if you are a parent, required reading, writing, and arithmetic (the first two conceptual intelligences)? How many assignments required you to take things apart and/or put things together, or create maps, or fit items into a limited space, or fix something mechanical (spacial/physical intelligence)? How many asked you to convey some idea or answer or something using your body (body/kinesthetic intelligence)? How many asked you to grow something or keep something alive or commune with nature (naturalist/outdoors intelligence)?

Unless you or your child went to a VERY unusual school (for example, Montessori schools tend to have more physical learning in their curricula), the answer is almost always that your homework every night almost ALWAYS involved reading, writing, and arithmetic, and RARELY involved the more concrete or physical intelligences.

So if you are someone who is strong in those concrete intelligences, which schools tend not to appreciate or actively try to repress, and maybe not so strong in the conceptual intelligences, why would you want to go to college? Why would you choose to pay money to a learning institution that isn’t going to develop your strengths and preferences and that will continue to force you to do things that aren’t your weakness?

This is where community colleges can be a perfect solution. Community colleges offer certificate degrees or associate degrees in all sorts of more concrete fields: welding, construction, auto mechanics, plumbing, medical technicians, veterinary aides, and so on. Just to be clear, I’m assuming graduates of those programs aren’t included in Mr. Brook’s term of college graduates, but I don’t know that.

My point is that such people aren’t NON-intelligent. Their strengths and interests aren’t valued or developed in many educational institutions, and so it makes sense that they don’t pursue education beyond what they have to by law. Their intelligences, their strengths are important contributions to society in general. This is something we elites may fail to recognize and honor. One of my favorite quotes about this is from John W. Gardner who was the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Lyndon Johnson and the only Republican in his cabinet. He said:

“An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”

― John W. Gardner, Excellence

So let’s abandon the judgement that non-college-educated means non-intelligent if we consider the wider range of intelligences. But for it to be either causal or correlated to political opinions, given that there are defined red territories and blue territories, that means that it can’t just be randomly distributed (as the donkeys and elephants are in the graphic above). Is there a reason why some intelligences are found in some areas and other intelligences are found in different places?

One explanation is genetic. Are the types of intelligences passed down genetically? Multiple Intelligences is a relatively new theory (in terms of trying to trace generations, which takes at least a century to track 4 or 5 generations), so I don’t know of any research that has established that. But it makes sense to me. There is research that believes traditional theories of IQ tend to be passed on to descendents (for good or for bad), so I would think that would hold for non-traditional forms of IQ as well.

However, there is another component to this. There is also the “multiple intelligence” culture in which children are raised. That can also support or suppress budding intelligences in a child.

To explain this further, I offer the example of myself and my husband. We share core values that bind us together. But our childhood experiences and to some extent, our different intelligences, are very different.

I offer myself as a prime example of what the red community might call “elite.” My father worked for the US Treasury Department (at least at that time) and my mom was a social worker in Washington DC until she became a stay-at-home mom. We lived outside DC or for several years in London, England when my dad was assigned there. Looking back at my childhood, the only daughter with three brothers, here are some things I don’t remember we EVER did:

  • Go camping (why sleep on a bumpy ground with worms and bugs and who knows what and only protected from animals and the weather by some fabric?).
  • Go hunting or fishing (two of my three brothers were vegetarians from an early age because of their dislike of eating animals. We certainly weren’t going to go kill them. To this day, I may be the only one of the siblings who has actually shot a gun, although that was at a target not a living creature).
  • Go on a vacation outside of a city EXCEPT for going to the beach (which my parents liked for a relaxing vacation, but we children found to be BORING).
  • Go to a church service (my parents were, at best, agnostics and said they didn’t want to indoctrinate us to one religion so that we could pick one–or not–once we were old enough to understand. However, I think my brothers agreed with Susan Serandon’s character, Annie Savoy, in the movie Bull Durham, that “I believe in the church of baseball.”).
  • Play on any school team for any sport.

On the other hand, what did we do?

  • Read like, A LOT. For fun, I mean.
  • All of us played an instrument, and 2 of my brothers were serious enough about playing music to continue to study and/or major in it in college.
  • Pursue extracurricular activities in high school like band, drama, newspaper, yearbook, tutoring, and community service.
  • Go to museums and art galleries.
  • Go to concerts.
  • Go to plays.
  • Go on historical vacations, like tracing Paul Revere’s Midnight ride, or John Adam’s home in Braintree, or the Colonial Triangle of Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Jamestown, with a side trip to Jefferson’s home Monticello.

Perhaps the supreme example of my “elite” history is when I was living in London, because my father was working for the US Embassy at the time, and my parents enrolled me in the Girls Scount program run by the Embassy so that we could stay connected to “American culture.” The only things I remember doing with the Girls Scouts was being taken by limousine to Convent Gardens to attend ballet performances or plays or concerts and coming back to have s’mores made by the Embassy cooking staff in the ovens. I also remember having a class about how to wrap presents for some Girl Scout badge, which I continue to use to this very day.

I offer this not as good, not as bad. It was simply the culture in which I grew up. But looking back, my childhood experience certainly helped develop the first three conceptual intelligences and not so much the next three concrete intelligences. Now, did we do this because that was our inherent nature, or did we develop along those lines because of our childhood experiences? This is the classic nature vs. nurture debate. I would tend to choose nature, supported by nurture in our case. Regardless, of the four siblings, everyone has at least a master’s or professional degree. Three of the four of us have worked as educators, three have worked in government service, two have worked in non-profits, and three have worked as educational entrepreneurs (because except for one brother who has worked with the same government agency for his entire career, most of us have had several careers).

