Considering The Politics of Resentment, ‘Attitudes toward Public Institutions and Public Employees’ (Part 5 of 9) – 2017

This is the fifth in a series of posts considering Katherine Cramer’s Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.

In Chapter 5, Cramer describes conversations she had with rural residents. In the early part of the chapter, she recounts discussions about the university system. Some rural residents tell her they don’t like Madison (and UW-Madison) because they see it as politically liberal:

Glenn: UW is the only place where you can be a hippie for forty years and not be out of place. [chuckles]
Dan: Sometimes you can’t tell them from the professors, either. [laughs]
Tim: Well that’s true, too.
KJC: Right, right.
Glenn: UW and San Francisco got about the same initials. [chuckles]
KJC: So what do you think the UW–Madison should be doing here in [this town]? And I mean that very broadly, like from students to ordinary folks who live here, you know beyond student age, are there things they should be doing?
Tim: I don’t know what they could do—I guess I’m like Glenn and the rest of ’em as far as the liberal—I’m not a Madison person. There’s a reason that I don’t live in Madison, I like [this town]. I don’t like Madison at all. It’s big, it’s . . . to me, I don’t like to drive in the city—
Glenn: Best part about Madison is the fifty-five miles that it is away.

But that’s not their primary objection, it turns out:

KJC: Why don’t [students from here] go to Madison? I mean I have all kinds of guesses why, but why do you think?
Tim: Cost is the biggest thing.
Dan: Tuition is higher in Madison than it is in La Crosse or Platteville [cities with other UW System schools] for one thing.

In any event, the university is a topic (but of uncertain priority) because Cramer’s made it one:

My presence alone, though, brought the university into the conversations. The first thing I usually said to these groups, especially during my first visits in 2007 and 2008, was, “Hi! I’m Kathy. I’m from the UW–Madison.” So I want to acknowledge up front that it is likely that these groups would not have talked about the university and higher education as much if I hadn’t inserted myself into their conversations. But my focus was not how much they talked about the university or other aspects of government, but how they made sense of it when they did so. Their conversations about UW–Madison provide a window to their attitudes about government and public employees more generally.

Here, Cramer’s claim about negative views of the university is tenuous, because she can’t show what priority the university has in residents’ minds. (In fact, she guesses they “would not have talked about the university and higher education as much if [she] hadn’t inserted [herself] into their conversations.”)

Oh my: Cramer wants to define a rural consciousness, but by her own admission the role of UW-Madison within that consciousness depends not on residents’ priorities but her own questioning. This is simply flimsy. (It’s for lack of a solid prioritization, presumably, that Cramer offers unquantifiably and nebulously that their responses are a “window to their attitudes.” How big and how clear a window neither Cramer nor we know, as she can’t reliably say.)

Cramer exhibits guilt about her role as an academic:

To be honest, I felt sheepish explaining to people during my first year of fieldwork that I wasn’t teaching any classes. In the midst of conversations about the wear and tear of common rural occupations on one’s body, I had a difficult time thinking of my job driving around the state, inviting myself into coffee klatches as hard work.

An honest admission, but nonetheless an admission of a bias (one that could be both more pronounced in focus-group questioning & less susceptible of review than it would be in data-released opinion polling).

Indeed, Cramer acknowledges that scientific opinion polling reveals that suspicion about education’s value extends far beyond a rural demographic:

Let me end this chapter by acknowledging that people of many walks of life feel distant from institutions of higher education and also public employees. First, consider that public opinion surveys suggest that many people feel a sense of disconnection from institutions of higher education. For example, a December 9–13, 2009, Public Agenda poll of 1,031 U.S. adults found that 60 percent of the public perceives that “colleges today are like most businesses and mainly care about the bottom line,” as opposed to “colleges today mainly care about education and making sure students have a good educational experience.”16 Also, that same poll found that 33 percent “agree strongly” and 27 percent “agree somewhat” that “colleges could take a lot more students without lowering quality or raising prices.”

If so many feel this way (however regrettable those views may be), we can be certain that this skepticism is not unique to a supposed rural consciousness. And as it is not unique, and even appears in rural residents’ conversations at Cramer’s admitted instigation, identifying anti-educational views with rural residents seems truly uncompelling to anyone other than those who would expect to find such views primarily in rural communities.

Previously: Parts 1, 23, and 4.

Tomorrow: Considering The Politics of Resentment, ‘Support for Small Government’ (Part 6 of 9).

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