ignorance

Any form of Anti-Americanism is a simplistic explanation of complex realities, and a dangerous manifestation of intolerance. Far from this, we have to admit that we are at a point where we need to see what Americanization involves for other countries and cultural entities and for the future of citizens across the world. The main reason is not only that the American popular culture was influential and adopted widely since 1950s, even in countries where anti-Americanism is prevalent (in West or other countries), but most recent developments in the US politics, culture and civic life require a very serious and objective examination.

In this context it should concern us all that the US popular culture, in a unique fabric that is weaving together on Internet and TV, music and movie industries, various corporations and their lobbying strategies and campaigns, lead now to a place where the Brave New World is looking longingly towards a dystopian 1984. Glorified ignorance is widely accepted along with authoritarian solutions; an obsessive focus on superficial and fast results and the invasion of entertainment in all aspects of life. Reality TV is shaping personal behaviours and Jerry Springer Show can only fail to impress in the current landscape of junk ‘journalism’, obsessed to impress and secure audiences at all costs. In effect, last US elections and the triumph of Trump and his neo-Fascist characters that surround him represent just one terrible symptom of diseases that went ignored for a long time. It is also an effect of the ubiquitous effort to see the ‘positive side’ in all, even when this involved overlooking dangerous risks. The paradox is that the American ‘optimism’, fondness for happy endings (even if it screams “artificial”) and tremendous effort to see ‘silver linings’ in every disaster, is a strange feature for a nation so dependent on anti-depressants. Nevertheless, too many are taking American narratives as legitimate and coherent stories.

Resistance against Trump and what he represents stands beyond politics; it is the point of separation between immiscible values. Is the difference between mutual respect and glorified hate, between values of progress and civilisation and glorified ignorance. When Trump stated in a victory speech “I love the poorly educated” he did not shocked the audience. His massive group of followers was not offended to be looked at as a witless herd following someone’s else’s mind. What a failure for education! What a shame for universities and schools to have so many people let to ignore how much they don’t know and think that ignorance is a sign of strength. Nevertheless, American solutions for education are adopted by many countries and key decision-makers.

The American solutions influenced for a long time the rest of the world. The Reagan-Thatcher influence on schools and universities is undeniable, and it all started with what Reagan found good to impose on American universities. The reduction of education to economic arguments is a terrible legacy of this influence, and we can see now that profits may not solve all problems in the world. A good reminder here is that the highly entrepreneurial Nazi regime was doing very well with the economy… for a while! What a terrible lesson to ignore or forget.

The current US Secretary of Education is a religious zealot, with a stunning lack of knowledge on education policies, research or what can lead to an educated mind. Amazingly, in America of 2017 this is a great virtue: media shows that ignorance is fresh and good, knowledge is putrid, elitist and dangerous. The new Secretary of Education believes that guns should be part of school life so we can protect children from “potential grizzlies.” It is also a fanatical believer in the value of profits and neoliberal solutions. We are all warned.

Major trends in education are set for the last 6-7 decades by what was designed in the United States, ideas and values promoted by American scholars and schools (for example  Tyler and Bloom, Taylorism in education and so many others). Today this influence comes in strident forms, such as the obsessive focus on testing or – more subtle – on the constant decline of social status for the teaching profession. OECD studies show that US is the most important country leading in the devaluation of the teaching profession, in the way it is paying teachers and in their working conditions.

At the same time, universities across the world dream (openly or secretly) to be next to Harvard, and this is a strange tendency. Especially now, when is not very clear when looking at current tensions and evolutions what good was for the American society to have the impressive Ivy League universities. It also stands unclear to see what institutions like Harvard make of real social responsibility, civic values and contributions to give graduates a balanced and harmonious life. Maybe that model is flawed. Maybe these widely praised values lead to other bizarre reality TV characters that should remain insignificant in a functional democracy and educated society.

