Leaving Extremism: What’s College Got to Do with It?

I posed a question here almost two years ago: Do humanities teachers know how to deradicalize their students? I was responding to reports about an alleged neo-Nazi terrorist who had received an expensive liberal arts education. (A New York magazine profile subsequently labeled him “the prep-school Nazi.” It also showed, however, that his involvement in the far right probably began only several years after he left college.)

I argued that the evidence for education’s effectiveness in combating extremism is, at best, mixed. We cannot assume education reliably prevents or reverses radicalization. However, this doesn’t mean education has no role to play in the deradicalization process. As I wrote a year ago, “People have to be given the tools to challenge and rebuild their own beliefs.” Thus, the question I was raising was really this: Do humanities teachers know what practices will give students those tools?

This month, I have been revisiting a 2018 book that shows, as a case study, why the answer is complicated. Deradicalization, this book suggests, simultaneously is and is not about education.

At the end of a year when American educators came under fierce attack for their efforts to fight racism, thinking clearly about this paradox seems more important than ever. So let’s talk about this book.

Three years ago, the Washington Post journalist Eli Saslow published a profile of Derek Black. Black was a prominent young white nationalist who, in his twenties, repudiated the movement he had been raised to lead.

As the publisher’s description for Saslow’s book puts it, Black “grew up at the epicenter of white nationalism …. Then he went to college.” He left home to attend New College of Florida, a liberal arts institution in Sarasota that serves as the honors college of the Florida public university system.

Rising Out of Hatred, the book that tells this story, was published around the same time as two other books I’ve often seen discussed alongside it. One is Unfollow, a memoir written by Megan Phelps-Roper, a former leader in Westboro Baptist Church, a Kansas hate group infamous for its antigay picketing. The other is Educated, by Tara Westover, who was raised in rural Idaho by Mormon survivalists.

All three of these books describe an American’s educational journey out of an extremist community. For all three of these converts, deradicalization required forming intellectual relationships with people who were different from their families. For Westover as well as for Black, college was a crucial part of the process.

But for Black, academic work, as such, seems not to have been the crucial factor in what college meant. Instead, Black’s conversion was largely the work of his friends—that is, other college students who chose to be his friends during his undergraduate years.

While much of New College of Florida ostracized him, a few students—including the Jewish students Matthew Stevenson and Moshe Ash, who bravely invited him to share their weekly Shabbat dinners; Juan Elias, a Peruvian immigrant; and Allison Gornik, who risked ostracism herself as she dug deep into Black’s belief system (and fell in love with him)—made it their project to save him.

Their plan did work, which is why this book exists. For a long time, however, their effort seemed quixotic, even perverse.

Black was an intelligent adversary whose gentle disposition and curiosity had only increased his effectiveness as a leader of the white power movement. His good manners and his willingness to make friends individually across ethnic and racial lines made his genocidal message more insidious. Indeed, his usefulness to the white power movement was largely a result of his strategy for making its message palatable for mainstream audiences.

More than once, Saslow depicts Black’s friends asking themselves whether they were simply providing him with camouflage for his extremism. And it’s easy for a reader to imagine an ending to the book in which those doubts—and the views of the many students at New College who shunned him—turned out to be correct. This story could have had a very different ending.

Despite the apparent narrowness of Derek Black’s escape from white nationalism, the publicity surrounding Rising Out of Hatred has tended to treat the book as a template for reforming other extremists.

On Twitter, for example. Carrie Poppy, one of the hosts of a long-running skeptic podcast, recently recommended Rising, together with Unfollow, as evidence of the power of friendship in changing opinions. “Relationships,” she wrote, “change minds where vitriol can’t.”

Similarly, the public radio show On Being promoted Derek Black’s conversion story as “a roadmap for navigating some of the hardest and most important territory of our time.”

Yet as Matthew Stevenson observed in that show’s interview, he spent two years as Black’s friend—sometimes even sacrificing other friendships—before he saw any definite sign of progress. And another kind of student would not have been able to take the risks he took at all.

Success was far from guaranteed. Even if it had been, many people would never have been able to achieve it in the same way.

(In the book, Eli Saslow points out that Stevenson, besides being the only Orthodox Jewish student on campus, was a conservative fish-out-of-water himself in the strongly left-leaning population at New College. As a Republican, he bonded with Black, at times, over shared rejection of liberal students’ assumptions and pieties. This surely contributed to the remarkably high level of trust they were able to enjoy. So did Stevenson’s confidence that he would be immune to suspicion of antisemitism, a confidence that non-Jewish friends of Black didn’t share.)

Even when set alongside other extremist conversion accounts, therefore, Rising Out of Hatred seems like a questionable “roadmap” for any large-scale project. The heroes of this book were, at the time, navigating by the seat of their pants.

There may be, and probably are, thousands of Derek Blacks, Megan Phelps-Ropers, and Tara Westovers in the United States, and each of their stories is of profound importance. But there may be just as many thousands of people whose acquaintances and relatives will never be able to describe similar successes.

(To put that another way—although this story needs a post of its own—most of us will probably never be a Daryl Davis, to whom dozens of former white supremacists reportedly owe their rescue.)

Which brings us back to the question of college itself. The U.S. higher education system is a large-scale attempt to promote intellectual growth. So people like me need to ask ourselves this: What aspects of these kinds of individual stories are useful for understanding the work of educators?

