2016’s Turn to Post-Truth Politics Threatens Grad Ed more than Neglected Attention to Grad Ed Practices

Who needs a doctoral education in the Trump era?  In Canada under our former, anti-intellectual, authoritarian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, knowledge came under siege, government academics lost their jobs and their freedom of expression.  Libraries closed, books were tossed out, and some information websites were stripped or shut down.  Canada lost respected scientists to other countries more amenable to their knowledge.

A PhD is an international passport.  Academics often move to other countries.  With a wave of right-wing politicians getting elected in Western Liberal democracies, the list of countries to which an academic can now move, shrunk in 2016.

The biggest development in graduate education in 2016 comes from the political system in which doctoral programs are embedded.

Fast away our old era of Enlightenment values passes, and with it passes an unprecedented era of government and cultural support for research.  A new era of hate, division, suspicion, corruption and avarice comes with a paradigm political shift in 2016.  The election of Donald J. Trump, the vote in the UK to exit the European Union, and right leaning leaders in prominent European countries hearken in a new dark age.  Already some forward thinking US scientists are copying archives and records related to climate in anticipation of the knowledge suppression turn in the US.

Academics forget how unsettling some of their research findings are to politicians, to political orders and to uneducated people.  The history of science is replete with those, like Galileo, who suffered for their writing and research.  Muzzling scientists makes the problem go away temporarily.  Better yet, to stop educating and funding scientists. Better yet to stop  funding universities.

The new US ruling party blames universities for producing liberal thinkers who tend to belong to the other political party.  The new political environment rejects those who traffic in science, journalism, free thought and free speech.  As is the wont of fascists, leader glorification in the Trump Era will likely push aside the academic heroes up held by our pre-2016 culture.  The countless movies, plays, posters, songs, music and art works celebrating great academic achievement also celebrate academic freedom as a deeply held cultural value. Such academic freedom simply makes no sense within authoritarian and fascist-type states.

A ‘Ministry of Truth’ promoting conspiracy theories and revisionist history hardly seems far-fetched now.  Steve Bannon, former chief executive of Brietbart, can apply his skill set for the benefit of the Trump administration as a most trusted inner sanctum advisor to president-elect Trump.

Analysis of Trump’s news sources from tweets during the campaign figure Brietbart as his biggest news source.   Brietbart produces ‘news’ to encourage race hate, antisemitism, white supremacy, authoritarianism  and conspiracy theories.  An example of one such Brietbart conspiracy theory saw a North Carolina man take a rifle into a Washington, DC pizzeria to liberate the children held in the basement from a child sex or porn ring. The ring was being run by demonized Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton and her husband, former president Bill Clinton.

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The sites Trump has tweeted since announcing his campaign in summer 2015 mapped by frequency. BuzzFeed News / Lam Thuy Vo

In the US, education will be under siege. How does research training figure into the budget for state universities in this new anti-intellectual climate?  Why fund PhD programs when right-wing think tanks  serve a more direct purpose?  Hire the likes of a Jason Richwine, with his politically opportune history of writing about the politicization of science, to produce ‘scientific’ reports to justify divisive policies instead.  Allow PhDs to become a commodity to be sold through a black market like they are in Russia.  Spending on programs for the common good, like public education might just be too much at cross purposes with a government agenda pegged on ignoring facts, suspicious of learning and eager to strip wealth from institutions serving the common good through privatization.  In such a climate, the local state university faces grave danger.

The Trump administration’s view of the purpose of university may be gleaned from Trump University.  Perhaps, other such bait and switch university education schemes will find favor in the pro-business, anti-regulation Trump administration.  Trump may simply fail to understand how to nurture higher education if no direct profit gets returned to shareholders, even though the overall economic impact of universities is incontestable.  Unfortunately, indivisible from a university education comes openness to new thought.

Unless universities stop producing a preponderance of liberal thinkers, a Trump administration will see little reason to value universities and research training.   Maybe corporations will be allowed to turn universities into ‘farm teams’ to dictate academic research agendas and own the intellectual property generated.

Look at the state of graduate education in Russia to see the future of graduate training.  The PhD is bought and sold on the black market.  In an environment hostile to research, as in Russia and Canada under Harper, economic output goes backwards towards natural resources.  Citizens loose rights to privacy and the government exercises information control so as to create an environment hostile to academic development and exchange.

How will knowledge production as we know it stay alive?

Academics should take measures to protect the integrity of PhDs.  An independent verifying body which can certify a PhD credential, can protect the integrity of the PhD.  The Open PhD movement should be developed as an alternative pipeline.   Researchers should maintain the rights to their work and share it and their data freely.

How will doctoral programs adapt?   Brexit fears may see 15% of UK university staff leave, group warns is a headline of the academic fall-out of Brexit.  Academics in the US may feel the same urge.  As demand for academics and support for higher education declines and the culture shifts academics off their place of high regard, student willingness to take up doctoral training will also decline.  Expect output of new doctorates to slow to a fraction of the present 55 000 doctorates per year in Canada and the US.

The political war on knowledge will play out as Trump takes office.  Expect serious threats to graduate education.  Fasten your seat belts for the wild roller coaster ride about to be unleashed.  A fury of pent-up hostility toward change, new ideas, experts and technology may even see the roller coaster car go off the roller coaster rails.  Who needs a doctoral education in the Trump era anyways.