This past presidential election campaign was one in which few policies were put forth by either candidate.
Instead, the dominant thrusts of the campaigns had been reduced to opposing arguments about each candidate’s personality or character.
Among a number of issues, the status and importance of universities has perhaps been the collateral damage of real issues affecting the nation not being part of the presidential campaign.
The importance of universities has been deemed to be of no great matter to national conversations that presidential campaigns are meant to stimulate. What we are witnessing is a pattern in which university education is either conspicuous by its absence from presidential campaigning, or candidates for high office play down their university backgrounds.
From the later part of the 20th century to now, we have seen a regular manifestation of an ugly populism that ultimately disrespects the nation’s institutions of learning and, by extension, those who have graduated from them, particularly if and when the latter make no secret of their education and present themselves as learned, cultured individuals.
There has been a terrible price paid for the persistent disrespecting of higher education by those who ignore universities altogether or else would seek to use an opponent’s proximity to higher learning as a means to demonstrate said opponent’s alienation from the real world.
The U.S. is home to many of the world’s leading universities, and yet the dominant political discourse is one that asserts, or suggests, that university faculty members are detached from the real world, are too liberal for their own good, and stand in the way of common sense American values.
Rather than respecting what universities have to offer, such as encouraging reasoned arguments, critical thinking and enquiring research, higher education institutions are often caricatured by ignorant politicians and would-be politicians as hotbeds of naïve liberalism, and that those aspiring for high political office, whose speech betrays higher education, are not to be trusted.
Regardless of who won the election, there is a pressing need for the culture of political discourse in this country to demonstrate a greater respect for universities, the work they do, and those who graduate from them who subsequently declare an interest in political office.
The nation needs to be sceptical of those running for office who present themselves as candidates of the people, through barbed and snide put downs of an opponent’s inclination toward language that aspires to beauty and articulation in its delivery.
For the electorate to see positive reform, and a diminishing in the denigration of higher education, we need to see and initiate significant changes.
Politicians, their minders and their speech writers need to refrain from disrespecting universities and presuming that there is political capital to be made in ignoring them or framing them as not being part of the real world.
The constant denigrating of universities leads them to be perceived as spaces in need of urgent, drastic politically opportunistic intervention in the form of legislation.
The public should demand more of its politicians and should demand that education in all its manifestations be placed squarely at the heart of the agendas of those running for public office.
Educated children, educated young people and educated adults are all better equipped to live more fulfilled lives. Politicians need to start from a base of protecting universities, valuing the work they do, and respecting the rights of faculty members to teach in an environment free of fear, intimidation and political meddling. Education cannot continue to be conspicuous by its absence from policies tabled by presidential candidates of the two dominant parties.
If nothing changes, the nation’s university sector will be significantly diminished. If the culture of anti-intellectualism periodically adopted by some politicians or would-be politicians is allowed to continue unchecked, it will open another front of diminishment in the nation as a whole.
Let’s hope that by the presidential election of 2020, both candidates, whether university graduates or not, can demonstrate a greater level of respect for what this nation’s great universities have to offer, and aspire to achieve, than what we just witnessed this time around.
Eddie Chambers is a professor of art and art history at The University of Texas at Austin.
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