Tag Archives: Trump

2017 – The Year in Higher Education

Steve Volk, January 22, 2018
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

It is stock-taking time; time to think about where  higher education stands one year after “45’s” inauguration, time to figure out how we as educators at liberal arts colleges have weathered what all agree was a very stormy year. Attempting to draw meaningful conclusions as to how our sector has been impacted by events in Washington, and how current developments will play out in the long run, or even next year, is challenging. But with this in mind, let’s look at the past year in higher ed, at where we stand on January 20, 2018 compared with January 20, 2017.

Attacking the Foundations: Alternative Facts and Fake News

Antonio Marín Segovia, “El asesinato de la verdad (No fue el mayordomo),” Flickr CC

When beginning to think about the year past, I recalled Antonio Gramsci’s often repeated remark about  “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”  The essence, the very heart, of what we do demands to some degree that we never abandon an optimism of the will. But it is fair to say that the year heaped yet more challenges on to higher ed’s already over-loaded plate. Perhaps the most serious challenge faced by educators came with the Administration’s on-going attack on facts, evidence, and truth. Two telling moments book-ended the year. The Trumpian year began, in case we’ve forgotten, when senior White House aide Kellyanne Conway defended on NBC’s Meet the Press, Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s claim that Trump’s inauguration two days earlier had drawn record numbers. This, despite all evidence, photographic included, to the contrary. What could have been ignored or laughed away instead became a cornerstone of the the new Administration’s approach to information when Conway defended Spicer’s assertion as “alternative facts.” (Within 4 days of her linguistic rebranding, sales of Orwell’s 1984 had jumped 9,500%.)

The year ended with Trump’s “highly anticipated” (ahem!) “Fake News Awards,” which were intended to blast the media by pointing to some of its miscues and factual errors, mistakes which are typically corrected and updated. As everyone knows, the “awards” were fundamentally about branding as “fake” any news that challenged Trump’s view of himself or the world and casting the media as an “enemy of the people.”

Many commentators have analyzed the Administration’s continual and often bewildering resort to lies (PolitiFact is among other news organizations keeping count). The most perceptive, in my opinion, is Masha Gessen. In comparing Trump with Vladimir Putin, she argued that “It’s not just that both Putin and Trump lie, it is that they lie in the same way and for the same purpose: blatantly, to assert power over truth itself.” While it can test one’s patience (and sanity) to hear denials of charges for which evidence (including photographic or audio) is readily available (“Who are you going to believe,” another of my favorite Marxists, Groucho, once questioned, “me or your own eyes?”), the point of the lie is not to demonstrate the accuracy of one’s own “alternative fact,” but to cast doubt on all facts; not to suggest that one’s own favored news source has better access to information, but that all “news” sources are the same – so just pick the one you like. In the end, as Gessen suggested, lies are often about the power of the speaker.

As this approach rolled out over the course of the year, it has presented a huge obstacle to educators.

The task of helping students research, analyze, and argue on the basis of reliable evidence in a world already staggering under a mountain of information is formidable. It goes beyond a simple affirmation that you can trust this source and should be wary of that. We are faced with working with students to help them understand that information is shaped within and by social and historical contexts, that neither science nor history, for example, are fields of inquiry intended to produce definitive and timeless truth. But when the Administration’s approach to information would make all facts fungible, transactional, and based on the knowledge that your political base will agree with you when you say that day is night and black is white, it means that our task as educators, and as citizens of a democracy, is complicated by magnitudes of order.

Traveller_40, “Alternative Facts,” Flickr CC

One indication of what such an environment can foster is on display in Wisconsin, where, last June, a legislator introduced a bill to the Assembly ostensibly intended to protect free speech rights on campus (more on this below). The bill stated in part, “That each institution shall strive to remain neutral, as an institution, on the public policy controversies of the day, and may not take action… in such a way as to require students or faculty to publicly express a given view of social policy.” When the sponsor of the bill, Jesse Kremer, was asked whether a geology professor would be allowed to correct a student who believed the earth to be 6,000 years old, he replied, “The Earth is 6,000 years old. That’s a fact.”

And still, thanks to physics, we know that for every action there is a reaction (even if it’s not always equal, at least in the world of politics and power). Faculty and researchers have begun to address the demand to help students develop their understanding of information, to distinguish reliable sources from questionable ones, and questionable sources from invented ones, and to approach evidence with a critical eye, aware of its contextualized production. (See, for example, here, here, here, and here.)