Glorification of ignorance and cult-like solutions are always devastating for the Polis and for every single one of us who are still thinking that we have to defend and promote humanistic values, democratic citizenship, intellectual and technological progress. European universities hold a troubled history on how institutions of higher education and academics supported the rise of fascism and the Nazi ideology. It may seem now extreme to think about that, but we have to stay alert and see if our models are good and healthy; just a year ago it was unthinkable for many to imagine a world where a reality TV character is the US President and his top advisers are people like Steve Bannon, with a worldview that leave sane people speechless. How was it possible to imagine in 2015 or 2016 a world where Breitbart – a relatively obscure far-right website – will be creating news in February 2017. As painful as it is, we have to admit that it is all happening now.

It is still time to consider a radical rethink of current models and possible solutions for our challenges. Maybe the light on the Statue of Liberty is shining somewhere else now. We can be grateful that the guidance came from those shores for a while, but now we live very different days. Ignorance  – as attractive as it may look for many – is always leading to immense suffering and disasters. The americanization of our universities, media, education and future require a solid challenge! Because a society where Trump is President and the Education Secretary is the personification of glorified ignorance and religious obscurantism cannot provide models that can lead to a better future for others. This should make us all think, especially those who are working in universities. It is time to look at other ways, beyond what ‘makes America great again’ – if not for our students and new generations, at least for universities and our own future.

 

*Photo credits: Flickr (Japanexperterna.se); Creative Commons
**DeVos family was ‘generous’ to give $200 million to the US Republican Party, including funding campaigns of 10 of the 12 Republican senators on the committee that vetted her for the position of Education Secretary. We can simply call this crude corruption! 

It is difficult to imagine in 2016 a more offensive candidate than Donald Trump… and now the world expects anxiously to see what the US President Donald Trump will do. No one really knows what this reality TV character plans for the most powerful office, but some things we know for sure: he was preferred by a shockingly high number of American citizens, in a country considered a pillar of democracy. We also know that his racists, discriminatory views were well known, so people were well aware that they elect someone associated with the extreme right ideology, a crude misogynist that is spectacular in his primitive nationalism, racism and bad taste. Famous now for his vulgar notes on mating rituals caveman style, Trump’s 3rd wife is a former ‘model’, famous only for some naked gaudy pictorials; voting proved that this couple is a perfect preference for evangelicals and their “family values”. The ignorance associated with this choice is abysmal. The difference between a reality show and real life will be soon obvious for some, but the majority will just pay attention to the new propaganda, blaming the ‘other’ for all their suffering.

There are too many notes and articles on what happened, and we can only expect the big whitewash in the following months. Trump is now slowly legitimised, considered just another leader with real policies in a world that simply goes ahead. This happened before, and Europe couldn’t stop in 1923 to listen alarmed voices and was deriding those able to see what was really coming. We can only hope that the history cannot repeat such massive mistakes.

One step to prevent this is to look at universities and their role (and place) in the current wave of populism and rise of the extreme right. Because universities are not only the place of nurturing the growth of knowledge, information and ideas, but the space where the brightest minds have the responsibility to take a critical stance when things go wrong. Their academic scepticism is the healthy condition able to unbound curiosity and go beyond appearances, deconstruct deceptive certainties that prop up populism, intolerance and fear, and build better alternatives for individuals and society. This is the place where solutions can be built on universal values and what unites us, against the temptation of simple answers provided by hate and bigotry.

A panglossian blindness

“Pangloss” is the only word able to capture succinctly the blind optimism that obscured the reality of past and future challenges for universities and colleges, students’ lives and their social contexts. The undeniable reality revealed by the election of President Trump should make us look back now and see what happened when the poisonous tension was boiling and universities across the world spent time in awe (and gullible enthusiasm) for the new wave of change represented by… MOOOCs. We have to ask where were the voices warning that a wave of crude nationalism and xenophobia was brewing Brexit? Where is the work of all political sciences schools and experts in sociology and education to show that trumpism was a reality waiting to happen?

