For my purposes, what’s most interesting is the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s report that this man attended an elite boys-only Catholic preparatory school (which “offers a traditional college-preparatory liberal arts curriculum to help the young man develop the knowledge, skills, integrity, and sensitivity that distinguishes a self-renewing educated person“). Then he went on to study philosophy at Villanova University, another Catholic institution near Philadelphia. He apparently attended Villanova for three years and left without graduating, though a lot of things about his background are unclear.
I have no independent information about this story, and I’m approaching it with caution. Some aspects of the reporting are confusing and raise the possibility that things aren’t what they seem. However, other aspects of this story seem stereotypically consistent with other recent stories about the extreme right—including the man’s background in the humanities.
That’s what I want to focus on.
Although it’s important to remember that this is a deliberately vague and diverse category of people, the so-called alt-right’s fascination with (and self-conscious championing of) the Greco-Roman classics, as supposed avatars of a superior western civilization, is thoroughly documented and easy to confirm if you spend much time on social media. So is its interest (however superficial and symbolic) in the history of medieval northern Europe and crusading. Likewise are the (obviously related) links a few of its leaders have with traditionalist Catholicic philosophy and history. And of course, America’s “most prominent white supremacist” is another boys’ prep graduate who studied history and English at the University of Virginia, obtained a master’s degree in the humanities from the University of Chicago, and briefly studied for a doctorate in modern European intellectual history at Duke.
I’ve expressed deep skepticism before that a higher education in the humanities will solve the problems liberals see in contemporary American politics. Now I’d like to ask a related question that should be relevant to both conservatives and liberals who hate what the white-power far right stands for: Do most of America’s professors and teachers have any idea what to do about a radicalizing student?
To put that another way, do we actually have a set of known best practices for humanities teachers and programs dealing with students who are vulnerable to racist radicalization? And do humanities programs make this a priority at all?
I say “save themselves,” because that is what deradicalization takes. People are not argued out of extremist beliefs, at least not in any direct way. And they certainly aren’t deprogrammed simply by being given better information. People have to be given the tools to challenge and rebuild their own beliefs.
My question is whether we’re reliably creating the conditions that make that likely to happen. I have my doubts. And I suspect that in this respect, most of the tedious debates Americans have about academic politics are irrelevant to the real issues.
Image: Detail from Carl Gustav Carus, Memories of Rome, 1839. Frankfurter Goethe-Haus, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.