Access to Data, Control of Language

One of the most immediate challenges introduced by the Trump Administration was its seeming determination to remove or limit access to certain sources of government data which it found to be incompatible with its policy goals. Officials took down the data and websites providing scientific information about climate change that were maintained by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department. Most alarming, the EPA removed its two-decades old website of data on climate science, threatening to undermine current and on-going research. The Republican leadership in Congress, for its part, has blocked attempts to measure accurately the effects of its health care and tax cut legislation. The Census Bureau is being starved of funds, and even the F.B.I. has cut back on its publicly available crime statistics.

Gita Wilén, “När DATA brukade vara framtiden,” Flickr CC

Most recently, according to the Washington Post, policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were “forbidden” to use specific words in budget proposal documents that circulated in the administration and Congress. These included “evidence-based,” “science-based,” “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” and “fetus.” The CDC denied that words were banned, but did acknowledge the importance of being “sensitive” to the impact of certain words when building a case for congressional funding or White House support. Fair enough, but educators must recognize how thin is the ice on which we skate when the mere mention of “evidence” or “science” is thought to raise political hackles.

But here, too, action produced positive reaction. The Sunlight Foundation began keeping track of federal open data sets removed from government websites, posting updates to a spreadsheet hosted on their site. Protesting against the disappearance of the EPA website, officials in Chicago posted the site online as it existed under the Obama administration. Fear of the loss of decades of valuable environmental and atmospheric data led some universities, UCLA among others, to begin a large-scale, professional data harvesting operation. And run-of-the-mill citizens were encouraged to participate in a nation-wide effort to save, store, and upload government reports using a tool kit that required nothing more than a downloadable plug-in program and internet assess.

Free Speech…

Media discussion of higher education in the past few years has focused to a considerable extent on free speech issues. A substantial amount of media coverage has been taken up by incidents on liberal arts campuses such as Middlebury and Claremont McKenna, colleges where invited speakers were prevented from speaking. The media also widely reported incidents of students disrupting faculty from teaching their courses at Reed, as well as the tumultuous year at Evergreen State. While those events provoked a reaction in the national debate on higher education, they also encouraged a deeper discussion on many campuses of the complexities involved in balancing free speech rights (particularly on private campuses where there is no obligation to host everyone who demands a platform) with an appreciation of the emotional, psychological, cognitive, and physical toll on students of color or marginalized students caused by “invited” speakers whose primary intent is to denigrate them. It is understandable that these discussions have become more widespread in the Age of Trump as examples of the corrosive power of racism at the highest levels lends urgency to the task. While the disruption of speakers cast students and liberal arts institutions in general in a negative light, it also opened a discussion of the very devastating impact words can have on historically marginalized populations. For every action…

Walt Jabsco, “Free Speech for the Dumb,” Flickr CC

This past year has also seen a critical evolution in the direction the free speech debate on campuses has taken. Spurred by last year’s election, the so-called “alt-right,” white nationalist, movement saw a fertile moment to move out from the fringes. Particularly following Trump’s equating of white nationalists (“Jews will not replace us!”) with counter-protesters at an August rally in Charlottesville, alt-right spokespeople such as Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannopoulos, Matthew Heimbach, Mike Enoch and others hijacked the free speech debate to insert their hate-filled messages on campus. Their purpose was as much to disrupt the academy (forcing it to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in security fees) as to find willing acolytes. Universities including Berkeley, Ohio State, Texas A&M, Penn State, and Florida, among many others, have been forced to negotiate this territory, which they increasingly see as difficult to manage, with some banning speakers (Ohio State, Penn State), and others allowing them (Florida).

Media reports of the disruption of Charles Murray and “snowflake” students seem as plentiful as ever, but the debate has broadened and become more nuanced as universities and colleges have had to consider the impact on their students of speakers whose main purpose is to traffic in hateful messages targeting specific and vulnerable parts of the community.

The issue has taken on added urgency as the incidence of hate crimes grew over the past year. According to FBI data released in November, more hate crimes were carried out in the United States last year than in previous years, with an uptick in incidents motivated by bias against Jews, Muslims and LGBT communities, among others. Racial incidents and hate crimes were also up on college campuses. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education keeps a tally of reports of the latest incidents, listing dozens and dozens of events in the past year alone.

…And Academic Freedom

As alt-right speakers sought to “weaponize free speech,” in the words of Joan W. Scott, and as conservative organizations such as “Professor Watchlist,” established by Turning Point USA, encouraged students to publicize any professor who advances what they called a “radical agenda in lecture halls,” more faculty began to reflect on the relationship of free speech to academic freedom. If the former references the constitutional right of speakers to deliver any and all messages in public settings – including public universities – academic freedom protects the right of faculty to teach as we determine, free from outside interference, yet within well established professional guidelines. Speech in an academic context is guided (at least aspirationally, if not in every instance) by evidence-based argument and critical thinking. That, Scott insists, is “not a program of neutrality, not tolerance of all opinion, not an endorsement of the idea that anything goes.” Rather, it is about “how one brings knowledge to bear on criticism; it is a procedure, a method that shapes and disciplines thought.” The past year, then, has produced a much richer debate on how we, as educators, struggle to balance these two ideals, cautioning those who would silence unpopular viewpoints rather than debating them, and refusing attempts of white supremacists, anti-Semites, and others to slip their racist agenda into academia under the cover of free speech protections.

