Mapping the American mind

Given America’s centrality in many areas of knowledge, its own crisis in the Trump era will have an impact on other national systems of education

December 17, 2016 12:02 am | Updated December 04, 2021 10:49 pm IST

Illustration: Surendra

Illustration: Surendra

Donald Trump’s victory has unnerved a vast number of people around the world. It has jolted the common belief that education makes a contribution to the efficiency of democracy. One of the many positive stereotypes of America is that it has a very good system of public education. The reason America attracts some of the best students from other countries to study in its colleges and universities is that the quality of education they provide is believed to be very high. In school education too, the impression persists that America offers an equal opportunity to everyone to excel. These impressions are hard to accommodate with the decision America has taken to choose a man like Mr. Trump to lead and represent it.

Anyone who watched the three presidential debates will have difficulty forgetting the clumsy arguments and crude masculinity Hillary Clinton had to face repeatedly in these debates. Not only did Mr. Trump’s arguments and plans make little sense, they also exhibited a remarkable lack of sensibility. You couldn’t help wondering how anyone could take him seriously or not be worried about the health of a system that had permitted him to get this far. Even after the victory, he continues to come across as reckless, confused and ignorant, making outrageous promises and raising frightening phantoms. His ascendance has unsettled the minds of millions of people, especially young people, who see America as a symbol of democracy and progress. Will the oath mean anything to him? This question will haunt us throughout his presidency.

Era of American remedies

It is worth asking whether Mr. Trump’s candidature and victory signify something that had gone horribly wrong with America’s democracy, especially its system of education. Such a question is especially relevant for us because we are passing through a phase in our polity when many key ideas and projects are being borrowed from America. Indeed, several policies presented to us as innovations are recycled American coinages. Copiously exposed as we now are to American remedies in every sector — from economy and personal finance to education — we need to reflect on Trump’s rise to power, not just come to terms with it.

Progress and struggle

Let us briefly revisit two influential American books on education, one published in the first quarter of the 20th century and the other in its last quarter. John Dewey’s classic, Democracy and Education , was first published in 1916. In it, Dewey explained why communication across groups is a core challenge for democratic order. Dewey’s use of endosmosis as a metaphor for interactive relations between diverse social groups fascinated B.R. Ambedkar (who studied at Columbia when Dewey was teaching there). Endosmosis refers, in biology, to the flow of fluid through a membrane which acts like a porous separator. Dewey saw in commonality of educational experience the means that would enable citizens to practise individual freedom while contributing to collective efficiency. Quality of education, for Dewey, is a measure of the extent to which social goals are debated and grasped by different social groups. No wonder Dewey believed that democracy could be sustained as a system of governance only if it also becomes a way of life. Did that happen in America? Did its system of education nurture commonality of purpose in an atmosphere of freedom and critical inquiry?

Mr. Trump’s victory points to a negative answer to both these questions. The America he leads is a divided nation. Although a literate nation, it is badly short of words to soften its internal divisions. No one illustrates this problem better than Mr. Trump himself has during his long, bitter campaign. As it progressed, the gap between ethnic groups, factions and lobbies grew in width and sharpness. The gap that reveals the deficit of words most clearly is the one over gun laws. The outgoing President, Barack Obama, routinely conveyed his despair over gun laws and the culture of violence they represent. He used every mass shooting incident that occurred during his presidency to remind Americans that violence is not compatible with democracy. As America’s first African-American President, he had reason to feel convinced that guns are so dear to people because they live in an ethos of hatred and fear. Mr. Trump’s support for America’s liberal gun laws is not merely a political gesture. It signifies the conviction that dark instincts should be firmly protected from educationally disseminated rationality.


The progressive philosophy of education Dewey and his followers promoted made a considerable impact on the American system, but it also aroused fierce reaction. In effect, there have been two Americas fighting on just about every detail of life in schools. The contest between the two has grown in intensity since the 1980s. Progressive pedagogues wanted greater child-centredness, inclusive classrooms, and academically rigorous training courses for teachers. Those opposed to such measures pushed for frequent testing, nominal training for teachers and exclusive schools for those who could pay. Ronald Reagan’s presidency that lasted through the 1980s marked the ascent of an alliance between neo-liberalism in economic and anti-progressivism in social policy. American education lost the momentum it had developed for democratising the system. By the time Mr. Obama came on the scene, neo-liberal assertions had become the norm. Indeed, Mr. Obama’s administration did little to challenge these norms. The richer strata of American society had withdrawn their children from state schools where life had become so violent that teachers could not expect to function without security at hand. A vast number of experienced teachers left the system in frustration. Casual appointees and paid volunteers of various kinds, with minimalist, mechanical training, took over. Aims of education shrunk, and the role of learning in shaping sensibility and outlook lost relevance. A new, brazen world of voters, who didn’t mind Mr. Trump’s appeal to the baser instincts, was getting ready to display its nerve.

Bloom’s despair

The other book that helps us grasp the implications of Mr. Trump’s victory is Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind which was published in 1987. In this grimly critical work, Bloom argued that higher education had failed America’s democratic dream. Bloom criticised the growing use of higher education for attaining superficial material goals and for imparting knowledge devoid of perspective and ethical depth. Unfortunately, the history of education offers far too many examples of unheeded alarm bells.

Bloom’s warning got lost in controversy over his espousal of intellectually enriching pedagogy. His book was published in the Reagan era when trivialisation of educational aims had become fashionable. This trend became increasingly shrill in the 1990s with the takeover of centre space by neo-liberal ideologues. Bloom’s apprehension that malnourished minds would make poor choices has now proved to be true. With Mr. Trump’s victory, ‘closing of the American mind’ has come to pass. America must now cope with an era of steep regression in its capacity to focus on educational recovery.

Implications for India

Educational policy during Mr. Trump’s presidency will move in predictable directions. We can anticipate greater segregation and discrimination, voucher-based support for private schooling, and use of curriculum for justifying hatred and bigotry. Historically, America’s ethos provided a fertile ground for social Darwinistic ideals that legitimise the winner’s claim to power and pity for the loser. In a society where racially motivated violence has proved resistant to law and education, the ideology of social Darwinism tends to serve as a cover for orthodoxy, misogyny and xenophobia. During the coming years, we can expect speedier closing of the mind and public spaces.

Given America’s centrality and authority in many areas of knowledge, its own crisis in the Trump era will have an impact on other national systems of education. The remedies that Mr. Trump’s administration is likely to use to push the system of education more comprehensively towards the market will strengthen like-minded forces in countries like India where neo-liberal policies have already bitten into the vitals of the education system. The state’s neglect of higher education has created an ominous vacuum, marked by contempt for ideas and freedom of expression on the one hand and advocacy of consumable knowledge merchandise on the other. Our institutions of higher learning are reeling under the burden of transplanted ideas and practices. During the impending Trump era, we must watch out for further transplants.


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