Articles, reports and papers on higher education written in 2013 or 2014 reveal the quasi-acceptance of technological solutionism, well promoted by commercial firms with obvious financial interests in the sector. That time was also remarkable for the swift reaction against those saying that tech solutions are good and needed, but are not the ‘wave of change’, nor the solution to the most important problems facing education, students or society. Media and academics fell in love with the new narrative, waiting for the miracle solution of MOOCs. The massive open online courses were presented as the end of the campus, the start of free delivery of higher education to all corners of the world and the massive wave that will change the world. No serious questions were asked about the evidence supporting these claims, no scepticism was allowed in thinking about the real possibility of poor kids taking higher education courses in slums or disadvantaged areas. The hubris was spectacular and the focus was mostly limited to this. The future was great; the optimism was possibly shadowed only by those unable to see the wonderful promise ahead.

‘Big data’ came along to complete the narrative: it is all is under control, we finally cracked the complexity of learning and it is all measurable, predictable, and programmable. The hype about what data analytics can do still stays unmatched in higher education.

But the ‘tsunami of change’ was just a small ripple and the revolution comes in a nightmarish form, from a very different direction. Too many looked in a wrong direction.

A (needed) silver lining

We can hope now that the hype and over-reliance on data and technology in higher education will get now more scrutiny. “Big Data” was wrong in the case of Brexit, and obviously mistaken in Trump’s case. Firms specialised in opinion polls and data analytics simply got it all off target and – as an immediate effect – an astonishing amount of money was lost. We can only guess what will be the cost of this complete trust on data analytics on a long-term. However, universities have to accept the fact that the best in the game are forced now to accept the limits of data analytics and bid data crunches. It is time to take a step back and look at reality as it is, good or bad, beyond well-funded fads. Technology opens now doors that were unseen and closed before for academia, but there are limits and misuses. Academic scepticism is the safety mechanism against costly and dangerous mistakes. It is imperative to get it back.

Also, the fragility of democracy and civilisation is now clearer than it was before these ugly elections. We learned as well that is too dangerous to believe our made-up narratives about a safe and stable world, or to take democracy and civilization for granted. The important lesson for academia is that there are too little antibodies in our universities, reactive mechanisms against groupthink and comfortable fads. We still see too little courage to deal with the unpleasant – but very important to acknowledge – realities. The safe bet of embracing mediocrity and avoid by all means to rock the (sinking) boat should not be the path of action for universities and academics. It is (still) time to get back their narrative of places of learning and solutions for a sustainable and prosperous future for all.

Brexit 2There is no case for nationalism in Europe, a continent where unspeakable atrocities caused in Spain by nationalism should be sufficient to close any discussion on it. The Holocaust and the Second World War have evident and well-documented roots in national exceptionalism, and we all know now what happened when nationalism that went ahead beyond control. The inhumanity, the absurdity, and the immensity of evil should be the unforgivable lesson that nationalism, national exceptionalism, in any corner of the world, should be always avoided. Unfortunately, it seems that Great Britain is not only ignoring these lessons, and the ultimate sacrifice that their own brave men and women made in the past against nationalistic parties that were invading Europe. Now the UK insists to show the world that British exceptionalism is even more alive than ever before. Here comes Brexit, the push to leave the European Union in a post-imperialist dream to join… the Independent Empire of Britishness.

With Brexit, all sorts of right-wingers have now a platform to present the most absurd ideas. We can take just one example: Boris Johnson, the former London Mayor, recently stated that the European Union is pursuing similar goals to Hitler! Because when one looks at the EU’s relentless pursuit of human rights, freedom of movement, democratic citizenship, rights of workers and so many others in the same vein one can only think of the Nazi ideology, right? Of course not! This kind of demagoguery and absurd discourse deserves a special treatment, most probably specialised. But the point remains that these characters have not only a platform but a surprisingly large number of followers! Something is wrong and went wrong for a long time, most probably since kids learned in schools that entire parts of the world map painted in pink represent the Great Empire that we own, ‘oh, aren’t WE the best?’…