Viewminder, “Strange Bedfellows,” Flickr CC

In many ways, the shoe has been on the other foot in 2017. Those who criticized students for shutting down speakers on liberal arts campuses in 2016, a critique which was often well deserved, are now silent when protests are aimed at progressive guest speakers. Chelsea Manning’s invitation to speak at Harvard was rescinded in September, with some Republican politicians going so far as to suggest that Harvard should lose all public funding for its decision to invite Manning (they had nothing to say when her invitation was withdrawn by Harvard). The Reverend James Martin, author of several books arguing that the Roman Catholic Church should find ways to interact positively with gay and lesbian Catholics, was disinvited from an engagement at the Catholic University of America; California Attorney General Xavier Becerra was shouted down at Whittier College in October.

Challenging the rights of faculty to speak as citizens by targeting them with online harassment became a more common, and deeply dan­gerous, practice over the past year. Faculty of color are over-represented among recent examples of those on the receiving end of internet attacks: Johnny Williams at Trinity College, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor at Princeton University, Lisa Durden at Essex County College, Dana Cloud at Syracuse University, Sarah Bond at the University of Iowa, Tommy Curry at Texas A&M University, and George Ciccariello-Maher at Drexel University. Dr. Laurie Rubel, who examined the relationship between race and the notion of “merit” in an article which appeared in the Journal of Urban Mathematics Education in December, has been the target of daily email threats of physical and sexual assault after her article was crudely caricatured by Campus Reform, a conservative website.

Legislators have been particularly active in attempting to influence campus debate. Consider the following bills introduced and other actions taken during the past year:

  • A Republican legislator in Arizona proposed a bill that would prohibit state colleges from offering any class that promotes “division, resentment or social justice” without defining what he meant by those words – Arizona earlier banned the teaching of ethnic studies in grades K-12.
  • A state senator in Iowa introduced a bill that would allow the use of political party affiliation as a test for faculty appointments to colleges and universities.
  • A Republican legislator in Arkansas filed a bill to ban any writing by or about the progressive historian Howard Zinn, author of the popular A People’s History of the United States.
  • In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker tried to remove all references to the university’s commitment to the “search for truth,” and the legislature stripped state workers and professors of their collective bargaining rights.
  • A leader of the College Republicans at the University of Tennessee intent on “protecting” students from intimidation by “the academic elite,” proclaimed that “Tennessee is a conservative state. We will not allow out-of-touch professors with no real-world experience to intimidate 18-year-olds.”

Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League observed that white supremacists have stepped up their recruiting in more than 30 states.

The Public and Higher Education

I was not shocked (shocked!) in the past year to learn that the polarization that underscores the public’s view of most institutions has now divided popular opinion as to the utility of higher education as well. Pew Research Center polling in 2017 indicated that 58% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents felt that colleges and universities were having a negative impact on the way things were going in the country, while just 36% thought that their effect was largely positive, according to Pew’s survey. More striking, only two years ago, attitudes were reversed with 54% of Republicans and Republican-leaners expressing the opinion that colleges were having a positive effect on the country, and 37% claiming a negative impact. Gallup polling revealed a sharp partisan divide in terms of institutional confidence in higher education. In 2017 only 33% of Republicans expressed a “great deal” of or “some” confidence in higher education while 56% of Democrats showed support.

Obviously, these distressing numbers are driven by many factors, not least of which is a sense among Republican legislators that colleges and universities have become progressive encampments where privileged young “snowflakes,” fawned over by their tremulous teachers, spend all their time railing against Trump, cultural appropriation (which they would put in ironic quotes), or any requirement that has them reading Homer or Shakespeare. Even Democratic legislators have backed away from enthusiastically supporting higher education in the face of climbing tuition, mounting student debt, and concerns (sometimes accurate, sometimes ill-informed) that the academy is too stodgy, too protective of its own interests, and too implicated in deepening social and economic inequalities in the country. As a result, the huge majority of the 20.4 million higher ed students in 2017 who are struggling to do what students have always done – get an education and get ahead in the world – are more and more left out in the rain.



