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The Liberal Arts vs. Donald Trump

“Get a job!,” were the words that a handful of Trump supporters shouted at university students protesting outside the GOP presidential candidate’s La Crosse, Wisconsin rally in April.  The backpacks on many of the protesters were a sign that they had a “job” – the hard work of studying for a university degree. To these Trump supporters, however, hard, sustained, challenging intellectual effort is equivalent to unemployment. The university students were no better than freeloaders whose time would be better spent employed.

The message from this handful of extra vocal Trump supporters is not a far stretch from Trump’s own condemnation of education.  Reverence for ignorance descends from the helm. In May, Trump’s campaign co-chair outlined for Inside Higher Ed the presidential hopeful’s tentative higher education plan.  This plan calls for private banks and colleges to replace the government in granting and managing student loans.  In Trump’s market based student loan system, there would be caps on how much a liberal arts major could borrow, while those majors that banks and colleges deign likely to have high earning after graduation would not have a cap.  Trump’s campaign co-chair stated that liberal arts is important for a well-rounded education, but he largely discouraged a complete focus on them in college. Trump’s higher education plan also rejects Obama’s income-based repayment plan, which ensures that students who major in the liberal arts can repay their loans at a rate compatible with their future income.   Trump’s plan does not support Obama’s proposal for free community college education for all high school graduates.  Overall, Trump’s plan rejects a debt-free higher education system.

Many in higher education fear that if Trump were the next president he could oversee the dismantling of publicly funded higher education institutions.  Trump’s stated desire to privatize student loans along with his disrespect for liberal arts majors makes this fear realistic.  Trumps’ higher education plan could result in the disbanding of liberal arts departments, and an oversupply in engineering and science majors.

In fact, we need liberal arts majors. Imagine, for example, a nineteen-year old who enters college as a pre-med major and graduates four years later with a history degree. Early in his college career, he leads a class discussion about Orientalism, or the distorted way in which the West produces knowledge about the East.  He provides examples of how people in power create an “Other” of those they may wish to dominate.  After graduation, the young man goes on to pursue a MA and PhD, specializing in urban history.  He spends years examining how American housing policy systematically “otherizes” vulnerable groups such the elderly.  After graduation, the man leads a HUD Affordable Housing project that brings youth and seniors together in a shared living space.   Among the seniors to benefit from the project are a few retired truck drivers who – were they still active in the workforce – would have Trump bumper stickers in their cabs.

Or picture a young woman who graduates from high school with good grades and four years on the cheerleading squad. She finishes college with a BA in dance performance and education.  She becomes an art therapist in Chicago, a city currently roiling in gun violence.  Through her work she helps ensure one less disenfranchised young person see a life of crime as his only option.  The Trump supporter who works a midnight shift at a convenience store could be spared a stray bullet.

Or, envisage a young ROTC student who mid-way through college decided he no longer wanted to be an army tank commander, but instead an Arabic language interpreter at the UN. His work helps bring together leaders working on an international peace treaty, potentially decreasing the exponential amount of money that Trump supporters disparage the US government for spending abroad and not domestically.  Stories about the impact of liberal arts majors in society are endless.

The liberal arts major allows one to learn to think deeply about oneself and one’s place in the world.  Herein lies the problem for Trump and his supporters.  History teaches us that dictators, such as Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, and Genghis Khan (to name just just a few), often try to dominate by removing the educated from society.  Although Trump does not call for the killing of people with advanced degrees in liberal arts, of course, he does display a deep disrespect for and suspicion of highly cultivated minds.   Trump’s supporters on the world stage are few, but do include the infamous North Korean leader, who a 2014 UN report recommends making accountable for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court.

As a professor of liberal arts in the Wisconsin public university system – a system currently under siege by its state governor – I must regularly justify my existence to politicians in Madison.  Over the past few years, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who endorses Trump, slashed $250 million in public education funds and removed university tenure protections. I am required by the university to use assessment techniques to produce quantifiable data about the value of education and the transferable skills of liberal arts to the workforce.  It is insidious and deeply disrespectful to the human condition to strive to quantify in this way the value of expansive thinking, the ability to challenge tyranny, to create, and to empathize.  But, in fact, a liberal education can be quantified.  What could be more concrete than liberal humanism allowing for our nation to be based on a constitution and the rule of law, and not on fanaticism, tribal allegiance or myth?

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Heidi Morrison is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. She is the author of Global History of Childhood Reader (Routledge, 2012) and Childhood and Colonial Modernity in Egypt (Palgrave, 2015).

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