One might have thought one had learnt by now. It wasn’t, surely, possible that people in the UK could be so easily fooled, or perhaps so desperate, that they would think Brexit a good enough idea to vote for. Wrong. Donald Trump was so unspeakably awful that, however uninspiring Hilary Clinton might be, there couldn’t really be any serious chance that he might become President. Wrong again. Boris Johnson had made such a dog’s dinner of the Brexit negotiations and showed such overweening contempt for parliament that if he were to win the 2019 general election it had, surely, to be by a wafer-thin margin. Wrong yet again. Well, anyway, if anything was absolutely certain it had to be that, after four years of racism, misogyny, deranged tweets and 220,000 Covid-19 deaths, the predicted ‘blue wave’ of Biden-voting states must surely materialize as an eminently well deserved landslide come-uppance for Trump. You didn’t need a vibrantly youthful and charismatic visionary to knock a grotesque caricature of a President out of the park; surely you just needed someone who was decent, intelligent and reasonably articulate? Wrong again – at least where anything remotely resembling a landslide is concerned.
So where does my seemingly irredeemable naivety in such matters come from? High on my list of suspects would be my 43 years spent working in Higher Education. You can’t spend your working life in the company of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed university students, almost always intelligent and often very idealistic, without coming away with some hope for and belief in the future. Higher education must, surely, imbue graduates with an ability to distinguish what has a good chance of being true from what is obviously untrue; with some degree of ethical sensibility; with some level of social conscience and environmental awareness? Wrong again – or, at least, there seems to be a lot of evidence to the contrary.
60% of the United States electorate is said to be ‘college educated’; 35% of them have bachelor’s degrees. I haven’t seen a more recent statistic with regard to the number of USA adults who believe that the world really was created in seven days in 4004 BC, but in 2000, when George Bush was elected President via the infamous ‘hanging-chad’ election, the figures I saw indicated that precisely the same proportion of the electorate, marginally over 50%, were full-blooded creationists as had voted for him. That may, or may not, have been a coincidence. Sceptics might be inclined to ask: ‘What about the multi-million year-old fossils that would seem to belie this belief?’ The answer to that is obvious: ‘God planted the fossils in 4004 BC to test our faith.’ If a context of wholly irrational religious belief, which must, statistically, be informing the lack of thinking of many voters in the USA who have been through Higher Education, provides any kind of clue, one can begin to understand some otherwise incomprehensible aspects of the wider intellectual climate behind what our televisions have been showing us over the past few days: how can so many women be ardent supporters of a man who has such obvious contempt for women? How can any black American possibly support so blatantly obvious a racist? How can anybody from any religious faith root for a man who has spent the last four years sowing division and hatred, and deliberately fomenting violence? So, what price universal education, and higher education in particular?
This side of the Atlantic, significantly over 40% of UK voters between the ages of 25 and 65 have first degrees, but it won’t only be the remainder who are sufficiently undiscriminating to regard The Sun, and the Daily Mail as sources of wisdom, nor will it have been only those over 65, many of whom are also university-educated, who will have voted for Brexit and Boris Johnson. It is a commonplace that Trump and Johnson have a great deal in common. When Johnson stands up and tells us that it is a “moral imperative” to impose a four-week lockdown, we don’t have any reason whatever to think he has any greater acquaintance with the morality he invokes than his grotesque American counterpart. Trump spent two years at Fordham University and followed that with a bachelor’s degree in economics from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Johnson, as everyone knows, has a degree from Oxford. Whatever else they might have imbued these two eminences of the global political landscape with, the universities that Trump and Johnson attended have clearly not cultivated in them a sense of morality, or much in the way of common decency. That will not have stopped the universities in question from regarding Johnson and Trump as a credit to them, or deterred the universities in any way from cynically trying to exploit their political eminence for recruiting and fund-raising purposes. Such is the nature of the Higher Education marketplace. But that won’t stop me, perhaps naively, from regarding higher education as being ultimately a force for good, in spite of individual examples to the contrary.