Teaching Controversial History: Four Moves

Inspired by some recent conversations and experiences, I have been thinking about how I approach the task of teaching controversial topics.

Much of my approach, I think, is directly inspired by having been a fairly prickly kind of student myself. I still see a lot of myself in students who aren’t prepared to buy what their instructors are hoping to sell. (Let’s assume, for the sake of simplicity, that we instructors are correct, though of course that is not universally the case.)

I think I can reduce my approach to four basic instructional moves. These moves strike me as both pragmatic and principled; I make these moves because they tend to work, but they work because they’re the morally right thing to do anyway.

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“Why Wasn’t I Thinking?”

In America, a Jesuit magazine, a recent college graduate reflects on how his years at a religious university changed him.

By his own account, Elisha Valladares-Cormier arrived at college as a conservative Catholic culture warrior. And his school, Franciscan University of Steubenville, has a reputation among American Catholics as a very conservative institution. He entered college during the 2016 election, a divisive moment for U.S. Catholics.

Looking back, he writes:

The skeletons in my closet pop up when I least expect them to. I am reminded of them when Facebook tells me that five years ago, I shared a meme from a conservative page essentially using the Boston Marathon bombers’ refugee status as a rationale for stopping all refugees from entering the country. Other links I shared include headlines beginning with ‘Liberals Lose Their MINDS When…’ followed by examples of what today would be referred to as ‘Karen’-type behavior.

I am only 22, but I cannot pin exactly what led me to share these posts, full of exaggeration, hyperbole and more. I was at that know-it-all age most teenagers land in, where the best argument is a ‘gotcha’ one. But looking back, what frustrates me the most is the intellectual dishonesty of some of these posts.

What was I thinking? Perhaps I should be asking, why wasn’t I thinking? These were complex issues, but the world around me had taught me to view these issues through binary, partisan lenses. …

I did not come out of Franciscan University less conservative or more liberal, or vice versa. Instead, I was pushed to consider new perspectives, to question positions I previously held, to take a Christocentric view of the world even though I might not feel at home with any major party.

—Elisha Valladares-Cormier, “I started school at Steubenville as a conservative culture warrior—and came out the other side more Catholic”

Experience tells me that we shouldn’t assume any new college graduate’s current views will remain static. As a thoughtful person with a university education, Valladares-Cormier is likely to continue evolving in unpredictable ways. This may well lead him to new forms of partisanship, to a fundamental change in political or religious views, or perhaps to complete disillusionment with the position he now holds. (Then again, he may turn out to have changed very little thirty years from now.)

What I think is useful about this essay is that it presents us with a snapshot of a young student who recently has experienced a higher education as transformative—and intellectually liberating and generous—in unexpected ways.

Versions of this story (mutatis mutandis) are very common among university students and graduates who came to college anticipating, or trying to engineer, a specific intellectual outcome. You’ll hear stories like this from students at all kinds of universities and colleges, including schools with reputations for producing belligerent partisans and culture warriors.

This is what gets lost in much of the storm and stress of American political debates about higher education. In all the nonsense about students’ supposed brainwashing and indoctrination* at the hands of professors, we rarely hear about the downright ubiquitous experiences of students—of all kinds—for whom college, sometimes in unexpected ways, lives up to its mission of intellectual liberation.

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* Ironically, of course, in this case, indoctrination would be a quite literally correct description of what Valladeres-Cormier says he sought and received from his Catholic professors. It just turned out not to mean what he expected.

Image: Steubenville, Ohio, 2007. Photograph by Mike Sharp via Wikimedia Commons. Used under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Is Trump Turning Students Against Conservatives?

In 2016, American undergraduates who had started college in the fall of 2015 (more than 7,000 of them at 122 institutions) said that their opinions of both conservatives and liberals had dramatically improved during their first year of college. Half of all students had already become more appreciative of conservatives; nearly half had become more appreciative of liberals.

But when surveyed again in their final year of college, those same students had changed their minds. Across almost all religious groups, the appreciation that these undergraduates had gained for conservatives had been “nearly or totally erased” since early 2016. In fact, by the time the class of 2019 graduated, its students from every major religious group—including Mormons and evangelicals!—were more likely to report a high opinion of liberals than of conservatives.

These are the (not yet published) findings of researchers running a project called IDEALS (the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey), who discuss their work today in an essay at Religion & Politics.

Matthew Mayhew, Kevin Singer, Alyssa Rockenbach, and Laura Dahl write that “students of all faiths in the class of 2019 were warming up to political conservatives at the end of their first year in college, which was during the final year of Obama’s presidency. Now, three years into Trump’s presidency, conservatives can only wonder what could have been.”

The researchers blame students’ plummeting approval for conservatives on “the Trump effect.”

Allow me to make some observations of my own.

I do think the “Trump effect” explanation for these findings is basically plausible. It is also consistent with my experiences working in higher education.

There has been a dramatic shift in student political temperament since early 2016 on the campuses where I have worked, and it does seem to be connected (in various ways) with the Trump phenomenon. Undergraduates in 2020 tend to identify conservatism with Donald Trump, in my experience, and they tend to hold conservatism in much lower regard than the undergraduates I taught a decade ago. But for the purpose of evaluating the IDEALS study as a piece of research, I do approach the idea with some caution.

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Cass Sunstein’s Curiously Contradictory Case for Conservative Professors

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This week, the legal scholar and sometime Obama-administration official Cass R. Sunstein published an essay arguing that American professors are mostly liberals and that this is a problem. Notwithstanding the banality of that claim, his essay seems worth a reply, if only because Sunstein is a famous example of the liberal professors in question.

But upon closer inspection, the essay is remarkable for another reason: Sunstein has co-opted boilerplate conservative talking points about academic bias in order to make what appears to be a liberal argument for changing nothing about the liberal academy at all.

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The Most Misunderstood Purpose of Higher Ed

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Ask undergraduate students about the reasons for college, and you’ll probably get a mix of answers heavy in “to get a good job” and “to learn.” Ask academics and policy makers, and the answers will include “critical thinking skills.” And if you ask what makes a college education unique, critical thinking may top the list.

The truly distinctive goal of higher education, however, rarely gets much discussion.

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