Conspiracies in the ClassroomRoundup
tags: teaching history, Conspiracies
Elizabeth Stice is associate professor of history at Palm Beach Atlantic University.
In the past few years, QAnon conspiracies have taken root in our republic. QAnon beliefs, and the less organized fears surrounding “globalists,” are entangled in bizarre hypotheses and old and new anti-Semitic rhetoric, now circulating widely on the radio and the internet. Although conspiracy believers are hardly a national majority, the number of people who embrace these explanations of the world has increased in the United States. That means that college students shaped by conspiratorial thinking, and those holding anti-Semitic views, are going to become more common in the classroom.
Traditional undergraduates come to college with all kinds of ideas and ambitions. They are adults, but they are still shaped by their families and communities of origin. As studies and books like The Big Sort have shown, families are increasingly likely to live in like-minded communities and to consume media from the same position on the political spectrum. Students of the present generation are also more likely to be in frequent contact with their parents. As a result, students can come to college without necessarily knowing whether or not their beliefs line up with historical fact or are considered “mainstream” outside of their community.
As a history professor, I frequently encounter conspiracy theories in the classroom. Students want to know if Hitler is still alive or who killed JFK. I am sometimes asked about the television show Ancient Aliens. Many conspiracies I can simply dismiss. But in one of my classes, a student asserted that Jewish people within the World Bank had caused the decline of the Weimar Republic and used the Treaty of Versailles to destroy Germany. He was apparently unaware that the World Bank did not exist at that time. Where had he learned this explanation? Why did it make sense to him? This kind of thinking has more significance than an openness to Ancient Aliens.
More such conspiracy-shaped students are coming to our campuses. Police and campus security can handle anti-Semitic incidents, but how will faculty and administrators respond to comments and conspiracies that work their way into classrooms and campus activities? For example, many “Q patriots” believe that, in 1871, the U.S. government cut a deal with the Rothschilds that turned our country from a republic into a corporation, transforming us all into victims, and that bankers have been pulling the strings ever since. Students who believe such things may not have the historical understanding to fully recognize the elements involved and may not all identify as anti-Semitic, publicly or perhaps even personally. But they should learn the truth about U.S. history, however they identify.
This situation gets to the heart of higher education and its purpose. How many colleges and universities have veritas -- truth -- somewhere in their motto? Institutions of higher learning are founded upon spreading knowledge that is grounded in verifiable reality and teaching students how to discern between truth and error. The responsibility falls across the entire institution, but within the academic realm, it is best shouldered by the traditional liberal arts disciplines.
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