In facts we trust? More on the war against education

Last week we learned that the Central European University is forced out of Hungary. While a lot of other bad things happened since then, this event confused me more than others. Why do people let this happen? And why are acts such as the abolishment of Gender Studies met with so little resistance by the scientific community? As far as I’m concerned, universities are global institutions. Expelling a university or abolishing a discipline should worry every democratic citizen in the world. But before I get onto my moral high ground again, I want to pause and understand what it actually is that I find so shocking. Perhaps you all find this trivial, but it’s only beginning to dawn on me that it is trust we’re lacking. So I think the reason that we (or too many of us) let these things happen is that we lost trust in institutions like universities. Let me explain.

In my last piece, I made some allusions about how this war against education exploits misguided beliefs about the fact-value distinction and postmodernism. I still think so, but I couldn’t really pin down what held my ideas together. I’m not sure I do now, but in focussing on the notion of trust I have more of a suspicion than last week. Loss of trust is widespread: We distrust banks, insurance companies, many politicians, and perhaps even our neighbours. That seems at least sometimes reasonable, because it often turns out that such institutions or their representatives do not act on behalf of our interest. And if they say they do, they might be lying. This distrust has probably grown so much that nobody even assumes that certain institutions would act out of anyone else’s interest.

In this respect, I guess universities and the disciplines taught there are perceived as a mixed bag. On the one hand, the commitments in the sciences and humanities seem to foster a certain trust and respectability. On the other hand, not really or not anymore. I don’t know whether this is owing to the fact that universities are increasingly run like businesses, but the effect is that it’s kind of ok to distrust academics. They might be lobbying like anyone else. They might have an agenda over and above the noble pursuit of truth.

Once you embrace this idea, you immediately see why the bashing of “experts” worked so well during the Brexit campaign. You also understand why conspiracy theories begin to be seen on a par with scientifically established results. If everyone might just be lobbying, then the very idea of academic expertise is undermined. Just today, I read a comment on FB claiming that “we don’t need any higher education, now that we’ve got free access to information via the internet”. You might be shaking your head like me, but once the trust is gone, why should anyone be more respectable than anyone else?

Now all of this is not really disheartening enough. And yes, it get’s worse. I guess most of us have of course noticed something to this effect. When we write grant applications or even papers we actually do engage in lobbying. We say: look, my evidence is better, my thought more thorough, my method more reliable! Being used to such tropes, it’s a small step towards saying that STEM fields are better because they deal with facts rather than ideologies, like Gender Studies. This simplistic opposition between facts and ideologies or values is the last straw that some scientists cling to in order to promote their own trustworthiness. But while some might be thinking that they are acting in the name of Truth, they will ultimately be perceived as just another person doing business and praising their goods.

You might want to object that it has always been (a bit) like this. But, I reply, back in the day universities were not perceived as businesses, nor academics as entrepreneurs. The upshot is that the competition for resources in academia makes us not only claim that we advance a project. It’s a fine line to saying that we are engaging in a different and better and ultimately more trustworthy kind of project than the colleague next door. In doing so, we cross the line from advancement to difference, thereby undermining the common ground on which we stand. In such cases, we insinuate that we are more trustworthy than our colleagues from different disciplines. In doing so, we undermine the trust that all academics need collectively in order for a university to remain a trustworthy institution.

Our competition and lobbying threatens to undermine the trust in institutions of higher education. Not surprising, then, that politicians who claim just that will find so much approval. If academics don’t treat one another as trustworthy, why should universities be trustworthy institutions? Why should politicians even pretend to trust experts, and why should people outside academia trust them? Yes, I know there are answers. But if we want to counter anti-democratic anti-intellectualism, we need to maintain or rather restore trust in universities. But this requires two things: we must stop undermining each other’s reputation; and we must counter the belief that a university is a business just like any other.

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