I contrast my experience with that of my husband’s family. I can’t speak as definitively about their history. However, my father in law came from a humble background. He served in World War II and attended college on the GI Bill, as did my father. But while my father studied economics, eventually going to graduate school at the University of Chicago to study under Milton Friedman, which is where he met and married my mother who was doing graduate work in social work, my father-in-law studied agriculture. When he graduated, he started working at a farm, but then started working as a brick layer. Being the smart and driven man that he was, somehow he got himself into the development business during the time that our town of Cary was going through its first boom years. He ended up making a lot of money, much more than my father, although I’m not sure exactly the time line of that.

Regardless, my husband’s childhood was very different from mine. During the school year, on weekends his mother would give him a lunch and send him out to roam the woods, along with something like a bb gun that he would practice shooting but not really hurt anything. During the summer, the family would go down to some family homes on outlets to the North Carolina shore, where they would spend most of the day outdoors playing and studying wildlife in the creeks and harvesting clams and such. I don’t think the whole family ever went on a vacation to an urban site, although my husband went to the World’s Fair in Chicago? I think with his Boy Scouts troup. He never played sports, but the Boys Scouts were an essential part of my husband’s childhood. He went camping and hiking and whatever else Boy Scouts do, and that was a formative part of his education. He also read a lot and worked on his father’s ranch and enjoyed his grandparents’ vegetable farm.

Again, not good, not bad. But very different from my experience. It was much more based in concrete intelligence experiences. My father in law used to joke that he could build a town with just his family, because the men who made up his son’s (my husband) generation, including sons in law and cousins and such, had such careers as surveyor, bridge inspector, land grader, plumber, tree feller, shepherd of sheep and goats, and construction management.

The thing is that our lives, our values, our educations, our hobbies, our careers, our lifestyles are almost like living on two different planets. That’s OK if we aren’t trying to impose our choices on someone who choices are different. I think the problem is that more concrete populations that the conceptual life is being imposed on them.

Unfortunately, the American economy has swung away from the more concrete job opportunities. In my father’s and grandfather’s generations, the non-college-educated so-called “blue collar” workers could earn a good living in lots of different industrial or mechanics occupations. But the global economy has eliminated many of those types of American jobs. In the North East, for example, the steel industry has largely disappeared because other countries with lower wages can make steel so much cheaper. Likewise in North Carolina and other places in the South, the textile industry has mostly shut down due to foreign competition. The US automobile industry has survived, but has diminished significantly due to car sales from other countries. There are just so many small or moderate-sized towns that are struggling because so many depended on a single factory or other industrial employer that has closed and nothing else has taken its place.

In addition, many smaller farms that have been in families for generations are having a hard time holding onto their land because they can’t compete with the huge industrial farms that increasingly dominate US agriculture. These so-called “factory farms” raise food, dairy products, and meat that is less healthy, less environmentally sustainable, and less humane, but they do at a low cost, and that appears to be what matters most to most food business and to most consumers. The fishing and seafood industries are also struggling because overfishing has severely reduced the number of fish or other seafood available. To try to bring back those industries, government regulations have capped the number of fish or seafood individuals can catch, and/or are requiring more expensive equipment or harvesting techniques that may make it financially unfeasible for small-scale farmers to make a living.

Even the lower-paying service industry are increasingly replacing these jobs that don’t require a college career with technology. Amazon is testing replacing human delivery services with drones. Uber Eats and Domino Pizza are testing delivering food to homes via robots. Shake Shack and White Castle are experimenting with robots that handle the fry line in their restaurant. Taco Bell is developing a TacoBot, an artificial intelligence robot that can answer questions and provide AI customer service. McDonalds has tried replacing live people taking orders with telecommunicated personnel from places in India who they can pay less than people in US communities.

In addition to jobs, it may seem to concrete-oriented people that their lifestyles are being threatened as well. Those who enjoy living in natural areas where they can follow their interests without crowds or regulations are out of luck as urban development continues to erode the number of wild areas available. When my husband was a boy in Cary, NC who could roam the forests, the town had a population of about 5,000. Now over 165,000 people are living here. One of the major roads in Cary is called Kildaire Farm Road because it runs through land that used to be an actual farm, but the family sold it for housing developments for the 160,000 who have moved here in the past 60 years. There are few places, if any, in Cary where people can hunt or fish anymore. My husband hates seeing the beautiful spaces of his youth being replaced with shopping malls and expensive condos and townhouses for the young elite who work in the big technology companies here like Apple and SAS and Epic Games. He has lived through Joni Mitchell’s lyrical predictions of paving paradise and putting up a parking lot. And he has not enjoyed it.

My point is many of us elites may wonder why these non-four-year-college-educated people support President Trump and other like him who oppose policies that may well serve this population most of all, including so-called Obamacare and the new Infrastructure Bill. But I don’t think it is because they are “uneducated,” especially if that is a code word for unintelligent. They support them because they feel like the American Dream is slipping away from them. They are drawn to politicians who promise a return to their dreams, even if their present policies don’t support or are even opposed what they need in the moment. To them, their dreams are more important than their health care or a potential job in building solar panels. We need food to survive, but we need our dreams to truly live. In that regard, maybe it to sacrifice the former if you believe it will bring you the latter.

Again, this is not based on studies or great political knowledge. This is just my opinion, my interpretation based on my experience and my body of knowledge. And I certainly don’t have any easy answers for this very complicated situation. All that I can suggest that we all, but especially those of us who are conceptual “elites,” is that we practice respect for those with a different viewpoint and lifestyle and feel compassion for those who are afraid and frustrated and resentful because they see their way of life disappearing. We don’t have to agree with them, but if we really want to heal this divide, we have to find a way to accept them, to assist them with their concerns, and ultimately to do our best to love them….and allow them to do the same for us.

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