The unwillingness of government at all levels to fund education was fully evident in 2017. Education is increasingly seen as a private consumable, not a public good, by which we mean something that is not simply “good for the public” but which benefits many people, including those who do not pay for it. The growing lack of confidence in higher education, combined with a dominant neoliberal suspicion of the public sphere in general, has underscored the decreasing support by legislators for funding higher education. As Secretary of the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos continues to demonstrate her disregard for the public K-12 sector and willingly overlooks the often predatory activities of for-profit institutions in higher education. In June, for example, she suspended Obama-era regulations designed to make it easier to forgive loans for students who had been defrauded by for-profits and intended to prevent future abuses.

At a time when the benefits of a college education have never been greater, state policy-makers have made going to college less affordable and less accessible to those most in need. State spending on public colleges and universities remains well below historic levels. Overall state funding for public two- and four-year colleges in the 2016-17 school year was nearly $9 billion below its 2008 level, adjusting for inflation. The downward-spiral that this places many institutions on is obvious, as administrators see increasing tuition or reducing educational quality as the only way to balance their budgets. They have turned to limiting course offerings, closing departments and programs and, most frequently, reducing full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty and replacing them with well-qualified but immensely over-worked adjuncts and part-timers who simply lack the time to provide students with needed guidance and instruction. The percentage of tenured or tenure-track faculty and contingent faculty has essentially flipped since the 1970s, with the proportion of tenure-line faculty now at less than 30% of the total.

The recently passed tax bill is likely to deepen the challenges faced by the higher education sector;  perhaps that was its intention. With the move to limit deductions for state, local, and property taxes, the tax bill raises the effective tax rate for individuals in high-tax states (which just so happen to be blue states: California, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, etc.). Even in states that support public funding for education, it is now less likely that legislators will raise taxes again to make up for a shortfall in education dollars. Furthermore, the bill, by increasing the standard deduction and making itemization less likely, will probably negatively impact charitable giving — one study estimates that it will decline by 4.5% next year — particularly by middle-income households.

Title 9 and #MeToo 

In September, Secretary DeVos rescinded Obama-era guidance on Title IX, allowing universities to modify the standard of evidence in campus sexual assault cases. The department’s Office for Civil Rights will use the new guidance document to assess institutions’ compliance with Title IX until a promised federal regulation dealing with campus sexual misconduct is finalized. The new guidance from the department grants colleges the ability to set their own evidentiary standard for misconduct findings, to pursue informal resolutions such as mediation and to establish an appeals process for disciplinary sanctions. The rules-change was challenged by a lawsuit filed in October by a national women’s rights group and three Massachusetts women.

Alter1fo, “[25 Octobre 2017] – Un jour, une photo… Agresseurs, violeurs… à vous d’avoir peur!” Flickr CC

These changes are generally seen as providing more protections to those accused of sexual harassment, and they come in the midst of one of the most significant developments in higher education in 2017, the spread of the #MeToo movement from the world of entertainment and the arts, to politics, and, now, higher education. As the Chronicle of Higher Education noted in November, “Higher education had already had moments of confrontation with harassment, assault, and the cultural and structural forces that underlie them. Women have described the cultures in some disciplines, including philosophy and astronomy, as corrosive and hostile. Campus officials have struggled to determine how to punish abusive employees — and how to avoid simply passing them on to other universities. Scholarly societies have taken a more vigilant approach to conferences that have long been seen as incubators for misconduct.” In the past year, accusations of sexual harassment in higher education have led to numerous firings and resignations, as well as some denials. (The Chronicle maintains an updated list of such charges here.)

Optimism of the will

While most commentators would credit the women who revealed Harvey Weinstein’s predations with opening the floodgates to the #MeToo movement that soon reached academia, it is certainly no coincidence that this opening took place with an admitted sexual predator in the White House.

Similarly, the upsurge of hate crimes in the nation and on campuses this past year, targeting people of color, Muslims, Jews, and the LGBTQ community, has produced vigorous movements to defend the rights of all students and a growing awareness of what it means to be a welcoming and inclusive institution. The demands for inclusion and equity have been growing on campuses in the past few years, spurred since 2013 in large part by the Black Lives Matter movement. That there is still a long way to go in this regard is beyond doubt. But the fact that these issues have been given greater consideration during the past year is probably another indication that actions produce reactions, if not equal in force, then at least significant.

It is hard not to conclude that the year past was massively challenging for those of us in higher education. And yet, if we maintain an optimism of the will, we can more readily address those areas in which we can have an impact, certainly by creating more equitable and inclusive institutions, challenging them to be true to their missions, and developing practices and honest narratives that better explain what we do to a skeptical public.

 

Finding our Voice in a “Post-Truth” Era

Steve Volk, December 12, 2016

Where to begin?

(Photo: Judy van der Velden/flickr/cc))

(Photo: Judy van der Velden/flickr/cc))

Why not with a definition of “post-truth” from the Oxford dictionary: “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Oxford has selected “post-truth” as its “word of the year,” narrowly besting “bigly.” (OK, that last part was my own rocket into the post-truthian universe.)

