Channelling Brexit anger

June 30, 2016
A stone gargoyle
Source: Alamy

Most academics are not naturally angry people. We live in a world where statements are made only after careful hypothesis testing, where data are analysed meticulously, where conclusions report what the data show. We are trained to never run ahead of the data, never prove the null hypothesis.

So, how do you make this group angry? You could start by attacking what matters to us most – say, the future of science and higher education. Then you could attack the people we care about – say, our international community of colleagues, research collaborators, friends – we see the contribution these people make to advancing disciplinary knowledge, teaching and supervising the leaders of the future. Then, you could attack the one thing we all defend to the hilt – the truth. Make statements that are not grounded in evidence, ignore expert opinion and inconvenient fact, say whatever wins you favour – even if you retract these statements – it’s just talk, right?

You could also throw in some attacks on the value of expert opinion. We don’t need experts, right? What could they know from their decades of research and analysis that we don’t know? We could give these experts a name to make them seem all the more distant, elitist and irrelevant – say, “the intelligentsia” – keep away from them – make up your own minds, cover your ears when they speak of “evidence”, “data” and other mythical beasts.

I am an academic at the University of Kent, the UK’s European university, and I am angry. I’m angry that something as important as our country’s future has been gambled with so carelessly. I’m angry for my European colleagues and students, many of whom are feeling devalued and scared for their future. I’m angry for my children who have lost the right to live, work and study in 27 other countries. This is not what we chose – as a Times Higher Education survey showed, 90 per cent of those in higher education wanted to remain (“EU referendum: 9 out of 10 university staff back Remain”, News, 16 June). It’s not what our students chose either – 75 per cent of young people wanted to remain, but the damage has been done.

If there are any positives in this, it is that our future is in the hands of the young people who knew how to vote responsibly. The younger generation have learned a hard lesson about the importance of voting and what can go wrong if people go into the polling booths without fully understanding the facts, googling basic questions such as “what is the EU?” 24 hours after voting to exit. I hope that they have also seen the danger of shunning the mythical intelligentsia and understand how vulnerable and manipulable people make themselves by closing their ears to expert opinion.

We need to be working closely with these bright young people – help them to know where to find information when they need it, to be able to recognise the difference between ungrounded opinion and scientific evidence, to continue making informed decisions, to uphold the truth and stand up for what they believe in. This is my hope for the future, that somewhere in this enormous mess, we can find a united voice with those that share our values and desire for a more intelligent, inclusive, forward-thinking world – let’s use our anger productively. Anyone in?

Kate Hamilton-West
Health psychologist and senior research fellow at the Centre for Health Services Studies
University of Kent

On entering academia to start my PhD I was given some advice. As an academic, I was told in no uncertain terms, it was not my role to “do politics”. I had the first of many PhD-induced existential crises: What was I doing here, if it wasn’t politics? I realise now more than ever that I was driven into academia by a frustration that was at its roots a deeply political one. The environment-related jobs I had in my twenties were limited in their remit to narrow interpretations of sustainability and social change.

Yet, being an academic, I thought, was a position where you are allowed to think [about] politics at different levels: above and below “party politics”, and across divisions such as “sustainability”. If I can’t do this kind of political thinking here, I thought, I might as well quit. I didn’t quit that day but that advice has come back to haunt me, as we stumbled bleary-eyed into the realities of Brexit.

An email popped up this week for an event in my department: “Brexit: How should academics respond?” I couldn’t attend, but the provocation stayed with me: What exactly is our role in a “post-truth” politics, one where “experts” are mistrusted, dismissed or called upon cynically and strategically to fulfil political ends?

Vice-chancellors sent emails on the eve of the referendum: “Think about where your funding comes from,” they reminded us. “Look at how small our department would be without EU funding and EU academics.” I agreed with their sentiment, but the inward-looking nature of these interventions bothered me. Was our role as academics just to defend our interests and say – “don’t vote leave, it’ll hurt universities?” Or do we have a responsibility to engage with the bigger issues – racism, the violence of austerity, the role of the media and access to EU-“literacy” and higher education? Do we have a responsibility to speak to audiences beyond our colleagues, our students, and Twitter and blog followers? Maybe our students, the 18 to 24 age group and the university-educated, offer some reprieve from the self-blame: after all, they were more likely to vote Remain. But this, I think, is still too narrow a view of politics.

In one way, I have come to agree with that early advice I was given. It is not our job to convince anyone to tick any one box or the other – but it is our role to fight for a debate in which everyone has a chance to be university-educated, and where what counts as information is based on some semblance of a, if always imperfect and contested, search for truth and justice.

Anna Yusoff Davidson
PhD candidate

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