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.

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“Essentially an Evil Thing”

In the last few days, several European conversations converged for me in a troubling way.

Historic anniversaries played a role. This Saturday was the anniversary of V-E Day for most western nations. And the next day, which was Victory Day in Russia, Vladimir Putin delivered a speech that western media found threatening. In some pockets of social media, I found scattered debates about how to remember the Soviet Union’s outsized role in Nazi Germany’s defeat. Last Wednesday, meanwhile, had been the bicentenary of Napoléon Bonaparte’s death. Marking that day, Emmanuel Macron laid a wreath at the dictator’s grave, delivering a speech that lightly acknowledged some of Napoléon’s crimes yet also celebrated his “political will” and “taste for the possible”—as if murdering people on a continental scale were a self-actualization exercise.

In the Guardian yesterday, the columnist Kenan Malik—with one eye on recent British debates about how to remember the imperialist-but-antifascist Winston Churchill—brought together various conversations when he implicitly praised Macron’s speech as a refusal “to paint heroes and villains in black and white, to simplify the past as a means of feeding the needs of the present.”

Reading the text of Macron’s speech myself, though, I find that simplifying the past to feed the needs of the present is precisely what the French president was doing.

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The Conservatism of My Teaching: Seven Elements

There’s something I want to get off my chest. It’s about whether Blue Book Diaries is a left-wing blog, and about whether my teaching is left-wing instruction.

I have been ruminating on this since I discovered recently that a stranger on Facebook has repeatedly called me a “commie”—ironically, because I said the Trump era is a good time to teach history.

Similarly, my most popular post here, which has drawn more than 10,000 hits, has been denounced as leftist propaganda. After I posted it in June, during the protests after George Floyd’s death, it elicited a stream of angry messages. An email I received from Greg, who was using an IP address in West Texas, will give you a pretty good idea of the general mood. Here is the full text:

Message: Your article on how to teach the civil war is as far left as any I have ever seen. I to have grown up in Texas and calling us insurgents is offering to me. My son went to Iraq to defend us against them we are not those kind of people. The wanted to live it's on way weather you think it was right or not and the the north or union would not let them. I my self do not think it was about slavery but about not letting the government tell them how to live. You want insurgents and rebellious people you should have watched the looters on tv.

I’m not sure how extensive someone’s intellectual exploration can be if something I wrote is the leftmost thing they’ve encountered. Nevertheless, that seemed to be a common impression among those who were displeased—even though the blogpost in question is overtly patriotic and even pro-military.

To be thus politically pigeonholed, in such disregard for the actual content of work I spend a lot of time crafting? It rankles. I have been successfully rankled. And I think it’s time for me to address this problem.

What I write today is unlikely to have much positive effect on Greg—or on anybody else who believes insurgent is an ethnonym. But it might be soothing to other history teachers who are feeling a bit out of joint.

You see, I suspect that many of us working in U.S. educational institutions see our own work as deeply conservative, at the same time that today’s organized political right is attacking us for supposedly “hating our country” and “breeding contempt for America’s heritage.”

Such attacks notwithstanding, many of us are proudly doing exactly what our predecessors have done for generations. We are teaching history in a politically conscious but nonpartisan way, out of a sense of respect for the past and concern for our communities in the present, and we are using methods pragmatically adapted to the needs of our students and the results of historical scholarship.

With that in mind, let me identify some of the aspects of my own history teaching that I think are fundamentally conservative.

But first, I should explain what that term means.

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How to Reframe the Civil War in the Classroom

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If you teach the history of the American Civil War to students anywhere in the United States, you will almost certainly teach at least a few students who have absorbed Lost Cause mythology. In many parts of the country—and not only in the southern states—most of your white students (or at least their families) will believe in at least part of the Lost Cause story. Indeed, many of them will have received this view from their teachers.

Tackling the mythology head-on will often be wise. But there are also subtler ways we reinforce or challenge the pro-Confederate pattern of thinking, usually without realizing it, and we should address those too.

(This post began as a Twitter thread that became popular yesterday. You may want to read the responses of the many teachers and writers who engaged with it directly.)

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Do Humanities Teachers Know How to Deradicalize Students?

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This week, the Guardian and the BBC claimed to have uncovered the identity of an apparent neo-Nazi who may be responsible for some recent alleged terrorist plots inside the United States.

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 rightincluding the man’s background in the humanities.

That’s what I want to focus on.

Continue reading “Do Humanities Teachers Know How to Deradicalize Students?”