Describing news that you don’t like as ‘fake’, as UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd did at the weekend in an attempt to avoid answering a question, is a dangerous step for a politician to take. For one thing, it shows a reckless attitude to the truth; for another, a preference for closing down unwelcome or difficult debate rather than engaging with it. It also undermines people’s faith in probably the main and most reliable source of information about their world for entirely frivolous reasons. Clearly, there is a lot of ‘news’ out there that doesn’t deserve the name, much of it emanating from Rupert Murdoch’s tawdry empire (ironically, now courted by the opponents of ‘fake news’ on both sides of the Atlantic). But there are also many sources of news which consciously attempt to be fair, balanced and accurate. The news Rudd was troubled by – a report that the government would take only 350 unaccompanied child refugees from Syria under the so-called Dubs scheme – was not only from a reputable source; it was also accurate.
Of course, the UK government is very familiar with fake news and is an unapologetic source of it. Since 2010 it has very cleverly and effectively established a kind of alternative political reality in which it governs: an exaggerated and distorted narrative of political and economic events devised to justify or obscure extreme political decisions, including savage cuts to public services, the devastation of major cultural institutions such as the public library service and the deliberate abandonment of parts of the education system, which the public might otherwise find unpalatable. The problem with governing through this sort of systematic distortion of the truth is, as Hannah Arendt pointed out in an interview in the New York Review of Books, that ‘lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history … you get not only one lie [but] a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows’. A people ‘that can no longer believe anything’, Arendt continues, ‘cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and judge. And with such a people you can then do as you please.’ If the media has failed its public, it has been not in making up the news – though undoubtedly it has sometimes done that – but in failing to offer more than mere balance between opposing views. In a world of competing versions of the truth, where views are privileged over facts and the media offers no compass with which to navigate these confusing waters, it is little wonder people prefer, increasingly, to invest in narratives that are emotionally rather than intellectually persuasive.
I was thinking about Hannah Arendt having re-read Jon Nixon’s 2015 Times Higher piece on Arendt on the train this morning. It’s a really interesting short essay which seems to me now, as it did when I first read it, hugely relevant to those who see the traditions of adult education and continuing education as worth reviving. Arendt’s work, Nixon writes ‘is a reminder of the urgent need for us to learn to think together’; something without which ‘there can be no informed judgement, no moral agency and no possibility of collective action – no “care of the world”.’ Education, in Arendt’s words, is the point at which ‘we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it’. It offers us, Nixon says, ‘a protected space within which to think against the grain of received opinion: a space to question and challenge, to imagine the world from different standpoints and perspectives, to reflect upon ourselves in relation to others and, in so doing, to understand what it means to “assume responsibility”’. Arendt’s work, he concludes, reminds us ‘that education is a public good: that the more we participate in it, the greater its potential contribution to the wellbeing of society as a whole and the vibrancy of the body politic’.
Nixon’s argument is addressed to universities, which, he contends, have a responsibility to create spaces in which members of the academic community can ‘question and challenge’, without predetermined outcomes or artificial barriers to thought. I couldn’t agree more with this. But I think a university’s responsibility is wider. It is not only students and academics who have a need to think critically but the wider community too and that, to my mind, is a crucial part of the mission of higher education, one that has been neglected to the point that many institutions have forgotten that it exists or, indeed, that, in many cases, it is part of their founding missions. The past few decades have seen a collapse in university lifelong learning, with many universities closing their departments (most recently, the Vaughan Centre for Lifelong Learning, which was closed by the University of Leicester in a manner that did the university little credit). But it is these departments which have, for much of the twentieth century and some of the present one, offered people precisely the kinds of spaces Arendt was talking about – safe places where people could question and critique, challenge and be challenged; sites which, in the first decades of the last century, acted almost as a training ground for early generations of socialist MPs. They broke down boundaries, between institutions and their communities, lecturers and students, while stimulating local and national democratic life. Often these departments were also drivers of wider innovations within higher education, prompting both new curriculum developments and new thinking about how learning could be delivered. They built intellectual and cultural capital within working communities while also fostering empathy and civic concern.
Universities have an obligation to mean something in the lives of the communities in which they operate – and that has to be more than as a source of employment. They should not simply be finishing schools for the children of the wealthy, populated by academics whose lives and interests rarely intersect with those of their near neighbours. They should be actively reaching out to the communities that have disappeared from our political and cultural life, except, largely, as objects of ridicule. They should be in permanent listening mode, listening hardest to those who have the least voice. They should be challenging political narratives that exclude their concerns, or which blow up certain concerns (immigration, for example) at the expense of others which have far greater impact on their lives (supply of affordable housing or cuts to funding for health care). And, of course, they do all of these things, to an extent. Too often, though, it is down to the initiative of individual academics, often those willing to put in a shift at the margins of their work to make universities’ historic ‘third mission’ meaningful. The institutions themselves could, in many cases, do much, much more to challenge and be different, to create spaces here people can learn and think together, where the ideas of academics can be deepened with the experience of their community neighbours, and where people can have serious, unconstrained discussions about how best to live. As Arendt suggests, one of the casualties of a dishonest politics is a sense of hope. Not knowing what to believe saps agency, disempowers those at the bottom of the pile and, worst of all, removes hope. We are a society badly in need of a lot more hope.
Arendt believed that the ability to think, question and be reflective must be an essential component of any meaningful democratic change. If we, as a society, are serious about the democratic project, we need to create more spaces in which this is possible, starting small and local, where most meaningful social change begins. Key to facilitating such spaces, Arendt felt, was to ensure dialogue was genuinely open and not at all constrained. That means trusting people and being prepared to put up with answers you disagree with. The point is, once you open up a conversation, you don’t know where it will lead. If we want to involve people in politics, we have to give people the space in which to do politics, and that means giving them the opportunity to think substantive thoughts about substantive questions, including those considered off the mainstream agenda. People are more wary of experts than they are weary of them. They want to be able to engage and challenge them, not feel bullied by them. People want reasons to hope, a way out of the trap they find themselves in. Thinking and learning are inescapable parts of this and universities have a big role to play, as part of a wider, more democratic and cohesive tertiary sector. It’s time they revived their civic mission. I hope this role is not neglected as new thinking begins to reshape the lifelong learning landscape. If we are not ambitious about our futures now, I do genuinely fear for the kinds of futures we might have.