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.

Human Seriousness

Cover of 'Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life,' by Zena Hitz

Free adults who undertake sustained and serious inquiry are not made from scratch—they are cultivated on trust. Education begins from the assumption that students are capable of taking responsibility for their own learning and that they are naturally motivated, even driven from within to pursue fundamental questions. That assumption is based on nothing other than the simple humanity of the student and the student’s free choice to take up an education.

It is a commonplace of the theory of human excellence, going back at least to Aristotle, that virtues are learned by imitation. If we wish to promote the virtue of seriousness in young people, to pass on free inquiry, to lead students into the depths where real insight and understanding take place, we must first cultivate ourselves. We should remind ourselves of the human questions that once gripped us. We should reconsider our work, our choices, the broad scope of our lives in light of those questions. We must form the community of equals that human seriousness makes possible, and invite our students to join us.

—Zena Hitz, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life (Princeton University Press, 2020), 196-197

What Americans Think About the Humanities

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On Monday, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a 100-page report called “The Humanities in American Life.” It comprises the results from a national survey administered last November. The researchers asked more than 5,000 respondents about their engagement in “humanistic activities” and their attitudes toward humanities education.

On the whole, the report’s findings should encourage most humanities workers, including social studies teachers and historians. But careful examination of the details may be especially useful. This report identifies important discrepancies or tensions in public attitudes.

Champions of humanities education should be prepared to expose or remedy—or exploit—these tensions. There are both dangers and opportunities here.

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The Liberal Arts, the People, and the Pandemic

coronavirus-collegecampus

When the COVID-19 emergency began, a strange thing happened in U.S. public opinion. For weeks, bizarrely, acknowledging the emergency’s existence meant taking sides on a partisan issue.[1] But something else has divided public opinion, too.

Cutting across partisan differences is the ability to conceptualize the emergency. That means not only grasping some very basic medical science, but also understanding how it relates to our economic and legal systems, our demographics, our psychology, and our moral responsibilities.

The novel coronavirus has exploited and aggravated the fault lines in American society. Other than professional experts, the Americans who understand the crisis best—regardless of political ideology—are those who have a well-rounded imagination. They have not been limited to taking orders from political leaders, but have been able to act responsibly and creatively in the moment—making enormous sacrifices to do it.

The crisis, in other words, provides vivid lessons in the need for a comprehensive liberal arts education for ordinary citizens. By “liberal arts,” I mean not just training in certain disciplines, but rather a whole package of reasoning and imaginative skills. An integrated liberal arts education is important for citizens to live responsibly together during a crisis while maintaining their own personal freedom and respecting each other’s humanity.

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