Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor
Students Are Highly Motivated in Class? It Must Be a Conspiracy
I have found a way to turn passive undergraduates into active learners.
I watch them become critical thinkers. I see them learn to identify and analyze relationships among diverse aspects of American culture and become skilled in the methods of interdisciplinary study.
My secret: conspiracy theories.
Why study conspiracy theories - usually relegated to the margins of academic life? Because they are, in fact, a defining motif of the American experience. The Puritans brought to these shores a world view that they were God's elect persecuted by agents of a Satanic conspiracy. The Salem Witch Trials, for example, were interpreted through this perspective. The Revolution and founding of our republic are bathed in suspicion against government and how it might, without our vigilance, remove our liberties. We are, by national experience, a people skeptical of authority.
Anti-Masonic conspiracy theories flourished in the 1820s and 1830s, followed by a resurgence of anti-Catholic theories of papal domination that survive today as fears of a "New World Order." Antebellum America trembled over alleged plots of slave revolts. Our fascination with conspiracies is not new. And of course, some conspiracies are real: MK-ULTRA, Watergate, Iran-Contra, and others.
Even far-out conspiracy theories reveal how people make sense of the world. These theories have social functions; they reflect responses to alienation, the feeling of being disconnected from self, society, or the past. In the conspiratorial view, there are no accidents; everything is linked together. The individual who can figure things out also feels empowered. "They may have gotten to the rest of you," this individual reasons, "but at least I know the truth."
All of this makes conspiracy theories a wonderful teaching tool. To the students, exploring them is a "real-world," and therefore valid, exercise. …