How should educators respond to “fake news”? Recently, this question has been discussed on NPR and dozens of other media outlets. It pervades education blogs, gets raised urgently at teacher meetings, and circulates around the faculty lunch table at the independent school where I teach. Lessons and classes on “media literacy” are proliferating almost as fast as the president’s tweets. While the phrase is newly in vogue, students well educated in U.S. history should already be quite familiar with fake news and how to assess it.
Fake news is integral to the American political tradition. It surfaces especially in moments of crisis. It often involves conspiracy theories, outright lying, and deceitful inference. It has presented as both fringe and mainstream.
I have taught this lesson for over 30 years, in both high schools and colleges, and have seen how many terrific history teachers impart the tools needed to ferret out fake political claims. They do so, first, by contextualizing the rhetoric of fakery: placing it in a larger stream of events and ideas. They also provide contrasting points of view and arguments. Additionally, good teachers dissect political rhetoric: Does it appeal to hope or fear? Does it indict by inference or fact? What role does it consign speaker and audience? Finally, committed teachers of history prize complexity while insisting on truth—an end arrived at through painstaking research and thought. Thus, history teachers empower students to assess false assertions.
In his Pulitzer-winning classic from the 1960s, Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn analyzed The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution and discovered the colonists’ profound, yet groundless, insistence that there existed a conspiracy in England to rob them of their liberties. Revolutionary-era pamphlets repeatedly identified the architect of this plot as the English politician John Stuart, Lord Bute, “whose apparent absence from politics since 1763 could be seen as one of his more successful dissimulations,” Bailyn deadpanned. Thomas Jefferson wrote conspiracy into the Declaration of Independence by asserting that King George III’s treatment of America “evinces a design to reduce [the colonies] under absolute despotism.”
Good teachers dissect political rhetoric: Does it appeal to hope or fear? Does it indict by inference or fact?"
History teachers should help students understand how historical context and opposing viewpoints can shed new light on such political rhetoric. In 1776, for instance, most English politicians saw their American policy as mild and enlightened. The Revolutionaries, on the other hand, saw English policy as a massive plot. It wasn’t.
The run-up to the Civil War also included prominent claims of conspiracy. Abolitionists and politicians proclaimed the existence of a sinister “Slave Power” cabal intent on expanding slavery and dominating the federal government.
Abraham Lincoln famously referenced this conspiracy and “proved” it by inference in his “House Divided” speech of 1858. Describing slavery’s spread westward and the pro-slave result of the Dred Scott U.S. Supreme Court case, Lincoln asserted: “We cannot absolutely know that all these exact adaptations are the result of preconcert.” Comparing the major conspirators of the slave power to “workmen” building a house; referring to Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, President Franklin Pierce, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, and President James Buchanan; and depicting the systematic expansion of slavery, Lincoln concluded that “we find it impossible not to believe that Stephen, Franklin, Roger, and James all understood one another from the beginning, and all worked upon a common plan or draft before the first lick was struck.” Historians have yet to find the smoking gun that eluded Lincoln in his speech.
This can offer students another instructive example of why context matters in political rhetoric. At the time of Lincoln’s speech in 1858, for instance, Southern slaveholders imagined themselves an embattled minority in national politics—not an implacable power.
In a famous essay from 1964, the historian Richard Hofstadter described a “Paranoid Style in American Politics.” His analysis ranged from 19th-century beliefs in Masonic and Catholic plots to usurp traditional values, to Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s 1951 smear of the eminent soldier and secretary of state George Marshall. What distinguished modern political paranoia, Hofstadter said, “may be traced to the effects of the mass media.” It enabled a “literature of the paranoid style ... richer and more circumstantial” and provided “a vast theater” for the paranoid imagination. Paranoid rants, which Hofstadter identified with those on the extreme right and their fears of being “dispossessed,” had become even more grandiose and pervasive in modern times. So it looked more than a half-century ago.
In a history classroom, students should look not just at the substance of this paranoia, but, for example, at how McCarthy’s message formed part of the fabric of the Cold War.
In its method and subject matter, history is uniquely suited to explaining our recurring fascination for fake news. Sure, Twitter and the internet are recent platforms for deceit, news cycles today run faster than ever, and some teachers lack the training or ability to lead students to critical perspectives. But, getting to the bottom of why we continuously fall for fake news requires a deep understanding of our past.