Or perhaps we should start with a New York Times headline from the December 7 edition:

as-fake-news-spreads

From there, it’s but a quick hop to this clip from a CNN interview with a small group of Trump supporters on December 1. You’ve probably seen it, the one where Paula Johnson, a Trump enthusiast from New Hampshire, informed CNN’s Alisyn Camerota that at her (Johnson’s) polling station in Nashua, she caught people voting illegally who told her: “The president said I could vote, I’m here illegally.”

Taken from the perspective of what we naively referred to as “reality,” you’ve got to admit that Johnson’s statement is, well, nuts. I mean, why would someone expose her illegal activity to a total stranger? But let’s leave that aside and go on because the entire panel of Trump backers agreed that President Obama told undocumented people (“illegals” as they prefer to call them) that they could vote. Camerota asked Johnson where she heard that President Obama said the undocumented could vote. “Google it,” Susan DeLemus said. “You can find it on Facebook.” After “Googling it” on her phone and finding a video that had been falsely edited, the CNN reporter observed that Obama “had said nothing of the sort.” This was not a problem for Johnson who, with the endorsement of the other Trump supporters, clung to the belief – now known as “fact” – that “there is voter fraud in this country.”

“There’s no such thing…[as] facts”

scottie-hughesCome along next to the Diane Rehm show from November 30, 2016. Among other guests including James Fallows of The Atlantic and Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post, Ms. Rehm spoke with Scottie Nell Hughes, described as a “former Donald Trump surrogate” who is a political editor of RightAlerts.com and a contributor to the aforementioned CNN. Hughes joined the program about 20 minutes into the show and was brought into the conversation by Rehm in the following manner:

Rehm: Now I know you’ve been listening since the top of the program, and I’m sure you’ve heard James Fallows talk about lies that Donald Trump has put out there in tweets, in things he’s said. What do you make of that?

Hughes: Well, I think it’s also an idea of an opinion. And that’s — on one hand I hear half the media saying that these are lies, but on the other half there are many people that go, no, it’s true. And so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch is that people that say facts are facts, they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way, it’s kind of like looking at ratings or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true.

There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts. And so Mr. Trump’s tweet amongst a certain crowd, a large — a large part of the population, are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some — in his — amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies, and there’s no facts to back it up. So…

When the other journalists gathered their “jaws up from the floor” — and one could fairly ask why Ms. Hughes was given space at a table of journalists — James Fallows, concluded: “I think it actually is an intended result of this campaign and administration to think, well, really there aren’t any facts, it’s all opinion, so we’re going to sort of manipulate the things that we care about.”

The Past of Post-Truth

post-truth

Is post-truthism a peculiar and ugly side effect of the 2016 presidential campaign? Yes and no. Certainly, anti-intellectualism has long been an observable part of U.S. history: the road from the Know Nothing Party to McCarthyism has been well traveled. Nor is the rejection of observable facts (only) a contemporary malady. As educators trained to pay attention to historical realities and to raise critical questions about them, we should keep in mind that for many members of the U.S. community, the willful and persistent denial of facts all too familiar.

To cite only two examples: On December 6, 2016, a jury of six white men, five white women, and a one black man was unable to come to a unanimous decision that a police officer unlawfully killed Walter L. Scott, a black man who had been pulled over for a broken taillight. This is the case despite the existence of a video that recorded how Scott, who was running away, was shot in the back some 17 feet from the officer. If this stirred memories of the Rodney King trial, it should have. A video showing Rodney King being unmercifully beaten by the Los Angeles police in 1991 was not accepted as fact in the officers’ trial for assault; all were acquitted. As Jelani Cobb recently observed, “Taken in total, the reluctance of juries to hold police accountable is an inversion of the ‘fake news’ crisis in the Presidential election. There, a gullible public believes outrageous claims that reaffirm its world view. In the criminal-justice system, as black America has long known, an indifferent public sees evidence of outrageous actions but chooses not to believe it in order to preserve its world view. We have moved far beyond facts.” Large parts of white America have never accepted many of the facts that smack black Americans in the face every day.

In a similar vein, Elizabeth Kolbert observed that the current political climate suggests not that “too many people do not seem to care about the truth (though this is certainly a huge problem); it’s that a lot of people—an increasing number of them in high government positions—insist that their ravings are true, and try to act on them. This naturally brings them into conflict with those whose job it is to distinguish fact from fiction; hence the subpoenas and attempts to intimidate [journalists and others seeking the facts].”

