Impact of Brexit, Trump on higher ed

Published July 22, 2016 This content is archived.

Phil Stevens.

Phil Stevens


Phil Stevens, associate professor of anthropology, has been a UB faculty member for 45 years.  He served as director of undergraduate studies in the anthropology department for 20 years, and as a member of the Faculty Senate Committee on Teaching and Learning for 17 years, including five years as chair. He has conducted field research in West Africa and the Caribbean, and is the author of numerous publications in cultural anthropology and African studies. He is a recipient of both the SUNY Chancellor’s Award and Milton Plesur Award recognizing excellence in teaching. In 2012, he was awarded an honorary chieftaincy title from the Nigerian village where he worked for several years in the 1960s and 1970s.

As a longtime educator and cultural anthropologist, Stevens sees important implications for higher education from two recent phenomena: the “Brexit” vote by citizens in the UK to leave the European Union and the rise of Donald Trump on the American political scene.

You say the “Brexit” vote and the appeal of Donald Trump in the U.S. both impact higher education and our jobs as educators. Can you please elaborate?

PS: The efficient and successful operation of a democracy depends on several cultural factors that cannot be legislated, including respect for the rule of law and an informed electorate. The “Brexit” vote in Britain and the Trump phenomenon both illustrate the critical importance of the latter. Conservatives in Britain who comprised the “Leave” faction aroused voters with many promises and expectations that the incumbent national leadership knew to be false, but did little to clarify and correct. The most glaring was the message on “Leave” campaign buses declaring that Britain gives 350 million pounds per week to the European Union — funds that could go instead to the National Health Service. After Brexit, it was revealed that Britain’s actual net EU expense was about £188m/week, that there were many benefits to many sectors of the British economy and that there was no evidence of any connection between EU payments and NHS funding.

Other expectations generated by the Leave campaign included that the banks would pay the cost of exit from the EU, the departure would not affect the economy and that immigration would decline greatly. None of these were based in fact. The fact that Prime Minister David Cameron and his London-based supporters did little to correct such falsities indicates how far out of touch they were with the true sentiments of the majority of Britain’s citizenry. Post-Brexit interviews and Internet searches showed that many citizens really had very little understanding of the nature of the EU and of Britain’s membership in it.

In the U.S., the apparent unquestioned acceptance of the brash declarations and promises of the Trump campaign by a huge majority of Republican voters reveals a similar situation. This is not a unique problem; it has existed throughout history and exists elsewhere today. Evidence from many impoverished Muslim areas of the world indicates that little general education and poor knowledge of the Qur’an leave thousands vulnerable to manipulation by politically motivated imams, who preach violent jihad and glorify martyrdom.

But the situation today is obviously very serious and presents an important challenge to colleges.

Can you explain that challenge?

PS: College is the logical place to implant methods of critical thinking in our future leaders, and that job falls upon us, college teachers. We’ve seen the trends over some decades now. Driven by the popular expectation that college should prepare students for careers, undergraduate curricula have been moving inexorably from broad liberal arts education to increasingly narrow concentrations. Students are specializing very early, learning more and more about less and less. We can’t easily buck that trend; as educators we must help our students master the subject matter.  But a major aim of our teaching should also be to prepare our students to be citizens of the world, to think both critically and systemically, to recognize complexity, to “see the big picture.”

And I suggest that, no matter what our field is — nor how “critical thinking” is defined — we should incorporate some principles of science into our teaching.  Students should understand that science is not a subject matter, as they had been taught in middle school. Science is a method of inquiry. Science requires skepticism, another misused word — it does not mean denial. Science requires verification of its data. A broad, generalizing declaration by a politician or celebrity that gets a “Wow!” reaction should be met with skepticism, a demand for verification and the source of the data or conclusion cited.

The statement “global warming is a hoax,” for example, should be met with incredulity. A hoax is a planned deception; to be true, that statement means that the great majority of the world’s natural scientists are colluding in a vast conspiracy.  And any such conspiracy theory requires motive: Why would scientists do that?

Further, a satisfactory explanation of anything requires an understanding of its history. No one should presume to understand the situation of African-Americans today, or the meaning of “Black Lives Matter,” without understanding the history of the black experience in America. Appropriate explanation first requires ascertaining that the “problem” is real. And principles of science require recognition that single-cause explanations are rare; hence we must search for all contributing factors, we must consider all possible explanations for any real problem and we must attempt to falsify the basic premises of the explanation.

Aren’t there other explanations for voters’ apparent lapses in critical thinking?

PS: Of course there are other factors at work. Xenophobia and scapegoating intensify during times of economic or political anxiety, and they provide some positive social-psychological functions for those who feel aggrieved. Across Europe and the U.S., these are clear responses to economic uncertainty, fears of dangerous organizations like Al Qaeda and ISIS, and overwhelming numbers of political refugees.

These trends generate powerful fears in recipient populations, which exacerbate peoples’ willingness to accept grand promises uncritically. And, of course, in a democracy people may conscientiously use their vote as protest.

All these factors make our jobs as educators more urgent.


A cogent assessment of what the Trump and Brexit phenomena have in common and the implications for higher ed. To the list of "other factors" encroaching upon our efforts to impart skills of critical thought to our students I would add the rise of educational philanthropic organizations awarding massive grants to universities on the condition that specific course content be taught uncritically.


The economic crisis in higher ed pressures public universities to accept conditional funding from private foundations promoting narrow ideological views. Every "generous grant" should be met with the same "incredulity" Dr. Stevens calls for in his comments.


Cheryl Emerson