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.

“Ignorance of History Serves Many Ends”

Simukai Chigudu (photographed by David Levene)

The more time I spent in Oxford, the more I realised how colonialism had remade the entire material and intellectual world of the British empire, especially its most elite university. Oxford is strewn with tributes to men of empire who have scholarships, portraits, busts, engravings, statues, libraries and even buildings dedicated to their memory. …

From the start, the quest for knowledge of Africa was motivated by the aim of conquest. Even today, African studies has an air of the 1884 Berlin Conference, which heralded the ‘Scramble for Africa’—but instead of European powers claiming and trading different parts of the continent, it’s mostly white scholars staking out their territory and asserting expertise over ethnicity in Kenya, democracy in Ghana or refugees in Uganda. After I stayed on at Oxford to pursue a doctorate, I began attending African studies conferences throughout the UK, only to find mostly white scholars talking to predominantly white audiences.

In other words, I was surrounded in Oxford not by the ghosts of colonialism, but by its living dead. As at [St. George’s College in Harare], colonialism at Oxford had never really ended, and couldn’t. It wasn’t a period that had passed, but a historical mass that bent everything around its gravity.

—Simukai Chigudu, “‘Colonialism Had Never Really Ended’: My Life in the Shadow of Cecil Rhodes'”

Testing the West at Howard University: Thoughts on a Very Strange Op-Ed

I have mixed feelings about a widely shared Washington Post opinion essay published Monday by Cornel West and Jeremy Tate. The current headline: “Howard University’s removal of classics is a spiritual catastrophe.”

Continue reading “Testing the West at Howard University: Thoughts on a Very Strange Op-Ed”

“Many Students Are Now Taught in School to Hate Their Own Country”

I have been reluctant to comment on the “1776 Report.”

If you aren’t familiar with it, this is a document that Donald Trump’s White House published early this week. Signed by the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission—a panel Trump created to promote “patriotic education,” which was given its name in direct criticism of the New York Times’s “1619 Project”—it drew predictable outrage from academic historians.

I wasn’t sure I had anything useful to add to the conversation about it, especially considering that Joe Biden took office only two days later, rendering the “1776 Report” a dead letter. Biden disbanded the 1776 Commission on Wednesday afternoon with his first executive order. (The “1776 Report” was archived as a matter of routine when the new administration took office. It is available in the National Archives’ copy of the Trump presidential website.)

However, some conservative activists seem to be rallying around the “1776 Report” even now. And historians’ responses to the text are unlikely to persuade most American conservatives that anything is wrong with it. In any case, the controversy isn’t really about United States history as such. (I mean, it is, but that’s not why it matters.)

Fundamentally, the “1776 Report” is about America’s history teachers and how they do their work.

When Donald Trump signed the executive order creating the 1776 Commission, he asserted that “many students are now taught in school to hate their own country.” That incendiary statement is the heart of the controversy over the “1776 Report.”

I do have some things to say about that.

On a reasonably objective reading, there are three fundamental problems with the way the 1776 Commission went about its work, plus a major problem with its claims about what American students learn in school. Let me describe these problems one by one.

Continue reading ““Many Students Are Now Taught in School to Hate Their Own Country””

“Opinions Are Cheap”

In Defense of Knowledge and Higher Education

The Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors just arrived in my mailbox, and in it I find an AAUP manifesto (dated January 2020) called “In Defense of Knowledge and Higher Education.”

The AAUP is noteworthy as an academic professional organization that has consistently attempted to keep structural first principles at the top of its agenda. I’m proud to be an AAUP member.

“In Defense of Knowledge,” though, is a complicated document because it attempts to expose and reframe a set of complex misconceptions. I don’t think it’s perfect, by any means. Partly because it’s such a bold and explicit statement, there’s something in it for almost anybody to disagree with.

For me, for example, the statement’s implicit complacency about the U.S. military-industrial-educational state is questionable. “How can we develop a credible foreign policy, ensure effective diplomacy, and prepare our military,” the statement demands, “when area studies and foreign language programs are curtailed, eliminated, or made subject to political intrusion?” I don’t think you need to be a pacifist to wonder, “Prepare our military for what?” And the statement is explicitly nationalistic in other ways that many academics will dissent from far more strongly than I will.

But I applaud the AAUP’s attempt to define what, exactly, colleges and universities are good for, and to show why they deserve broad-based public support. In fact, I think it’s crucial for everyone working in higher education today to make an explicit defense of their work—all their work—as a service to a free and democratic community.

Here are some of the passages that I found especially provocative and potentially useful for future reference:

It is not only research that is affected [by political attacks on academic independence]; teaching is as well. Teaching is, after all, the transmission of knowledge and a means of its production. A narrowing focus on vocational training, combined with attacks on the liberal arts and general education, closes off access to the varieties of knowledge and innovative thinking needed to participate meaningfully in our democracy. …

There are, of course, endless philosophical debates about the meaning of ‘knowledge.’ For our purposes, however, we need define it only as those understandings of the world upon which we rely because they are produced by the best methods at our disposal. The expert knowledge to which we refer is not produced merely by immediate sense impressions. …

These [academic] disciplines cumulatively produce understandings that are continuously tested and revised by communities of trained scholars. Expert knowledge is a process of constant exploration, revision, and adjudication. …

Academic freedom rests on a paradox. There must be freedom of inquiry, but that freedom must always be subject to peer judgment and evaluation. …

Colleges and universities deserve public support to the extent that American society requires expert knowledge. Expert knowledge has fueled American progress. It has checked ideological fantasies and partisan distortions. It has provided a common ground on which those with competing political visions can come together constructively to address common problems. Without expert knowledge, we lose our ability to know the past, to shape the future, and to acknowledge the differences and similarities we share as human beings.

—American Association of University Professors, “In Defense of Knowledge and Higher Education,” January 2020

As they say, I recommend reading the whole thing.