Post-Truth and Our Responsibilities as Teachers

If journalists are having a hard time rethinking their role under the coming Trump Presidency, what does the post-truth era that he has ushered in mean for educators, we who are tasked with helping students recognize and appreciate the difference between facts and opinion, between informed and uninformed opinion, and between all of the above and a steaming pile of poop? We chuckled when Stephen Colbert invented the idea of “truthiness,” but have stopped laughing in an environment where facts are scorned “because nobody knows what’s really true anyway.”

Here’s a reality check: We are teaching – or attempting to teach – at a moment when the scientific consensus that climate change is both caused by humans and poses a massive threat to the planet’s future is ridiculed by half the population including the incoming head of the EPA.  We labor with our students to insure that they are able to craft evidence-based arguments at a moment when Republican-controlled state legislatures (as well as  the incoming Attorney General and the President-elect who appointed him) cite articles which claim that “millions of voter registrations are fraudulent or invalid.” This although evidence points to incident rates of voter fraud as lying somewhere between 0.00004 percent and 0.0009 percent. Why trust social science research when you can reference an article in the Federalist which discloses, “stunningly,” that in Colorado, “a woman named Sara Sosa who died in 2009 cast ballots in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013”? (What are the chances of two people named “Sara Sosa” living in Colorado? Just saying…)

Pew Research

Perhaps we can take a small morsel of consolation from the fact that the truth-crisis that surrounded the election of 2016 can’t be deposited on higher education’s doorstep. After all, Clinton carried college graduates by a 9-point margin. And yet I have felt unnervingly at sea writing this post because my arguments, conscientiously authenticated by links to authoritative sources, would only serve as proof of their irrelevance, if not contemptibility, in the eyes of millions of voters. If Mr. Trump were to tweet that he actually received more votes from the college educated than his opponent, his claim would be accepted as truth by many, if not most, of his supporters.

What is to be done?

So, what is our role as classroom teachers, members of institutions of higher education, and intellectuals who are also concerned citizens?  The past few weeks have produced a profusion of commentary about how those of us in academia should situate ourselves in the post-truth world of President-elect Trump. You can read some general propositions about the stance to take here, here, or here. You can read statements that many college presidents, including Oberlin’s, have signed on to. You can investigate the sanctuary campus movement (which we are a part of), or take advice as to how we should react to threats to academic and intellectual freedom that can emerge when Trump takes office (and have already emerged in the transition period).

Beyond that, here is my own list of 7 propositions that those of us in higher education can do to challenge the threat of post-truthism in a time of Trump:

(1) Take even more seriously the task of helping students evaluate sources of information. Nicholas Lemann, a professor of journalism and former dean at Columbia, recently made the case for a new kind of core curriculum that includes “information acquisition” as the first item in the list.  We can argue about the value of a core curriculum later – an argument I’d relish – but now the focus is not just on our long-standing responsibility to teach “information literacy,” but on the consequences of not taking that responsibility seriously.

For those who seem to think that our students have no trouble identifying credible information sources, think again. Stanford University’s History Education Group recently tested nearly 8,000 students for “civic online reasoning” skills, i.e.  the ability to assess the credibility of information served up by smartphones, tablets, and computers. From January 2015 through June 2016 the group collected and studied responses from 7,804 students from 12 states. The schools ranged from “under-resourced” inner-city schools in Los Angeles to “well-resourced” suburban schools in Minneapolis. Testing in colleges ranged from large state universities with near-open enrollment, to Stanford University. What they found was that more than 80% of the tested students couldn’t tell the difference between real news articles and fake news.

For those of us who teach at selective liberal arts colleges, our concern as educators is not – or not solely – that our students are likely to be sucked into the dark vortex of whole-cloth fabrications whose most recent poster child is the Comet Ping Pong insanity (although the fact that such invented conspiracies are being circulated by an important member of the incoming Trump administration, should lead to much concern).

Most of what our students absorb via social media or other internet sites is usually of a lesser order of preposterousness (one hopes).  But to the extent that the flow of pixels is constant and constitutes the largest part of the information ocean in which our students (and we) swim, we need to pay attention to how they (and we) are navigating these waters. Take the following tweet which was evaluated as a part of the Stanford study:

moveontweet

The authors of the study found that:

Only a few students noted that the tweet was based on a poll conducted by a professional polling firm and explained why this would make the tweet a stronger source of information. Similarly, less than a third of students fully explained how the political agendas of MoveOn.org and the Center for American Progress might influence the content of the tweet. Many students made broad statements about the limitations of polling or the dangers of social media content instead of investigating the particulars of the organizations involved in this tweet.

