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Pedagogy and Polarization: Restoring America’s Fractured Political Landscape

Three questions to Lisa Anderson

Pedagogy and Polarization: Restoring America’s Fractured Political Landscape
 Lisa Anderson
Special Lecturer and Dean Emerita at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs.

Since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, America has witnessed a growing discord among its social and political groups. Deepening inequality has been both the cause and consequence of a renewed "civil war", the effects of which are dividing the country’s communities. Amid this increasingly fractured political landscape, education systems - in particular, universities - play a unique role in understanding, and responding to, various forms of discrimination. Lisa Anderson, Professor Emerita of International Relations at Columbia University and former President of the American University in Cairo, shares her analysis of the role and implications for the American academic world in the current climate. 

We have witnessed a growing tribalization of US politics that has been particularly evident since Donald Trump entered the White House in 2016. What effects do you think this has had on the academic world and in the governance of the education system? How does this relate to episodes such as books like Maus being banned in a school district in Tennessee?

As a political scientist who has spent much of my professional life studying real tribes in, for example, modern Libya, I am always dismayed when the term is used to describe contemporary American politics. It is inaccurate - with the exception of native Americans who have embraced the term: there are no tribes in American politics. It is, also, moreover, an unsavory remnant of an era in American and European imperial history when to describe peoples or polities - from native Americans to indigenous North Africans - as ‘tribal’ was to disparage them as savage and uncivilized. 

Assuming, however, the term is intended metaphorically, as it usually is in this context, its use is a telling indication of the extent to which Americans now see their political opponents as not merely mistaken or misguided, but actually savage and uncivilized. This conviction is not necessarily new; it reflects a long history of periodic spasms of racism and xenophobia and, more recently, half a century of growing inequality. In recent years, however, the turn from benign neglect to active contempt and now even determined resistance by those who disagree with one another has been nurtured and amplified by the frantic world of social media "clickbait."

For educators, the move from neglect, to contempt, to resistance has been disorienting. 

For educators, the move from neglect, to contempt, to resistance has been disorienting. Most educators see themselves as public-spirited and concerned with the common good, and they are dismayed by what seems to be a growing chorus of claims that they are deliberately poisoning the minds of young people. 

From the claims about Maus that it promotes an "unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide" to arguments about "critical race theory" suggesting it endorses "discriminating against people based on their whiteness," teachers across the United States now find themselves accused of peddling immorality and bigotry.

This assault on educators as the purveyors of dangerous ideas is hardly unprecedented; David Horowitz’s The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America (in which I am featured) was published in 2006. There is a long history of anti-intellectual populism in the United States. To someone who has taught Middle Eastern politics in American universities for decades, the current uproar about critical race theory is painfully reminiscent of attacks on scholars of the Arab world after 9/11, accusing them of both anti-Semitism and sympathizing with terrorists. (For a description, see my 2003 presidential address to the Middle East Studies Association, most easily available, ironically, on the website of the still active, if less histrionic, "monitoring" group, Campus Watch.) 

But the range, popularity and danger of the new witch hunts seems to be greater. After all, the worst threats we Middle East scholars faced were professional. In a world before "doxing", we faced professional embarrassment and, perhaps job insecurity, but we rarely, if ever, confronted death threats or rallying protesters outside our homes. And that is a clue to the current moment.

And that is a clue to the current moment. The rise of social media has made certain kinds of tactics not only possible but apparently irresistible. Campaigns to ban books - or to block bridges to protest vaccine mandates- may be spreading more quickly and easily thanks to social media, as protestors from different communities use the same language, cut-and-pasted from online templates

The rise of social media has made certain kinds of tactics not only possible but apparently irresistible.

Does that mean these are not serious issues? Not necessarily, but neither does it mean that the flash mobs that can be brought out by activists - from Cairo in 2011 to Hong Kong in 2019, to Black Lives Matter in 2020, to the January 6 2021 insurrection in Washington DC - are reflections of stable political alliances, much less carefully considered political positions. What it does suggest, however, is that the reflective, serious, thoughtful world of academia, so often accused of being an ivory tower, secluded from the practicalities of the real world and resistant to disruption, may well prove to be one of the sanctuaries, perhaps even antidotes, to the surfeit of pent-up emotion, anger, resentment, fatigue and bitterness, in which Americans - and many others - are awash today. Ultimately, today’s social problems - whether of social mores and violence, or race, or freedom - that the book banners, the critical race theory opponents, the anti-vaxxers are actually worried about, are probably better addressed in reasoned debate and concrete policy than in the theatrical performance of bullying and browbeating fellow citizens, however momentarily satisfying that may be. 

