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Every semester, I teach American Government to 70 Freshmen. As part of the class, my students are required to review a book on American politics and, every semester, I observe the complete lack of guile my students have. Even the best students are ultimately quite gullible. They take everything they read at face value, some of them go so far as to deny that a book of facts can possibly have a point of view. This distresses me for what it says about how my students think about and understand the world.
Despite the name of the class, the three branches are, in fact, only a quarter of the class, and government itself probably only half. The remainder is a basic introduction to politics: public opinion, regime-types, parties, and so on. The class covers this much territory because, truly, the government of the United States doesn’t do so much to govern us as it is simply the mechanism through which the forces that do govern us — majoritarianism, elitism, media, interest groups — work, and the purpose of the class is to give students an idea of how these forces influence students so that they can be aware of their surroundings. It is all part of that ancient ethos about knowing thyself and, ideally, recognizing that you know nothing.
Everything we know is the result of an appeal to authority. Yes, even science, the authority of empiricism, is a much weaker foundation than many realize. The manipulation of knowledge is a simple and effective way of controlling other people. It needn’t be done intentionally or maliciously. In a democracy, public opinion itself can be quite powerful: what the public believes becomes what everyone believes in short order, and half of Americans can’t all be wrong, no? This terrified the Founders, who put great effort into preventing the formations of absolute majorities through federalism, separation of powers, the and First, Second, Ninth, and Tenth Amendments. In the friction between competing authorities, Americans could suss-out the truth for themselves; but first Americans need to understand what is happening around them.
Hence, the book review I assign. I give my students three authorities — me, their textbook, and the book they are reading — and I ask them to evaluate the book, explaining its purpose, whether or not they are convinced, and how they justify their belief. The knowledge will still have its roots in an authority, but it should be justified belief, which is at least part of a definition of knowledge.
Overwhelmingly, they fail the task. Some stumble on the first point: unable to divine the purpose of a book, simply declaring it “factual.” Some stumble on the second. So many times my students declared a book “accurate” that I almost created a macro to ask “how do you know?” And as for justification? Well, if you can’t tell me what a book is about and whether it is right in the first place, what is there to justify? But even those who offer a justification, ultimately fall back on mere authority. They held their position because it was congruent with either the book they were reading (begging the question) or because they agreed with me (simply appealing to another authority). There was no sense of why the book was trustworthy; many of them implicitly thought the book trustworthy because it was right in the small factual details — thus, if it gets the small things right, it probably gets the big things right, but none explicitly argued this — or why I was trustworthy. They were simply authorities. (And don’t get me started on the cavalier attitude toward citation; if citations are an evidence chain, then nothing my students know is admissible anywhere.)
My students are not even willing to state on their own authority what they are currently feeling, that is how much they rely on outside authorities. And so they simply line-up with the authorities they like better without any real deliberation, thought, or judgment. How do they know what authorities they like better, given that they cannot even state their own preferences? I strongly suspect they get it from the first authorities they were placed under — which, if we’re lucky were their parents, but was probably TV and the broader culture — the very thing the Founders were trying to avoid.
It is dispiriting. There are things that students should simply be able to catch if they have been paying attention to the class. Most conspiracy theories should fall apart on the fact that the number of people necessary to keep the secret is far too large, and if the conspiracy was small enough not to be detected, then it would not have the power to implement itself in a country as decentralized as the US. And yet my students think these conspiracy theories they review — whether about the Bilderbergs, the FED, or someone else — are accurate. They believe JFK was murdered by a conspiracy of someone (precisely by whom depends on the book), yet most of these conspiracies are so large we would surely know about it.
In one paper, on Prohibition, the entire book was about how conservatives in the 1860-1880s wanted to impose Prohibition to reform society, end the long tradition American tradition of violence and alcoholism, and how this would improve society and help it progress socially. The phrasing of the review alone should have set off alarm bells: conservatives do not, as a rule, wish to end long traditions. Conservatives today might be interested in maintaining prohibition, but the people who wanted to do it in the 1860s and 1880s were rightly known as Progressives. To some extent, the book detailed the coalition (women and mainline Protestants) which also should have been a tip-off. I do not blame the student for not knowing this in advance, but the student should have at least noticed the incongruity — that groups not normally thought conservative, doing things not usually called conservative were being hung with monicker “conservative” — and at least felt that there was something wrong, even if the student could not put their finger on what.
The effect of this on my students, I do not know, but it infuriates me in two ways. First, that authors would engage in such misdirections in the first place — I teach my advanced students to be their own devil’s advocate and to qualify and caveat their claims for precisely this reason — and second that my students fall for it. And I don’t know how to teach them better to break out of it other than, when I return the reviews, to point out that they are all very gullible as nicely as I can.