Faculty have work to do, in close partnership with the library, about basic online information literacy and cannot assume that our students have a sophisticated understanding of how information is generated in a content zone that has developed outside academic or journalistic oversight, as limited as that might be. Nor is the problem lessened because our (largely progressive) students aren’t likely to submit as evidence data that originate on white nationalist sites. We need to ask whether we are we equipping students to bring the same critical eye to more progressive media sources. Do they know what questions to ask about information sources and how to answer them? We need to develop new and sustained ways to help students navigate this information world. We need new courses in information literacy and the funded development of media literacy segments for on-going courses in the regular curriculum.

2) Help students understand (and question) the unspoken authority of the text. If we are not to spend the next 40 years wandering around in an epistemological desert, where all utterances are judged to be as valid (truthful, factual) as any other, we need to help our students understand where the authority that underlies knowledge comes from – and that means being able know on what grounds that authority can be sustained or challenged. And we need to empower students to question authority when necessary.

Especially as liberal arts institutions, we need to build into our courses not only a greater ability to assess information, but a deeper understanding of the ways in which knowledge is generated and the legitimate grounds on which it can be challenged. Acknowledging that Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity reworked Newtonian physics does not prove the scientific method of knowledge-generation to be untrustworthy and that, in consequence, anything that Rush Limbaugh has to say about climate change is as valid as the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The above may be a handy exaggeration, but I would argue that we often fall short on one of the central tasks of liberal arts colleges: engaging students in the central (and different) ways our disciplines produce and authorize knowledge, and that a critical and historical approach towards knowledge-generation is a fundamental part of the on-going work of disciplines. For those who maintain that critical views towards “established” knowledge areas only enhances the arguments of “post-facters,” I would counter that not to question where and how knowledge is generated and established not only leaves the door open to those who would freely invent realities to further their interests, but leaves us poorly positioned to defend the work that we do in colleges and universities. At the end of the day, the best way we can enhance our students’ understanding of the difference between fact and crap is to make them aware of how knowledge is generated, and the ways it can be legitimately challenged.

(3) Be the critics that we are trained to be. Emphasize, at every turn, evidence-based reasoning and the importance of transparency regarding sources and information. Help our students (and our colleagues) question not just the assumptions of others, but their/our own assumptions as well. As Cornel West observed, “It’s not a matter just of having the courage of our convictions, but the courage to attack our convictions.”  We need to challenge arguments based on blind appeals to authority. We need to do this not just in our classes but in the broader decisions we make as an educational institution; not just in our institutions, but, as a national community of educators, from early childhood to higher education. And, as a community of educators we need to demand that local, state, and national governments make evidence-based decisions, are transparent about the evidence they bring to decisions making, and are open to discussion, information, and challenge.

(4) Fight ideological and political blacklisting. A variety of news sources have reported that the Trump transition team “wants to know who at the Department of Energy attended domestic and international climate talks. It wants emails about those conferences. It also asks about money spent on loan-guarantee programs for renewable energy. … The Trump team questionnaire also asks… for the 20 highest paid employees at the department’s national laboratories.” The educational community is painfully familiar with ideologically inspired firings and the blacklist, and even the hint of retaliation against those who come to fact-based but inconvenient conclusions cannot be allowed to be normalized. It’s not enough to challenge false news in a “post-truth” environment, we must strongly defend truth and evidence, and those in the academy and outside who produce them.

(Image: Federico Calandria - Flickr cc)

(Image: Federico Calandria – Flickr cc)

(5) Understand why many are pissed off at higher education – and do the work to show what is generating the most serious problems in higher education. Higher education leaders and the faculty in particular have not been forceful defenders of the transformative purpose of higher education, allowing the image to coalesce of college as a snobbish club where it costs a lot to get in,  students spend all their time talking nonsense and hiding from ideas they don’t like, and, when finished, move back to their parents’ basement without a job or any “real” skills. We shouldn’t be surprised by the growing anger directed at the higher education sector. Like a carrot dangled in front of a donkey but always out of reach, a college degree is both a necessary means to a more secure future, and increasingly out of reach for a growing percentage of the population. One consequence is that the total outstanding student loan debt in the U.S. is $1.2 trillion, the second-highest level of consumer debt behind only mortgages.

The problems of the the public higher education sector (representing over 76% of all students), we should be very clear, are rooted in many factors including the growing income inequality produced by stagnating wages, the decline of unions, the growth of an insatiable gazillionaire class, and the increasing unwillingness of state legislatures (i.e., “the public”) to fund post-secondary education. State funding of higher education is down by almost 50% from 1975 to 2011. There are many ideological reasons for a retreat from the very notion of education as a public good, but new research suggests that, “As the population has grown more diverse, support for grand efforts like the GI Bill to open doors to higher education has dwindled. Coincidence?” Anthony Carnevale, a well-regarded educational researcher at Georgetown, found that,

Since the 1990s, the number of black and Latino high school graduates who enroll in college has more than doubled. But three-quarters of that increase has been at open-access colleges. Meanwhile, white college enrollment has increased only at the nation’s top 500 universities. [There are about 4,600 institutions of higher education.] Thus, American higher education has evolved into a two-tiered separate and unequal system that fuels the intergenerational reproduction of white racial privilege.

