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.
The liberal arts disciplines have long been considered the arts of “free people,” such as citizens in a republic, and distinguished from the servile arts, which address labor. Though coursework leading to employment is clearly important, many lessons are less likely to be learned without the liberal arts. A student only exposed to technical knowledge could finish a degree without faulty views even being much challenged.
Deep in the 9/11 Commission Report is the conclusion many terrorists “were products of educational systems that generally devoted little if any attention to the rest of the world’s thought, history and culture. The secular education reflected a strong cultural preference for technical fields over the humanities and social sciences. Many of these young men, even if able to study abroad, lacked the perspective and skills needed to understand a different culture.” The liberal arts are significant because they do not teach what to think, but how to think. They are designed to broaden the mind. That makes them our best weapon against conspiracy-minded thinking.
Even so, faculty members need to ponder and prepare. 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.
Meanwhile, have we as faculty members devoted time to consider how best to tell the truth in a compelling way? As Susan Sontag wrote in her essay “Against Interpretation,” form and content are not necessarily separable. We can assign all of the “right” texts but engage them the wrong way. The fight against conspiracy thinking cannot be won with some required courses and simply reaffirming that anti-Semitism is wrong and Elvis is dead. Liberal arts methods, such as Socratic discussion, also have a role to play. More than anything, engaged instruction is required. Colleges and universities must be prepared to support liberal arts disciplines and methods.
The stakes are high. Alongside the resurgence of anti-Jewish conspiracy theories, our country has seen an increase in anti-Semitic incidents. In recent months, we’ve also experienced a rise in anti-Asian violence, much of it driven by political rhetoric and conspiracy theories. 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.
Traditional undergraduates arrive at college neither as blank slates nor lost causes. Like all of us, students are not always fully aware of their biases or cognizant of the implications of all their beliefs. In the next few years, more of them are likely to arrive influenced and imprinted by conspiracy thinking, including anti-Semitism. Colleges and universities and faculty have a responsibility to ground their disciplines in truth claims that go deeper than the rabbit holes of the internet and to graduate students who are capable of distinguishing between conspiracy and reality. What is our plan?