What Does an Authoritarian Approach to Higher Education Look Like? Ask Trump and Brazil’s Bolsonaro


NBC News’ Katy Tur, who emerged as a national personality covering Donald Trump’s campaign through the Republican primary up to the 2016 Presidential election, attributes her success in journalism, in part, to her college major: philosophy.

Typically, telling people you major in philosophy will earn you a glance filled with judgment ranging from pity to disgust, followed by a barrage of questions impugning the worth and utility of such a course of study: What will you do with such a degree? Why did you choose something so impractical? Isn’t that a waste of money?

Tur stands by the value and utility of the B.A. in philosophy she earned from the University of California Santa Barbara, insisting, “It allows me to ask questions, and that is what I do every day.”


While she acknowledges that others pursuing her career decide to major in communications or journalism, which trace much clearer professional pathways, she celebrates the flexibility of her degree which doesn’t have a clearly demarcated career objective: “It allowed me to do anything that I wanted to do. I wasn’t pigeon-holed to a certain subject.”

As someone who served as chairperson of an English Department at a smaller urban state university, I can tell you that humanities degrees do in fact lead to fruitful careers. In many fields, take business, for example, English or humanities majors are actually preferred to business majors precisely because of their flexibility and creativity.

Challenging this prevalent myth that courses of study in the humanities or liberal arts are useless and not conducive to professional success is crucial not just for universities and the health of our society but also to the political struggle to resist authoritarianism and preserve democracy.

Recently, Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, a Trumpian prototype, announced that the country’s Minister of Education was considering withdrawing funding from philosophy and sociology programs.

The reason?

According to Bolsonaro, who tweeted, “The goal is to focus on areas that will have immediate return to taxpayers, such as veterinary medicine, engineering and medicine.”

He continued, “The role of the government is to respect the taxpayer’s money, teaching the young to read, write, do math and to provide a craft that generates income to the person and welfare to the family, which improves society around them.”

I have been suggesting so far that this rationale is mythical, not at all rooted in reality–and thus doesn’t serve taxpayers.

So, is there another underlying reason?

Well, Yale Professor of Philosophy Jason Stanley, author of How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, argues that the move represents “the culmination of a campaign that has focused on a supposed leftist takeover of the education system.” Physicist Sean Carroll at the California Institute of Technology responded to the news similarly: “An antipathy towards deep knowledge is characteristic of a certain kind of right-wing populism.”

In short, the reason is that right-wing authoritarian regimes feel threatened by disciplines that foster questioning and inquiry into the social and political dynamics at work in our world—that, simply, foster a democratic culture.

A group of academics from around the globe penned an open letter in response to news of this projected defunding, highlighting both the utility of these disciplines and also their centrality to sustaining social democracy. They highlighted, for example, that “philosophers in Brazil were among the pioneers of paraconsistent logic, a research program that has had impact in such diverse areas as robotics and expert systems for medical diagnosis.”

Their chief point, though, underscores the political utility and necessity off these disciplines for democracy:

However, a democratic society depends not only on its commercial productive output, but also on its social institutions, its understanding of their foundations and governing principles, as well as its understanding of how these policies and institutions affect its population. Research in social sciences and humanities, and especially Philosophy and Sociology, is vital to such an understanding. The contribution of academics to public debates is also of crucial importance to a well-functioning democracy.

Of course, authoritarian personalities don’t really cotton to “a well-functioning democracy” or the questioning such disciplines inspire.

I’m sure Donald Trump, the subject of Tur’s best-selling book Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History, wishes Tur didn’t ask so many questions.

Authoritarians typically don’t enjoy questions.

While, I have written about Trump’s own efforts to make college less accessible for people in the U.S. here and here in the pages of PoliticusUsa, little attention is given to Trump’s own policy outlines for assaulting the humanities and other liberal arts.

For a brief moment in Trump’s 2016 campaign, Sam Clovis, the national co-chair and policy director of Trump’s campaign at the time, did outline some of Trump’s nascent policy for higher education.

Not surprisingly, the policy Clovis presented intended to discourage if not prevent students at “non-elite” universities from majoring in the liberal arts by allowing loan-providers to vet applications based on the supposed career possibilities majors offer. And he proposed colleges themselves have “skin in the game” as well when it came to students’ abilities to pay back loans, such that institutions might then offer programs primarily geared toward career preparation: “We think if the college has real skin in the game, it will change its model.”

“If you are going to study 16th-century French art, more power to you. I support the arts,” Clovis said. “But you are not going to get a job.”

Unless, of course, you are among the elite: “If you go to Harvard, you can major in anything you want, and once you get in the door, you’ll be OK. But not all colleges are in the same system,” Clovis said.

Sound familiar? These attacks on the liberal arts rely on the myth that these disciplines do not lead to careers.

Enter Katy Tur and millions of others—including thousands of students I’ve taught and known–to dispel the myth.

We can hear the authoritarian echoes in both Trump’s and Bolsonaro’s policies to lower higher education.