The World

School’s Out Forever

Authoritarians all over the world are targeting universities.

A crowd of protesters near a river.
Students and teachers of Central European University protest in Budapest on April 9, 2017.
Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images

My university’s new campus is currently being set up in an old state hospital on the outskirts of Vienna. Budapest-based Central European University bought the old building a few months ago as a fail-safe in case the Hungarian government succeeded in driving us out of the country. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who came into power in 2010, has targeted CEU for its affiliation with his favored nemesis George Soros, for its efforts to counter his administration’s propaganda machine, and for representing both civil society and transnational cooperation between Hungary and the rest of the world.

After almost two years of disputes between school administrators and government officials, multiple rounds of student-led protests, and one feckless U.S. ambassador, the announcement was made: Our school was leaving the country. As I type, administrators within CEU are boxing up files and supplies, making lists of faculty and students to be housed in Vienna, preparing to move from the home we have occupied since 1991.

We are not alone. With the rise of authoritarian regimes around the world, we are also witnessing a growth of “anti-intellectualism”—a term defined by Richard Hofstadter in 1963 as “resentment of the life of the mind, and those who are considered to represent it.”

In Brazil, newly elected President Jair Bolsonaro has spent the first two months of his presidency dismantling the Education Ministry, threatening to send the military to take over public schools, and publishing stringent new textbook guidelines. In the United States, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has pushed to privatize schools and has openly advocated for religious education, while many (including the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr.) have openly mocked university education, calling it a waste of money.

Here in Hungary, the best universities in the country have been defunded or privatized, conferences on topics such as migration have been censored, and CEU is being driven out of the country. Similar movements are growing in Poland, in Turkey, in India.

Anti-intellectualism is particularly prevalent under authoritarian governments that have established themselves via populism, a term political scientists and sociologists define as “a discourse that paints the political world as a battle between only two camps”—the two camps being the moral, unified “people” and the out-of-touch, conspiratorial “elite.” This view isn’t entirely wrong: All over the world, university education has increasingly become a tool for preserving class status over the past 30 years. University tuition in many countries has increased as state funding has been gutted, transferring the financial burden to students and their families. This trend is exacerbated by shifting job markets and the fact that a university education has never been more vital to individual financial success.

But the current round of populist attacks on academic freedom go further, challenging the very purpose of higher education itself.

“What universities traditionally do,” Joan Scott, a feminist theorist and professor emerita at the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study, told me in an interview, “is produce knowledge that is often critical of the established ways of doing things,” questioning how and why political power is distributed the way that it is.*

This is why Bolsonaro has made ridding the Brazilian education system of “Marxist rubbish” one of his administration’s top priorities, with students being encouraged to report on teachers who attempt to “indoctrinate” them. This includes, in his words, taking on the “Education Ministry with a flamethrower,” to remove all traces of Paulo Freire, the Brazilian socialist thinker who invented the field of “critical pedagogy,” which applies critical theory and social/economic justice to education. At its core, critical pedagogy seeks to educate people about the power structures around them so they might recognize and resist their own oppression.

Bolsonaro’s attacks mirror a 2017 bill in the Arkansas legislature attempting to ban Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States from all state curricula. These attacks are mirrored in the inflammatory rhetoric of right-wing trolls such as Milo Yiannopoulos and Jordan Peterson—the latter, himself a professor at the University of Toronto, claiming that university faculty are “dangerous people … indoctrinating young minds with their resentment-laden ideology.”

Whether in the sciences, arts, or humanities, education threatens autocratic regimes; the more authoritarian they are, the more likely they are to be threatened by educational institutions. Here in Hungary, scholars at the world-renowned Hungarian Academy of Sciences are under severe threat from the government. The institution is likely a few short years from being shut down completely.

“And in the social sciences it’s quite dangerous,” Scott adds, “because the knowledge that’s produced is calling into question the habits and ‘ordinary ways’ that we go about doing things.” This goes for all social science disciplines, but perhaps the most clear-cut example is gender studies, because of how, in her words, it creates “a critical analysis of relationships between the sexes and how those re-create or operate to justify inequality.”

In Brazil, for example, in the roughly seven weeks since Bolsonaro’s inauguration, his regime has dismantled the Education Ministry’s diversity department and attempted to publish new textbook guidelines banning all references to sexism and violence again women. Bolsonaro’s newly appointed education minister, Ricardo Vélez Rodríguez, vowed in his inauguration speech to end the “aggressive promotion of the gender ideology.” In Hungary, gender studies has been officially disaccredited, meaning that it may not be taught by any university in the country.

Demagogues like Orbán, Trump, and Bolsonaro claim to defend the “traditional values” of family, church, and nation from globalism and liberalism. It is they—and only they—who can defend us and return us to “normalcy”—normalcy being traditional gender roles, conservative ideology, and regressive notions of race and equality. And education is dangerous to those authoritarian leaders because it empowers critiques and exposes the manipulation of public discourse.

But of course that is also precisely why education is so vital at a time of rapidly spreading authoritarianism. To preserve education, those within the academic community must join forces with the community at large. As it is, opposition to anti-intellectualism is weak and fractured at best. Students, faculty, and administrators struggle to come together, and even when they do, they often fail to bridge gaps with the larger community. And if universities hope to survive the anti-intellectualist wave, they have to fight for change within their institutions as well. As schools cave to neoliberal forces time and again, allowing tuition to become more and more expensive, they simply play into the populist narrative of intellectual elitism. The best way to fight this is to strive to make the population of faculty and students represent and reflect the makeup of the greater community in which it is situated.

A few organizations—such as the American Association of University Professors, the Network of Concerned Academics, the UnKoch My Campus movement in the U.S., and the Szabad Egyetem/Free University student group in Hungary—are fighting back with some success. But history is clear: If we don’t dedicate ourselves to defending our universities, our democracies will erode even further. Educational institutions and individual academics, despite their flawed structures or practices, are vital to our salvation.

Correction, Feb. 22, 2019: Due to an editing error, this piece originally misidentified Joan Scott as a professor emerita at Princeton. She is affiliated with the Institute for Advanced Study, an independent institution located in Princeton, New Jersey.