Thank you, Donald Trump, for what you have taught universities

The US election result shows the shortcomings of higher education, says Dan Sarofian-Butin

December 6, 2016
Donald Trump, US flag
Source: iStock

There is palpable despair in most corners of higher education about the forthcoming Donald Trump presidency. Trump seems to frighten just about everyone who labours under the Jeffersonian ideal that an educated citizenry is vital to a flourishing democracy.

It feels like we are all watching an approaching category-five storm and hunkering down to just make it through the next four years. 

Yet I want to suggest that perhaps we should be rejoicing. I am not talking about celebrating Trump’s conduct, policies or worldview. Rather, I believe that Trump’s ascendancy creates an opportunity to revisit and revise some of the deepest assumptions about our post-Civil Rights society.

Specifically, we must acknowledge three uncomfortable truths in order to begin to lessen the gap between the lofty rhetoric and the actual reality of our roles as educators committed to fostering the development of our students as thoughtful and engaged citizens. 

The first realisation is that discrimination is alive and well. A hallmark of the past 40 years of social science research is that out-in-the-open oppressive beliefs and actions – such as racism, sexism and homophobia – have markedly decreased. We have moved, the standard academic thinking goes, from overt to covert acts of discrimination.

Nobody, in this way of thinking, is a racist any longer. Racism indeed may still exist, but the locus of attention and blame has moved to notions of systemic, institutional and structural racism. But we can no longer stand by such claims. Not when Confederate flags are proudly waved at Trump rallies or when the Ku Klux Klan holds a Trump victory parade or when Trump’s senior strategist is commonly referred to as an anti-Semitic misogynist.

The election results have become known as a “whitelash” exactly because Trump’s campaign was able to exploit an “us versus them” anthem of white pride and anger that mourned the loss of a 1950s America when, indeed, discrimination was truly alive and well. 

The second realisation is that “truth” no longer seems to matter. “Post-truth” was the 2016 international word of the year, and Trump is the perfect embodiment of facts becoming inconsequential in comparison to personal beliefs. It is not just that we have got, as David Frum notes, an individual whose dishonesty is “qualitatively different than anything before seen”. From his claim of watching thousands of Muslims cheering on 9/11 to his most recent accusations of massive voter fraud, Trump is able to exploit what the sociologist Max Weber termed charismatic authority: in which power rests in the individual personality and overwhelms traditional and bureaucratic models that relied on cultural patterns and legal regulations.

Any attempts to disprove Trump’s claims fall victim to the “democratisation of knowledge” where anyone and everyone can contribute to the creation and dissemination of information through Wikipedia, YouTube or their Twitter feed. This alt-reality house of mirrors has fundamentally jumbled truth and falsehoods such that it may actually have helped to elect the very man who seems to care nothing about these distinctions. 

Finally, the third realisation is that perhaps we can’t just all get along.

It has been more than half a century since Gordon Allport’s “contact hypothesis” became the guiding light for reducing intergroup prejudices, impacting everything from integrating schools to expanding affirmative action. Yet by now there have been innumerable stories and documentation of the staggering rise in harassment and hate crimes since the election.

It is no wonder that Trump’s messages – whether about immigration, law and order or lost jobs – have consistently focused on and resonated with whites whom Arlie Russell Hochschild has called “strangers in their own land”. 

So I want to thank Trump. His victory has made visible that about half of us voted for a man who embodies a world in which discrimination, falsehoods and incivility are tacitly accepted if not downright approved.

Half of us – folks whose education has failed them as well as graduates from some of our finest colleges and universities – wanted a category-five storm. This is a sobering and uncomfortable reality, as our colleges and universities are supposed to be at the forefront of fostering a civic mission for our students and society. Yet we seem to have failed. What are we as educators therefore to do? How are we to act? 

John Dewey reminded us more than a century ago that thinking begins in doubt, in what may “be called a forked-road situation, a situation which is ambiguous, which presents a dilemma”. In the “suspense of uncertainty”, Dewey stated, “we metaphorically climb a tree” in order to get a different perspective, “a more commanding view of the situation”. Trump’s election has put higher education in exactly such a dilemma. 

I thus suggest in this calm before the storm that now is not the time to seek shelter. Now is the time to find that tree and climb it exactly so we can begin to see further into the distance.

This will require some incredibly uncomfortable conversations about the limits of what is possible in the college classroom and some honest acknowledgements that our institutions are all too often apart from, rather than a part of, the neighbourhoods and communities that we claim to belong to and represent. But this moment demands nothing less if we are to truly begin to piece together a new vision and reality for a truly flourishing democracy. 

Dan Sarofian-Butin was the founding dean of, and is now a professor in, the School of Education and Social Policy at Merrimack College in Massachusetts. He is also executive director of the Center for Engaged Democracy. 


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