The former was, for many, the end of a long, gruelling, and uniquely unsettling political process. The latter marked the end of my own campaign, within the small sphere of my professional life. It was a campaign to see my students produce clear, structured arguments using the careful mobilisation of evidence, and adherence to the measured discourse characteristic of scholarly endeavour.
The essay was on the topic of social cohesion and religious offence – slippery and emotive subjects – so clarity of expression was of paramount importance. I answered dozens of email queries, commented on plans, and held one-to-one meetings with every student that I could.
But was there any point? If the rhetoric of Trump’s campaign is translated into some kind of reality, there may be many victims ahead: respect for women, the rights of racial and religious minorities, an entire world facing environmental degradation. The population of several nations – the Baltic states, for example – may find themselves trying to decode the implications of Trump’s opaque foreign policy utterances.
The real victim
Yet, as I sit with a stack of essays in front of me, the victim whose pain I feel for most immediately is the practice of logical, reasoned argument itself.
Statements issued by the Trump campaign saw no need to uphold any requirements to make sense or be based on evidence. Consider the assertions of widespread voter-fraud (in the case of Clinton victory), claims of Muslims celebrating 9/11 in New York, the idea to extract Middle Eastern oil as recompense for US military costs, the theory that climate change was secretly invented by the Chinese for economic gain, or that Mexico would willingly pay for a border wall.
Such statements, and an array of others, were credible within the campaign’s own inner logic because the criteria for credibility did not include a basis in reality or even coherence. Under the banner “Make America Great Again” the type of argumentation I have been demanding of my students became defunct.
In Britain, we have recently been in similar territory ourselves. The EU referendum featured false claims regarding the cost of EU membership, of the migration chaos that would follow Turkey’s supposedly inevitable and imminent EU membership, shady rumours that our unelected monarch disliked the EU, and Michael Gove’s wholesale dismissal of“experts”.
The intangible nature of what Brexit would actually entail revealed itself in conveniently vacuous slogans such as “Take Back Control” and, eventually,simply “Brexit means Brexit”. The Remain campaign did sometimes try to conjure compelling stories of apocalypse, but they ultimately failed to respect the manner in which the game was being played. Leave donor and campaigner Aaron Banks reflected: “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”.
Fact and fantasy
As educators have we been getting things hopelessly wrong? Maybe, if one of my students writes “social cohesion means social cohesion” in this latest essay, I should put a hearty tick in the margin.
Should footnotes and bibliographies be dismissed as elitist pedantry? Perhaps we should be training our students in the art of constructing compelling internet memes founded on fantasies? Or forceful slogans that combine emotive power with a strategic absence of content?
If we aspire to educate policymakers of the future, are these not the skills demanded by our age? For £9k a year, might the subtle art of articulating effectual nonsense be preferable to the ineffectual tools of argumentation?
For any academic this should be, of course, no less than a vision of hell. But with 2016 and its strangest of political events, such visions might drift across our consciousness.
The alternative vision is a world in which a renewed sense of cause-and-effect asserts itself. That is, a situation in which it is realised that ignoring peer-reviewed expertise, evidence, and critical arguments does have consequences.
Getting just anyone to fix your plumbing leads to leaks. Ignoring experts in international relations leads to wars. DIY dentistry leads to painful tooth-loss. Dismissing the predictions of climate scientists increases the potential for disaster. Saying simply “X means X” means nothing at all.
This vision must be clung to with determination. Even if, in the short term, holding on to these principles is actually a bit annoying – because if they didn’t need critical argument these essays would be a lot quicker to mark.