In the era of ‘post-truth politics’ enabling people to take democratic action is more important than ever

Titus Alexander

We may feel like spectators as Brexit and the Trump Presidency unfold, but no one is a bystander. We will either be hit, or act to influence their impact. Educators have a special responsibility to help people make sense of what is happening and learn how to take effective action. Every student will be touched by these events. Many disciplines will feel their shadow. The combination of Brexit, the Trump Presidency and resurgent nationalism in China, India, Egypt, Turkey, Russia and many European states, is creating powerful waves to which we all have to adjust.

Responsibilities of educators

Educational institutions should not take sides in political battles, but they must help people understand the challenges that politics tries to solve. They create space for people to study the arguments, analyze the evidence and understand economic, cultural, social and other forces influencing events.  They foster critical thinking, moral courage and the capacity to act.

Educators cannot be impartial when politicians use outright lies, threaten democratic freedoms or undermine equal rights. In this context, the role of educators is not to decide which candidates are more truthful, freedom-loving or respectful, but to equip people to decide for themselves and learn how to take part in the political process.

After the first world war, H.G. Wells wrote that “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe” (1920). Catastrophe almost won, and hundreds of millions suffered. More recently, the scientist Sir Martin Rees wrote: ‘I think the odds are no better than fifty-fifty that our present civilisation on Earth will survive to the end of the present century’ (2003). What happens, he says, depends on the choices we make.

In representative democracies big choices are ultimately made by citizens. They choose who represents them, what direction they want their country to go, and what institutions they want to govern them. Money, social background and contacts make a big difference in politics, but people who started out with little money or power, like Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela, also brought about change by organizing for what they believed.

The election of Donald Trump, together with Brexit and resurgent nationalisms worldwide, create a new political landscape we must all learn to navigate. In this context, practical political education is not an option, but essential. This election is a wake-up call for higher education to play a more active role in strengthening democracy as a fundamental principle of society.

To do this, I suggest higher education needs to fulfil seven key tasks:

  1. Face the facts, share the evidence, expose untruths

Toronto Star journalist Daniel Dale listed 560 false statements made by President-elect Trump during his campaign. Many are minor, some significant, but they suggest a strategy. “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it”, as Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels famously said. Trump’s falsehoods are also documented on  Factcheck.org. In Pressthink.org Professor Jay Rosen of New York University reflects on the ‘retreat from empiricism’ in politics and the press from Bush to Trump.  Arron Banks, funder of Nigel Farage and the Leave EU campaign, said ‘The remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You have got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success.’

Experts get it wrong. They disagree. They debate facts and what they mean. But the fundamental principle of honest inquiry is as important to politics and society as in physics. Researchers must challenge ‘post-truth’ politics to ensure that public debate is grounded in evidence. They also need to recognise that simply presenting facts just doesn’t work, and can even be counter-productive. How things are presented, by whom, and in what context, matters more than information. This takes political skill.

  1. Teach political skills of advocacy, campaigning and influencing

Business schools teach people to use knowledge to create a profit. Medical schools teach people to use knowledge and skill to heal people. All citizens should be able learn how to use knowledge for the wider benefit of society. The biggest challenges facing the world are political, yet education does not give people the political skills to tackle them. We need to start doing so now.

  1. Get to grips with globalisation and problems people face

Many of the issues which fuelled Donald Trump’s election and vote leave are linked to globalisation – increased competition and the loss of jobs to automation, low cost countries, immigrants and changing demand. These changes produced material benefits and lifted many out of poverty, but those left behind in wealthy countries did not have the power, analysis or advocates to create policies to meet their needs. The winners wrote the rules, but the losers had the voting power to call a halt.

Industry can afford to commission the research which drives globalisation. Mathematical equations such as the Black–Scholes formula (1973) helped financial markets to dominate the global economy, while the equally rigorous epidemiology of inequality by Richard Wilkinson et al has little influence on what happens. Education must also give the less powerful and marginalised the means to understand and influence the world.

  1. Reach out and include those left behind

In Democracy and Education the American educator John Dewey argued that education should include ‘the historic background of present conditions; … study of economics, civics, and politics, to bring the future worker into touch with the problems of the day … Above all, it would train power of re-adaptation to changing conditions so that future workers would not become blindly subject to a fate imposed upon them.’ (1916)

  1. Sustain cosmopolitan learning networks

For centuries knowledge and social development have flourished through the exchange of ideas and dialogue across continents and civilisations. The current nationalist tide could inhibit the movement of people and ideas. The internet makes it more difficult to limit the spread of ideas, but it also fosters closed online communities. Education has an important role in myth-busting and bridge building, so that all citizens can share knowledge across continents and experiences the world from many viewpoints.

  1. Promote experimentation and innovation in democracy

There are profound problems with our political systems. Universities can foster innovation and research into new forms of participatory politics and governance, such as documented by Participedia, a global initiative by the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and the Universities of British Columbia, Westminster, Alberta and Toronto.

  1. Strengthen democratic values of pluralism, tolerance and dialogue

Democratic practices and values cannot be taken for granted. Education institutions could do more to embed collegiate, democratic processes in their learning, teaching and governance, as well as relationships with their local communities.

Conclusion

Donald Trump and the Brexiteers voiced widespread anger at failures of the political system and elites to deal with problems experienced by millions. These decisions by voters are just the start of a profound and unpredictable global change, in which China, India, Russia and other countries will have an increasing say. Education has a vital, indeed urgent, task to equip people with the political skill and understanding to influence what’s happening, or people will be swept along by powerful waves which no one can control.

Titus Alexander’s book on Practical Politics: lessons in power and democracy aims to show why and how education needs to include practical politics on the curriculum. It is published by Trentham/UCL IOE Press and can be ordered from Amazon or other book stores. Educators can get inspection copies here. He will be giving a presentation during Academic Book Week on January 24.

Photo by Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode

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Posted in Social sciences and social policy, Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment

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