First, let’s consider one important fact about Derek Black. By all accounts, according to Eli Saslow, he was a good student. And his arrival in a liberal arts college like New College of Florida wasn’t an accident: He (and his parents, who also led the white nationalist movement) saw it as an opportunity, just as any other academically gifted student might.

As Black explained in a 2018 NPR interview:

I think going to that college is also a sign of how confident we all were and that my family was in my conviction, my ability to think independently and to be curious. And I did not go there expecting to have my worldview challenged because I was quite confident that it was factually correct and that the arguments against it were ones that I had already heard and I had already figured out were wrong.

He added, “And there wasn’t any one point at the college where I realized, oh, [my ideology] is wrong.” Instead, he had changed his mind through “a long, slow engagement” with both flesh-and-blood students who were different from him, and academic evidence that his arguments were based on flawed premises. Those two factors, he said, “worked in concert” as his opinions changed over the course of his college years.

Throughout those years, Black’s professors reportedly loved him, even as many students did their best to drive him away from campus. (Administrators, knowing Black’s rights under the First Amendment at a public college, and hoping to avoid drawing more white supremacists to campus, said as little as possible about him.) According to Saslow’s research, New College professors saw Black as a bright and curious student who maintained a respectful presence in class, even after they learned about his role in the white power movement.

Of course, we should remember that American professors are limited by law, as well as by professional ethics, in what they can say about their students. Presumably, then, Saslow’s book does not capture all the complexity of Black’s time in the classroom. But the evidence that does appear in Rising Out of Hatred is consistent on this point. Black was a good student who had mutually positive academic experiences despite his horrifying belief system. That was the case even though, as the book shows, some instructors did believe that they had to respond to his ideas, at least indirectly, through their teaching.

So what role did professors play in Black’s ideological evolution? This is going to sound flippant, but Saslow’s book suggests their primary role was to teach. That is, to teach more or less as they always did, knowing that Black was in charge of making up his own mind.

Their role was to be public intellectual infrastructure.

This could well have meant that New College’s professors ended up educating a very effective white nationalist. The reasons it didn’t mean this, in the end, were largely outside their control.

However, that doesn’t mean professors contributed nothing to Black’s conversion. Intellectual work—including long hours of debate, drawing on what Black and his friends learned in their courses—was crucial to Black’s story. There are signs in Saslow’s book that a lot of the ideas that made their way into these debates did come from his formal studies, especially later in the process.

It’s just that these debates mostly didn’t happen in the classroom. They happened between friends after hours and on weekends, in dorm rooms and on rooftops and at home. And they were difficult, and they had no predetermined outcome, any more than the work of Black’s professors did.

Meanwhile, there’s a second aspect to what happened to Derek Black in college that seems very important to point out. And this one doesn’t sit easily with simple claims in the media that Black changed his mind because of “civil discourse and empathy.”

If you read Saslow’s book carefully, it becomes clear that Black was also deeply affected, in an ultimately beneficial way, by the animosity he faced from much of the New College student body.

When Matthew Stevenson and his friends offered friendship to Black, they weren’t simply being nice. They were taking a risk, as Black knew, to offer him respite from the understandable rejection he was already experiencing from most other students after the disclosure of his white nationalist activity.

When Black’s new friends later pressed him on the harm his beliefs would bring to them—when they repeatedly pointed out, for example, that his ideas, if ever implemented, would require them, their actual selves, to be violently exiled from their homes, an implication he found hard to face—it mattered that he had already seen how deeply his views hurt other students, such as a Jewish woman he liked who had stopped speaking to him when she learned who he was, or students who declared on a campus message board that he made them fear for their own safety simply by being on campus.

And it mattered that he knew how much his friends were risking of their own reputations by being associated with him, and even, in some cases, to publicly defend him from the personal hostility of people they agreed with.

In the long run, in other words, it seems to have mattered that so many students had taken his ideas seriously, just as much as it mattered that a few students took him seriously as a person they could love in spite of those ideas.

Both the rejection and the acceptance, as far as I can tell, were crucial to the process that caused Black to confront the weight of his ideas in the real human world. On campus, protest mattered no less than hospitality. Black began to change his mind because of their dialectical relationship.

A lot of recent research has shown that American college students tend to change their minds about political and social issues mainly because of their relationships with each other, not because of any pressure from their professors or administrators. In that respect, the anecdotal evidence in Rising Out of Hatred simply tends to confirm what researchers already know. But it’s useful to be able to read Eli Saslow’s explanation of what that meant for a specific individual.

To be sure, the care Saslow takes in telling this complex story means that different readers will infer different legitimate lessons from it.

The lesson I draw from Rising Out of Hatred is that when college provides a basis for leaving extremism, it does so because of the totality of what college is.

Derek Black didn’t change his mind because of any one aspect of higher education. He changed his mind because he spent years in an intellectually and socially challenging environment, surrounded by other students with at least some shared commitment to learning. He changed his mind because of classes, because of mealtimes, because of contempt, because of friendship, because people demanded that he defend his ideas, and because sometimes people were happy not to talk about his ideas. He changed his mind because of what happened when he left home for college, when he went home from college, and when he left campus to study abroad. He changed his mind because he fell in love, and he changed his mind because the person he fell in love with wasn’t sure their relationship would work. He also changed his mind for the same reasons he had become a white power organizer: Because he had a loving family at home who encouraged his curiosity and academic gifts.

It’s not obvious that any element of this story could have gone missing without changing the outcome.

Whether that’s a comforting thought for educators may depend on whether they can picture a meaningful role for themselves in such a paradoxical environment.