Do Humanities Teachers Know How to Deradicalize Students?

carus-memoriesofrome-1839

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.

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Conservatives and Liberals Are Different (and Both Thrive in College)

Like a lot of other Americans, I grew up in a conservative subculture that assumed college would be a hostile environment. Many of my acquaintances took for granted that America’s overwhelmingly liberal or left-wing professors are tempted to discriminate against conservative students.

I have reason to believe this expectation hasn’t gone away. Actually, it seems to be more widely shared by conservative Americans today than it was then. It’s a big part (though only part) of what people are talking about when they debate liberal or left-wing “bias” on campus. But is there evidence for it, beyond anecdotes and rumors?

This spring, a team of researchers led by a self-described “lifelong Republican” released a working paper called “Is Collegiate Political Correctness Fake News?: Relationships between Grades and Ideology.” (A working paper presents research results that have not yet been formally vetted by a peer-reviewed publication.)

Analyzing survey responses from more than seven thousand students who attended U.S. four-year universities from 2009 to 2013, the researchers (Matthew Woessner, Robert Maranto, and Amanda Thompson) looked for relationships among students’ self-reported political views and grade point averages.

What they found was … complicated.

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Humanities Education’s Limits

One-room schoolhouse with flagpole, Seward County, Nebraska, 1938

I’ve seen this thought expressed a lot in the United States recently:

I shouldn’t speak for the author of that tweet, but typically (and in view of last night’s news) “this” would refer to some combination of political chaos, success by demagogues, bigotry and racism, and maybe voter apathy. (I’m guessing the author does not identify with the current president, in any case.)

In other words: Humanities education keeps democracy healthy. Conversely, poor funding and inadequate emphasis on humanities education contributed to the current lamentable state of political affairs in America.

As much as I share the goal of increasing public funding and support for humanities education―and I really, really do―and as much as I believe that humanities education does have a critical role to play in the health of a democracy, I’m skeptical of this causal claim. It may not be entirely wrong, but it’s far too simple.

It reminds me too much of other declension narratives about the American education system, from globalization-inspired stories about American children “falling behind” other children in the 1990s to the notion that Supreme Court decisions about school prayer and Bible-reading led to rising crime in the 1960s. Our schools absorb a lot of anxiety about the future of American society, and perhaps that is inevitable. But we should remember that the education system is only part of the institutional environment we live in.

(Also, on average, I suspect that the voters who strike Rebecca Makkai as the most easily manipulated didn’t get their formal education in the last twenty years.)

What larger institutional environment should we consider in this case?

First, more important than formal humanities education, or at least more pervasive in eligible voters’ thinking, are the cultural master narratives that different subcultures embrace. In our time, various groups of voters and nonvoters tend to envision American history—and calculate its urgency—very differently from each other. They also imagine that critical thinking and reading will lead to very different sets of conclusions about the aims of human life.

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