Since January 6, we have increasingly heard that the United States is heading towards a 'second civil war' caused by extreme political polarization. While these fears need to be qualified and the definition of 'civil war' itself can be challenged, have these concerns also spread to the academic world? If so, could they be considered as the cause or the symptom of this malaise?

As I have suggested, university faculty are more accustomed to feeling beleaguered than their counterparts teaching in elementary and secondary schools. That is, in part, because until relatively recently, disgruntled parents quietly defected from the public school system to send their children to private schools rather than attack the public schools directly. But over the last several decades, neglect of public education has slowly turned into contempt as the rhetoric of "charter schools"- public-funded independent schools - has undermined public confidence in, and funding for, conventional public school systems, once the backbone of American civic education. Neo-liberal hostility to anything associated with state or public purposes has now converged with popular anxiety about household economies - who will pay the school taxes? - and social, particularly racial, unease to fuel active resistance to public education, a resistance cast in terms of the dangers that curricula pose to parental control and childhood innocence.

This is not a civil war, nor even an insurrection. It is more akin to the beginning of a dissolution, a collapse into the shards of sociability left after a state fails.

This is not a civil war, nor even an insurrection. It is more akin to the beginning of a dissolution, a collapse into the shards of sociability left after a state fails. As we have seen elsewhere - Afghanistan and Libya come to mind - it is difficult to sustain university life, indeed, education of any kind, in the absence of law and order. For the moment, however, universities in the United States are not in mortal danger. Public institutions are often teased and taunted by public figures who threaten to withhold funding for allegedly pointless humanities programs that do not provide "job skills" and "labor market readiness."

Critics demand "balance" in faculty hiring. But the American university system - a model widely emulated by the rest of the world - has yet to be actually dismantled. And, indeed, a system so closely associated with what social mobility remains in the United States is probably fairly resilient. 

What are the implications of political polarization within American society for the US’ relations with the rest of the world, in particular with Europe?

If I were living outside the United States, I would be concerned about two questions: who speaks for this country and what does it stand for? The outsized influence of the US since the end of the Cold War has not been nearly as benign as its advocates have claimed, particularly after 9/11 and the launch of the "Global War on Terror". But it has been relatively unified, its proponents speaking with one voice. Since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, and especially since his refusal to acknowledge his defeat in 2020, the country has been both deeply preoccupied with its own discord and unable to present a united front to the rest of the world. 

This creates global uncertainty, on which both China and Russia have clearly capitalized. Perhaps more disconcerting, it has permitted a variety of voices to claim to represent the United States, from the new media and technology moguls with millions more Twitter followers than the American president, to the various networks of dark money that seem to know no boundaries. Every claim that George Soros is funding protest movements around the world is matched by counterclaims that the Koch Brothers are undermining climate change efforts and that American Christian conservatives are funding far-right politicians in Europe. Some of these claims are true, of course; globalization and technological change has made the movement of both money and ideas infinitely easier and faster. It has also made it more difficult to establish just exactly what or who the "United States" actually stands for or cares about. Trump’s back channel communication with Putin, Mohammed Bin Salman and other potential investors in his power reflected the erosion of American foreign policy as a singular, coherent strategy or program.

All of this means, of course, that it is hard, if not impossible, to discern how the United States understands its interests in the world, and what its still-outsized influence will turn into. Besides making routine international relations with the United States more complex, this also presents an even more frightening prospect: that America might be showing the rest of the world its future. In a globalized world, can the toxic mix of existential anxieties with which the United States is currently seized, and the fast and efficient dissemination of ideas and tactics afforded by social media, be confined to a single country? Or does the United States still represent a model that other countries will follow? 


Copyright: Anna Moneymaker / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

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