Put simply, as both the public K-12 system and the public higher education system become progressively non-white, they are increasingly starved of funding. If we support diversity in higher education, as we must, we also are called upon to support funding for that diversity, whether in state funding of higher education or federal funding of Pell and other grants. Whether at public or private institutions, we must fight for the right for higher education for all; fight to sustain the understanding that education is more than skills; fight to make K-12 and higher education a public good; fight to make higher education something that lessens, not increased, inequality in this society.

anti-intellectualism(6) Be humble. With the rise of the Tea Party and the advent of the Trump campaign and his victory, many commentators have returned to Richard Hofstadter’s classic 1963 study, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. One of the more insightful recent reviews was written by the previously cited Nicholas Lemann in the Columbia Journalism Review. Lemann highlights two quotes from Hofstadter we should consider.

Anti-intellectualism — Hofstadter wrote — is founded in the democratic institutions and the egalitarian sentiments of this country. The intellectual class, whether or not it enjoys many of the privileges of an elite, is of necessity an elite in its manner of thinking and functioning . . . . Intellectuals in the twentieth century have thus found themselves engaged in incompatible efforts: They have tried to be good and believing citizens of a democratic society and at the same time to resist the vulgarization of culture which that society constantly produces. It is rare for an American intellectual to confront candidly the unresolvable conflict between the elite character of his own class and his democratic aspirations.

At a moment when the in-coming President staffs his cabinet with the very same billionaires and Goldman-Sachians he savaged during the campaign, we should not be surprised (as my wife continues to remind me!) that his supporters don’t (yet) see them as the “elites” against which they turn their anger. That anger is still directed at us, the pointy-headed intellectuals. Never mind that power doesn’t reside in Oberlin, Berkeley, or Cambridge. We can tear out our hair over the ludicrousness of this… or we can take to heart another Hofstadter quote:

Intellectuals dwell in the realm of ideas and values, where almost nothing is ever right without qualification. So if anti-intellectualism is a natural aspect of a democratic society, humility ought to be a natural aspect of intellectual life.

Our task is not to make ourselves likable to those who have turned their anger against us. Our task, as critics, is to lay bare the reality of what is happening and at the same time make what we do as educators both relevant and accessible, financially and intellectually, and doing it with humility and a sense of our own limitations.

(7) Insure that our campuses are welcoming, diverse, and supportive. The post-truth environment poses many problems for all of us, but it presents particular threats for the most vulnerable among us, those, as Parker Palmer recently put it, who are at “risk of being bullied, harassed, publicly maligned, physically threatened, denied opportunity, or deported.”

Our campuses must remain not just welcoming for, but fundamentally protective of, these communities. Whether becoming sanctuary campuses or underlining our opposition to racial or religious bigotry, particularly if such attitudes receive a covert or overt support from the highest offices in the land, our job as educators is to defend the inclusiveness of our project and to call out any attempts to challenge or undercut it.

Conclusion

Courtney E. Martin, a prolific author and recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics, recently wrote a column titled “Where I’m Turning to Be Comforted and Challenged.”  It’s a stunning piece of writing in which she concludes that she needs art to “cut through the noise” to be the “fact-check from hell.”

I need it — she continues — to disrobe the emperor in a way that all the pundits in the universe cannot. I need it to knee me in the back. I need it to humble and embolden me simultaneously. I need it to paint new worlds that help me understand this one. I need it to yank me out of the haze of the Internet and plop me smack dab in front of another human being staring into my eyes and making me uncomfortable. I need it to reacquaint me with truth. I need it to put marrow back in my bones. I need it to be fearless and maybe even earnest and I need it to come from…a place beyond strategy and semantics, a place of calm indignation, a place of spiritual redemption. I need art to remind me of the immediate danger and convince me of the safety available in collective rebellion.

While it is art that Martin looks toward to find her voice and her community, it is to the liberal arts and to teaching that I look to “put the marrow back in my bones.” We don’t need to stop what we’re doing to confront the challenges of a post-fact world, we need to do what we’re doing better. We need to defend the task of liberal education as a means of creating an “intellectual engagement that fulfills our nature as thinking beings,” as Ramesh Ponnuru recently argued. But we also need to insure that the opportunities to do this are available and accessible to all. At the end of the day, the best way to confront a “post-truth” environment is to continue to do what we do, but to do it better, to do it with humility and conviction, and to do it with the knowledge that failure is unthinkable.