Sunday, November 9, 2008


Among my students there many who believe that George W. Bush is not what he seems to be: a rather plain, simple-minded man, famous for his verbal gaffs and bungled policies. Au contraire, I am duly informed, Bush is, in fact, a megalomaniacal super-criminal of a James Bond movie variety, an evil mastermind who, along with his inner circle of scheming minions, conceived of, planned, plotted, and presided over the execution of the 9/11 attacks. The United States armed forces, intelligence agencies, various branches and levels of government, the airlines, and the entire media system — including foreign news agencies — were recruited as well, and the conspiracy runs so deep that not even one whistleblower has emerged.

The election of Barack Obama presents a serious challenge for the conspiracy theorists. In January, Obama will inherit an awful mess: an economy on the cusp or even in the midst of a serious recession; a half-trillion dollar budget deficit; an unpopular war in Iraq and a failing war in Afghanistan; and it is very unlikely that his administration will have cleaned it up prior to the 2010 midterm elections, or even before he stands for re-election in 2012. Moreover, Obama's electoral victory last Tuesday was narrower than it appears to have been. He defeated John McCain by only 6.5 percent of the popular vote — and this in a year when the stars and planets were very much aligned against the Republicans — and he claimed just two-tenths of one percent more of the voting age population than Bush did in 2004. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that Obama's future electoral success, and the continued domination of Congress by the Democrats, is by no means assured.

Obama surely is aware of the various 9/11 conspiracy theory claims, and as President of the United States he will have vast intelligence-gathering resources at his disposal, including new heads of the intelligence services who he himself will appoint. One way of guaranteeing his re-election and, indeed, the total decimation of the Republican party, would be to reveal that his predecessor willfully murdered thousands of Americans on September 11th, 2001. Of course, no such revelation will be forthcoming, and the conspiracy theorists will have to explain why. One possible explanation is that the conspirators have covered their tracks too well, and that the incoming President, the most powerful man in the world, will not be able to prove what various professional conspiracy theorists, a handful of failed academics, and a couple of amateur filmmakers have already revealed to be true. Another possibility is that Obama himself is in on it - part of the vast and ever-growing conspiracy. And the third possibility is that Obama won't speak on the matter because, quite simply, the matter is already long settled.

And, of course, it is settled. There was no Bush conspiracy, the attacks were planned by the people who gleefully admitted that they planned them, and meanwhile the conspiracy theory community is serving to discredit the activist left at an historical moment when the left's fullest attention needs to be directed to real humanitarian and ecological problems.

Conspiracy-theory belief is widespread amongst my students, and I consider this fact to be an indictment, not of them, but of the educational system generally. I count myself among the party of the guilty. We teach students to be good at accumulating information, but we are not as good when it comes to teaching to them how to think about information; we teach them to regurgitate raw data, but not so much to distinguish between raw data and actual knowledge; I myself pay lip service to the idea that the purpose of education is to produce independent learners — and incorporate hours of discussion into my classes — but I roll over and play dead when confronted with the demand that the single largest component of my students' marks be determined by the outcome of tests and exams that establish nothing more than their ability to memorize curriculum. Small wonder that so many of them are ill-equipped to assess one truth claim against another, and I will say nothing of academic relativists who teach their students to believe that one truth claim can't be assessed against another.

Historians could improve the quality of student learning overnight if we stopped teaching history as a bill of facts about the past. As historians, we understand history as a series of arguments about the past — as historiography — and it seems very strange that we should delay letting our students know this until they are in their upper years or graduate school. Make no mistake: a dialectical approach to teaching history needn't carry with it the implication that both sides in every dispute have equal — or any — merit, nor even that the professor need adopt the phony pretension of objectivity in the sense of adopting a position equidistant from two competing truth claims. Far from it: done well, it would reveal to students that some truth claims are better than others, and that as historians we adopt certain positions not because we lack objectivity, but precisely because we are objective - in the proper of sense of being willing to change our minds when confronted with evidence that we should.

Admittedly, the conspiracy theorists among my students insist that they are applying the principles of critical thinking, but critical thinking involves more than just skepticism. It requires doing the hard work of carefully weighing evidence for and against a given argument. In the case of the highly technical claims made by 9/11 conspiracy theorists, this would necessitate spending hours reading journals of civil-mechanical and structural engineering, but this is something that doesn't even occur to most of them. In part, this is a consequence of the relativist position that it is elitist and undemocratic to teach students that expert knowledge is generally better than unschooled gut feeling.

But it may be that the whole problem with conspiracy theorists is that no amount of evidence will ever persuade them to change their minds. Counter-evidence only confirms, to them, the depths of the conspiracy and, as we shall see, they will in time accuse Obama of being a conspirator himself. As teachers, we probably can't do anything to shake the conspiracy theory base. But by placing less emphasis on what students should think and more on how they should think, we might be able to help sway the undecideds.

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