If ever we needed proof that many Americans are living in an alternate reality, the storming of the U.S. Capitol last week was it. How thousands of people fell prey to the idea that a vast conspiracy reversed what they believed was a landslide victory by President Trump is a question that will hang over the country for decades.
For higher education, that question is especially urgent. While most Americans don’t hew to the paranoid theories that prompted the insurgency, the world that spawned them is deeply affecting students. Disinformation and propaganda are flourishing, traditional sources of authority are under siege, and people increasingly live in politically polarized media ecosystems.
Colleges have traditionally been places where professors and their students use the tools of reason and inquiry to get to the truth. But such work has become monumentally harder because of these changes. Students are entering college not only confused about what and whom to believe, but unsure of how to talk to people who think differently from them. The truth alone may not be enough to win arguments and change minds across the great divide that’s consuming the United States. Political identification has grown so deeply personalized, and much of the discourse so disconnected from facts that, as one scholar put it, “the information is almost beside the point.”
Is higher education prepared to teach students how to navigate this terrain? While many professors say they’re able to handle difficult topics in the classroom, two recent surveys suggest that’s not always the case.
“A lot of them aren’t even going to get near these conversations about misinformation or trust, because either they’re not prepared to deal with it or are afraid of consequences from their institutions,” says Allison BrckaLorenz, an associate research scientist with the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University at Bloomington.
She and Sarah Hurtado, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Denver, asked faculty members in a national survey how they navigated tricky topics. “A lot of what faculty cited as their go-to is to de-escalate in the classroom and deal with it privately,” says BrckaLorenz. “What does that mean for everybody else who doesn’t get to be part of that resolution, or get any sort of closure on that?”
Another study, based on interviews with nearly 70 faculty members who teach diversity courses at five predominantly white institutions in the South, found that many instructors struggled to meaningfully engage students. They cited such barriers as large class sizes, disengaged or overly cautious students, their own fears about receiving poor evaluations or being accused of political bias, and worries that heightened emotions might be counterproductive to learning.
“We pin a lot of our hopes on college classrooms being one of the only spaces where we can have these difficult conversations, truly hear multiple viewpoints, and dispel some of this misinformation,” says Ryan A. Miller, an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and one of the authors of the study. “As we did this work, we realized it’s a lot more complicated than that.”
Professors who teach about propaganda, political polarization, and information literacy have been wrestling with these issues in their classrooms for years.
One strategy they use is to get underneath the news of the day. Instead of confronting a statement head on as to whether, say, the threat of Covid-19 is exaggerated, they discuss the appeal and effectiveness of disinformation campaigns and how to discern the truth. That enables students to step back and think more critically.
Jennifer Mercieca is a historian of American political rhetoric and author of Demagogue for President: the Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump, which describes how he uses language to manipulate the truth, as well as his followers. Trump, she explains, employs verbal tricks, such as paralipsis, which calls attention to something by saying you’re not going to mention it (“I will not call him a lightweight, because I think that’s a derogatory term.”) and ad hominem attacks to focus on the person rather than the idea (“You’re a terrible reporter”).
For the past four years Mercieca has been teaching a class on propaganda at Texas A&M University at College Station, where she is an associate professor of communication. Her students, she notes, tend to get their news in an “ambient” way, meaning that it is picked up from friends, family, and social media. So one of her goals is to teach them how to become more direct consumers of news.