Desiderius Erasmus was born in the late 1460s, probably in Rotterdam. When he died in 1536, he was one of the most feted humanist scholars of his age. He had studied and taught at Paris, Turin, London, Cambridge, Leuven and Basel, moving easily across Europe which – in the course of his lifetime – was becoming sharply divided. Early modern states were establishing themselves, and religious disagreements were boiling over into major political arguments as the Reformation split Europe. Centuries later, it was entirely appropriate that the European Union should call its student mobility programme ‘Erasmus’. And whilst Erasmus was – as we all are – imprisoned by many of the attitudes of his age, his humanist values were underpinned by respect for toleration and rational debate. He observed that those who disagreed with each other should be temperate in their language, “because in this way the truth, which is often lost amidst too much wrangling may be more surely perceived.”
Famously, the new American President has claimed that he has no time for reading and has almost certainly not given much time to thinking about a long-dead Dutch scholar, who doesn’t vote, campaign or even tweet. His “own” 1987 book The Art of the Deal was ghostwritten by the journalist Tony Schwartz who has since publicly regretted his involvement with the project – but we all take on jobs which don’t turn out as we had expected, especially early in our careers. The Art of the Deal offers a distinctly un-Erasmian recipe for success. Amongst the eleven key ideas of the book are “maximise your options, use your leverage, get the word out and fight back vigorously”. The book coined the phrase “truthful hyperbole”. Schwartz later said that Trump loved that phrase, and he seems to have taken half of it into government. The underlying message of the book is that you succeed by pursuing your goals at any cost – your aim is to get the best possible deal for yourself. Deals are zero sum games. Learning and education are definitely not zero sum games: to paraphrase an old saying, education, like muck, is best spread around.
I wrote just after the American presidential election that Trump’s victory “appears to be a defeat for almost everything that universities hold dear”, and the executive order just over a week ago which closed America’s borders to some people based on their religion and their nationality is consistent with that conclusion. It has been, rightly, condemned by universities and academics around the world. Universities depend on some critical prerequisites in order to function successfully: the search for understanding, based on evidence, inquiry, and analysis; respect for individuals and diversity; a commitment to pluralism and open-minded internationalism. American universities rallied to defend these values. An op-ed piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education enumerated the direct and indirect harm done to students, staff, and universities themselves by the executive order. The President of West Virginia University wrote in an email to faculty and students that their University – like all others, is “enriched by and appreciates the diverse talent, culture and contributions shared by our international faculty and students”.
There’s evidence that the travel ban is an early salvo in a more thorough-going challenge for universities in the United States. They have reacted with concern to the establishment of a higher education task force to explore potential changes to the Department of Education’s policies and practice and to the prospects for scientific research under a president who has called climate change a ‘Chinese hoax’, who has already directed that findings from government funded research must undergo political review before publication. Last week Trump threatened to withdraw federal funding from Berkeley following a cancelled speaking engagement by a controversialist. It looks as though American higher education is in for a tough time, and universities will need to be resilient.
But the practice of government is messy. It appears that the executive order on the travel ban was not discussed with other departments of government and that senior staff are uneasy about it; there will be more, and multiplying challenges and disagreements. The Washington Post reported in May that Trump ran his presidential campaign as he ran his business: “fond of promoting rivalries among subordinates, wary of delegating major decisions, scornful of convention and fiercely insistent on a culture of loyalty”. However effective that may be in delivering “the deal”, it is not a basis for successful government. Writing in this week’s New Yorker, Adam Gopnik notes that “autocratic regimes with a demagogic bent are nearly always inefficient, because they cannot create and extend the network of delegated trust that is essential to making any organization work smoothly”.
Universities have to be different. They think about their societal role, and the ways in which they build knowledge, about the relationships between teaching, research, community and diversity. If government is driven by the short-term, universities look to the longer-term. America’s universities include some of the most impressive centres of learning in the world and, like universities the world over, they will not thrive in an atmosphere of distrust and prejudice.
Universities cannot flourish in closed societies: as authoritarian governments throughout history have discovered, universities may not be geographically mobile but scholars, like Erasmus, are, and once they have gone, so has the vibrancy. Politicians like to say that they want their nation’s universities to attract the ‘brightest and best’. If only it were that simple. It turns out to be pretty difficult to predict which of the extremely able, lively, committed, engaged students desperate to travel are going to go on to succeed at the most exceptional levels. It’s much better to operate an open and dynamic system which attracts and grows talent.
Sheffield Hallam University is a globally engaged university, attracting students from around the world. Our global engagement enriches our curriculum and our community. We are embedded in Sheffield – itself a sanctuary city – and we reach out to the world. We champion openness, diversity and the exchange of knowledge across borders. We’ll celebrate the values of Erasmus rather than those of overbearing politicians, from wherever they come. These values have been threatened before, as borders of different descriptions have been drawn; they are threatened now, and they will be threatened again – which makes us only the more determined to defend and articulate them. We are, proudly, international.