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.