The Conspiracy Theorist in Your Class

This week, the historian Elizabeth Stice warned readers of Inside Higher Ed that college professors in the United States may face a rising number of undergraduates who believe in conspiracy theories—including the kinds of toxic conspiracy theories that drive anti-Jewish and anti-Asian violence.

Stice issues a challenge to instructors:

The situation is further complicated today, because many people are already skeptical and suspicious of higher education. Those who doubt ‘experts’ are unlikely to be easily convinced and will be wary of being ‘brainwashed’ in other directions. …

We stand at a crossroads. How will colleges and universities counter the rise of conspiracy thinking that compulsively creates internal enemies and distorts reality? How will we do it in ways that are compelling and convincing? The battle is not for attaining the moral high ground but for expanding minds. … What is our plan?

Unsurprisingly, considering her role as a history professor, Stice writes that the liberal arts disciplines have a particularly important role to play in promoting reality-based thinking among students.

I would like to use this opportunity, though, to argue (again) that it’s not simply liberal arts courses that have a critical role to play here—and not only at the undergraduate level. What matters is the comprehensive model of a liberal arts education as a cultivation of the student’s entire imagination, starting early.

I’m convinced that any individual course is as likely to stoke conspiracy theories as to alleviate them. That’s because conspiracy theories happen, for the most part, as a result of inquisitive and articulate people dealing with partial information about how the world works.

This is one of my concerns about recent controversies in both K-12 and higher education. Often American political and academic leaders seem fixated on certain kinds of courses—for example, on the first-year courses that colleges sometimes require on the topic of diversity—or certain academic theories that may or may not be taught at all—while adopting rhetoric that undermines public confidence not in those specific things, but rather in the very concept of an education that happens holistically across many different disciplines.

And many academics in the classroom, for their part, seem fixated on addressing such problems by doubling down on expertise, promising to teach specialized skills of research and analysis, as if better research skills would solve the problems that arise when Americans “do their own research” in the absence of a well-rounded understanding of how the world works.

Meanwhile, some pundits confuse a failure to offer a diverse education (covering many different approaches, concerns, disciplinary tools, and debates) with the individual instructor’s or specific discipline’s supposed failure to permit “viewpoint diversity” in the classroom—as if a content-neutral concept of viewpoint diversity weren’t tailor-made for conspiracy theorists and other defectors from reality.

But what can any teacher do about this problem? How can a huge institutional and policy problem be addressed in my classroom?

For a history teacher, I think one answer is to go big and small at the same time. We need to introduce students to the bigness of the past—its variety, its complexity, the inherent insufficiency of any single interpretation—while also showing students that the past is about real people’s lives, not about abstractions.

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