At this point, it is the best to see the UK leave. The EU is a dazed and rickety structure, with too many pockets of corruption, not limited to the usual suspects (Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia.) To this point, the EU – with its quasi-incapable and aloof-OLAF – was unable to bring these groups and cliques to order, and those too-corrupt countries back to reality. Is also impotent in dealing with an increasingly aggressive and irrational Russia, at a time when a united front is vital. It is acting less than a family or a political union that is following the model of US – or a federation – but more of a hybrid looking for identity. In the current political and economic context, this cannot work. Brexit can be the best thing that can happen to the European Union: a wakeup call! This is what happens if you don’t get your act together. The impact on the UK will be so devastating that EU countries will learn and important lesson. Local nationalists in various EU countries, who currently beat the drums with equally absurd and idiotic arguments like those played now by the Brexit campaign, will lose fast followers. UK universities, agriculture, research, innovation, finance, tourism etc. will lose so much and so fast that any European voter will think twice when the sirens of nationalistic demagoguery will rise again.

Of course, there are no sound economic or national security arguments for the UK to leave the European Union! Nonetheless, when was nationalism associated with reason? The effect will be devastating and this may be the best thing for the UK and for the EU, as this is the best antidote on both for segregation, exceptionalism and nationalism. The UK will suffer – and this is their own citizens’ choice – but the EU family will finally look at the real chance to forge new and realistic solutions for a united future.

It is the time for Brexit!

IMG_4067Higher education moved from the ‘ivory tower’ to the marketplace since… let’s say the year 2000. To understand this landmark we just have to look at some important moments that changed profoundly universities across the world. For example, we need to remember that 1995 marks an important event for higher education: the adoption in Marrakesh of the General Agreement of Trades and Services (GATS). Here, for the first time, according to GATS, one of the sectors that are covered by trade agreements refers to educational services. As any other service, it was stated that various modes of trade of educational services are now regulated by GATS: the cross-border supply, consumption abroad, commercial presence and the presence of natural persons. These stand translated into various forms of transactions: campus branches, international students and so on.

The conclusions of the ‘Millennium Round’ of multilateral trade negotiations – organised by the World Trade Organisation in Seattle, at the end of 1999 – moved higher education decisively into the market, as a tradeable service, as any other commodity. Of course, as a commodity, it was important to put in place some measures that customers can use to evaluate what they buy. So the era of global rankings started with the publication of the first results of the Shanghai Jiao Tong University rankings called ‘Academic Ranking of World Universities’ (hereafter referred to as ARWU) in 2003. Customers were able to find which universities sell the best product and where is best to invest to get a ‘good education’. The market forces pushed to create an avalanche of international rankings of all sorts for higher education (from measuring the output of research to ‘graduate employability’, however that is measured).

With the ‘Millennium Round’, the high priests of the market decisively won higher education!

The promise of GATS and WTO was generous – the organisation acknowledged the importance of education to foster ‘economic growth, personal and social development, as well as reducing inequality’. It defined the ‘market structure’ of the sector and – in the background note by the WTO Secretariat from 23 September 1998 – we  find clear suggestions of measures that can lead to success, such as the idea ‘to increase competition and encourage investor and corporate participation in the education sector‘ (S/C/W/49 Page 6). Corporatisation of education held the promise of an efficient sector, where efficiency and efficacy rule the game and academics provide a quality service for happy customers. Education was aligned to the logic of neoliberalism in philosophy, structure and organisation.

The set of promises was great, and many decision-makers genuinely believed in a dogma stating that the free market in higher education and treating education as a commodity is the key to an enlightened future for all.

Strangely, this recent history is rarely mentioned, if ever! University rankings are presented with the assumption that they were around since the University of Bologna was established. If we look back we have to admit that all indicators reflect that at the time when these promises were made youth unemployment was lower than it is today. Moreover, inequality was significantly lower, graduate unemployment and underemployment, NEETs, social problems and risks were at very low rates in comparison with those reported in 2015.

