Back in 2016, when much of the world was still in shock over Donald Trump’s election, people on the internet briefly and collectively had their minds blown by the foretelling of this strange event.
The “prophet” was the late American philosopher, Richard Rorty, who in 1998 predicted the US electorate would eventually lose faith in the system and look to a strongman. From his assessment, this hopelessness would be fuelled by a shift from leftist policymakers and leaders. Before the second world war, progressive policymakers were focused on addressing problems like poverty. In the latter half of the 20th century, however, policy focused more on resetting the cultural status of traditionally marginalised groups.
Both problems need addressing. The problem Rorty identified was that the left couldn’t manage to do both at the same time and failed to recognise the growing marginalisation of the rural-American poor, partly through declining educational attainment.
In America and in Scotland, education is viewed as an equaliser – a pathway to a better life. But in America, inequal access to education has been cited as a contributing factor to the growing polarisation between the left and right. Funding inequality begins when children enter education and continues. Just last week, the Supreme Court ruled against affirmative action, but legacy admissions (created originally in the 1920s to reduce Jewish student numbers) continue to be rife.
My home state of Kentucky is one of the most impoverished in the US and for many years post-secondary enrolment was on the decline, partly due to growing stigmatisation and narratives that question its value. However, thanks to targeted policy and efforts focused on improving affordability and increasing diversity, Kentucky is now bucking the national trend of declining admissions with some modest increases since 2021.
In Scotland, we often point to our education policies with pride. We fund college and university tuition for Scottish domiciled students. Unfortunately, the failure of this investment to track inflation has been delivering real-terms cuts to the sector for years – creating a host of other problems – and last month the government clawed back £46m of pledged funds.
While Scotland isn’t about to elect its own version of Trump, I see hints of Rorty’s critique of 20th century American leftism in contemporary Scottish politics. I would argue that Nicola Sturgeon admirably attempted to extend the rights of marginalised groups, but did so at the expense of developing robust, well-researched social and economic policy. Essentially, she followed the lead of the latter half of 20th century American leftist policymakers. Meanwhile the cost-of-living crisis is widening inequality.
Last week the Scottish government announced it will create a new funding model for colleges and universities. The detail of what that will entail isn’t yet known, but the focus on financial resilience is promising.
There are countless reasons to invest in education, largely based on economics, skills, innovation, and human rights. But education is also a critical tool to ensure our electorate is informed, capable of interrogating the claims of would-be or current leaders, and able to make the best choices for itself. In short, without education, democracy is at risk.
While Scotland and the US aren’t the same, it is important to heed warnings wherever they come from.