I had a class at 8.30 this morning, roughly an hour after listening to Donald Trump make his acceptance speech. We had ten tired and subdued people in a room, ostensibly to talk about the first full-length, original play written by an English woman, Elizabeth Cary’s Tragedy of Mariam.
How does one focus on a seventeenth-century play in the immediate aftermath of this calamitous election? I’m as committed to anyone to the politics of studying this material; just yesterday I had read the same class two pages from last week’s High Court judgement, to demonstrate the pivotal status of the seventeenth century in British constitutional history. But today felt different. The event was too raw and our group of bright young people – including one American citizen – too powerless.
But we discussed it, and I said one thing I believe, more than ever, to be crucial. That is that if there’s a common denominator to the Brexit vote and this US election, it’s the astonishing success of post-truth politics. I wrote about this after Brexit, and it’s the same story now: we’ve heard lies about what can be done, lies about what can’t be done, and lies about what’s wrong. Along the way, we’ve had highly educated people recklessly trashing expert opinion. Moreover, arguably the single most striking demographic trend on the election results has been the influence (for Brexit, for Trump) of voters without university-level education.
Obviously those two things are related. One common factor across just about any discipline of study at university is a respect for evidence-based argument. If we’re doing one thing right, it’s sending graduates into the world capable of assessing evidence, and demanding it when it’s not offered. Different disciplines use different forms of evidence, but nobody gets past ‘go’ without appreciating how to make and assess a convincing argument.
My university, as it happens, produces an unusually high number of Conservative-leaning graduates. That’s not what I would prefer, personally, but it seems to me there’s a world of difference between someone who makes a reasoned decision to support a politics that is not mine, and someone who falls head-first for lies. As I told them today, I’ve been disappointed in the past by plenty of elections on plenty of continents, but these ones feel different. As Simon Schama argued in the immediate aftermath (listen to him on this morning’s ‘Today’ programme) yesterday’s was not just another election.
Hence the value of what we do in the classroom. And hence also the value of a moment – even under such challenging circumstances – to reflect on what we’re doing. But there’s also a greater need than ever to give more people the benefit of higher education, and to find ways of communicating more widely the values and achievements of universities. As it happened, I ended my day in a departmental discussion of widening participation. Let’s remember that the white working class boys who are so desperately under-represented in HE today are the disillusioned post-truth voters of tomorrow.
And Theresa May’s grammar school policies, by the way, surely only exacerbate the problem. They may (though I suspect, from all available expert evidence, that they won’t) help to shake up class divisions, but they will surely only entrench a divide between the educated and the under-educated. Elites of any kind are not, after all, faring well in these two Western democracies. Trump, meanwhile, will most likely take the cause of education backwards in a more brazen fashion, because (as he tells us) he likes the under-educated.
So I’ll be back at work tomorrow, teaching my seventeenth century literature, convinced – or just about – that it matters. And The Tragedy of Mariam, in case you’re wondering, is a stunning study in female identities under conditions of (patriarchal) tyranny. It might become more topical.