Higher education experience now results of managerialism. We have to remember that in selling the case for turning education into a commodity, WTO was praising the United Kingdom for moving ‘away from public financing and toward greater market responsiveness, coupled with an increasing openness to alternative financing mechanisms, has led universities in new directions, balancing academic quality with business management‘ (WTO, Background Note by the Secretariat, p. 5).

The WTO note makes important to observe what The Guardian reports in 2016, that – in the UK – academics find the ethos of universities under managerialism so unbearable that we currently record a significant rise of mental health problems: “Mental health problems are on the rise among UK academics amid the pressures of greater job insecurity, constant demand for results and an increasingly marketised higher education system“. Academic staff is also too scared to report these problems, as another report reveals. The culture of fear, distrust and the pressure to ‘make the plan’ is a long way from a place where new ideas emerge, where culture and civilisation would find its strongest defenders!

Students are now valued customers and commodity, so this group must be much better now, right? Wrong! After decades of trickle-down economics, market-oriented theories,  and liberalisation of trade in education we see students even more stressed than their professors in our truly disrupted universities. BBC reports that a rising number of stressed students seek help now.

As already mentioned, graduate unemployment and underemployment are continuously rising and student debt in most OECD countries is going over limits of sustainability (for individuals, institutions and economies). Bloomberg Business just published a recent analysis (available here), revealing that ‘The world’s middle classes are getting poorer‘ and ‘Things are even worse for young people‘! Things vastly different than GATS anticipated even though Thatcherism and neoliberalism are now forcefully applied by zealots (who often have no idea what is neoliberalism or what is the logical structure of their actions!).

Universities are placed under so much pressure to present a better picture to lure new ‘customers’ are report better profits that many institutions stand now accused of manipulating data on graduate employment. Responsibility was trampled over by those marching for the glory of the markets.

The core of academic life is also lost, somewhere in some excel sheets. Academic freedom stands now muddled so that in reality there has not much left of it. An editorial in Nature is right to observe that ‘Governments have neglected democracy and academic freedom in their push to make universities more businesslike‘. Not that we don’t live in a time that screams the need for democratic values, civility and humanity. The price of this perspective is much more obvious now. Extremists, fanatics and loss of humanity place any discussion about profits as  marginal, trivial and silly in the context of what can be lost. It should also become more evident for universities that placing profit above all other aims ultimately stifles all passion and creativity. But ‘astute administrators’ make clear that only if there is some time left for some wine and cheese we can talk a bit about that thing called ‘academic freedom’ and whatever else those hippies would like to waste their time on.

Politicians, administrators and citizens should pay more attention and we should all be much more careful with what universities are doing, and what they become. Especially when it is visible that barbarians are beyond the gates, and freedom, civility and culture are so less safe than they look!

In fairness, we have to admit that something is working well in universities. For example, in the often cited system of higher education in the UK (as WTO people couldn’t hide their love for Thatcher’s legacy) we find in recent media reports that the average income for vice-chancellors in the last five years is constantly rising, well over 10%! Take into account the fact that their average income never declined and you have the perfect image of what is good news for universities today! Too bad that this is not yet trickling down on academics and students…

It is the time to admit the failure of the market as a guiding principle of organisation for higher education: students don’t find jobs as the promise goes, academics are more stressed and less engaged than ever before and a large set of indicators reveal that the sector is in a dysfunctional state.

The simple fact is that education works fundamentally different from selling cars, music or newspapers. Fifteen years after the GATS and WTO agreements, administrators may finally need to stop plagiarising so badly the corporate world, accept the evidence and start anew. The list of promises from 1999 compared to most results in 2016 makes a sad and worrying reading!

GATS managed to profoundly disrupt – in the unglorified sense of the word, by drastically altering or destroying the structure of – universities across the word. It is important to re-think now what is a university and what makes it different from any other profit-making endeavour. Rebuilding the sector can start from here. We can involve students and academics in decisions in reality, rather than mimicking it. We can stop counting meaningless stuff and sanction mediocrity, rather than celebrating it.

