How Useful Is a Course on Conspiracy Theories?

How I see myself: Mild-mannered history professor who recognizes 2Pac

The conspiracy theories course wrapped up yesterday with a discussion about the differences between actual conspiracies and conspiracy theories and the students’ evaluation of the most influential conspiracy theories. We closed out by listening to songs by 2Pac and Green Day that contain conspiratorial allusions and claims.

Based on students’ reactions and my own observations, I think the course was a success. But does success equate to usefulness?

I think so, and Jeff Pasely’s post earlier this week explains why.* A reader of John Fea’s blog made the following comment about professional historians’ criticism of David Barton:

So that’s where I believe you, and your fellow professional historians and educators need to continue to focus your efforts. Keep teaching our children the actual history of America, and teach them about the scientific method and to think critically about history and historical evidence. Show them how to recognize a conspiracy theory when they see one, and that there are no short cuts in the quest for knowledge, no matter how convincing they may seem.

I am sure you are doing all of those things — though I would be interested to hear if there was a venue in college where professors can teach students (not just history students) about the likes of Barton and their duplicitous ways. Perhaps there is a place for offering a general course on skepticism and conspiracy theories given how prevalent they have become in America today (and not just in the field of history)?

How my students see me after taking the conspiracy theories course: Jeff Bridges in Arlington Road

Pasley’s response: “That is a good idea, though I can tell you students do not always like it when you rain on their moon landing hoax parade, or spend too much time on Antimasons.”

In my case, I think my conspiracy theories students have learned to think critically about the messages disseminated by the media (both formal and informal).**

* Pasley’s post addressed criticism of John Fea for not criticizing David Barton.

**And if they are convinced that Cumberland University, with its phoenix and Cordell Hull connection, is somehow connected to the Illuminati, then it was a wildly successful semester.

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