Most importantly, we have to take a take a good look at what stands at the core of universitas and academia and change with courage and wisdom. Or we can duplicate Trump-like universities for the future and make them all ‘efficient’ for a nice profit. If this is the choice… happy hunger games to all!

Version 2Warning: this text is dealing with trigger warnings!

There is a constant increase of attention on the so-called ‘trigger warnings’ in higher education. Hamlet cannot be discussed in classrooms without a public warning stating that the following text is dealing with mental health and death… Forget about a free dive into some ideas of Greek philosophers or current challenges and crises facing humanity or our societies: there is much too much sensitive material. As a student may have the experience of a real and violent revolution it is safe and important to have a public warning before discussing Kuhn’s structure of scientific revolutions – the last word may cause trauma.

Some say that this is ridiculous, but the persistence of this new fad may signal something important for the future of universities and society.

There are wild parties, obscenely violent movies topping the charts, but ‘due to the sensitive nature of the material’, curriculum is reshaped and dried of any substance in higher education. The irony is that the main audience for all violent lyrics, movies, and narratives and all dangerous sports and entertainment is predominantly in the same age group that gets ‘protected’ within the walls of universities. Boredom is preceding confusion and frustration and paves the way for the kind of anger that leads now to the curious rise of political monsters across the world. New public figures have no warnings before launching into vile racist or discriminatory notes and… they are even more popular because of this! Youth is now much more attracted by atypical leaders, who have very little concern for cushioning political attacks or shaping strong arguments. Again, this is what makes them appealing!

“Trigger warnings” in higher education are just a euphemism for the shift of focus from responsibility and education to accountability and profits. Universities were turned in the last decade from institutions focused mainly on education and research into profitable enterprises with a profit-oriented practice. In this picture, ‘customers’ must be kept comfortable, unchallenged and satisfied – even if this is a massive cheat with a devastating effect on their prospects for the future.

Policies in higher education are shaped de facto by this unique rationale and logic: the international rating agency Moody’s released at the end of February 2016 a report on higher education (Global Higher Education Faces Period of Significant Transition) where we can read that “merged entities can benefit from increased enrolment, size and programmatic diversity, but they simultaneously face risks as they address the structural challenges that contributed to the merger”. Yes, Moody’s report is talking here about universities, not corporations or banks! The language of education is re-structured on Wall Street as academic capitalism is presented and maintained as the only viable option. Alternatives are simply dismissed as fantasies (good only for ridicule) by those who benefited directly by access to free higher education and a much more… educational experience.

The fact is that ‘trigger warnings’ exist now in higher education; we find them in various forms, some explicit and some just subtle and masked by bureaucratic structures and regulations. Some supposedly protect students, some protect hierarchical structures and/or The Organisation. Dissent or lateral thinking is exposed as an act that hurts all, and the heretic must pay the price. Invariably, the result is the suppression of genuine debates and a strong reinforcement of mediocrity. This is why the entire discussion on how much or how often teachers have to use ‘trigger warnings’ in universities and colleges is missing the point!

We are placed in a time when serious challenges require courageous decisions and agile minds; we stifle all in the name of ‘micro-aggressions’ or whatever different labels we find. Also, we can suspect that those who say that the current students ask to be cuddled and demand a pampered life are just using anything to justify their jeremiads and dislike of students in general. The truth is a lot more troublesome: too many universities don’t care about teaching, learning and the advancement of knowledge. These are difficult endeavors, involving serious challenges and for far too many all that matters anyway is the balance sheet.

The climate is warming fast (literally and metaphorically!) and political monsters are again popular, as cultivated ignorance placed all lessons of the WWII in some dusty shelves that are accessed only when some producers want to make another entertaining movie. Barbarians erase history and attack cities and symbols of human civilization and the massive walls of traditional universities fail to protect ideas and nurture minds and souls able to come with antidotes. Academics count now various things (publications, students, engaged students, failed students, grants and… whatever else can be counted). This is what seems to matter…

The real trigger warning is that higher education is very close to become irrelevant if something will not be changed soon; and that we have to fasten our seatbelts for a wild ride!