“How do we even know what to believe?” It’s a great question for a history class. One of my high school students put it just this way during a heated discussion about President Harry Truman’s options for using nuclear weapons in 1945. The same question arose this past year whenever we studied controversial subjects in U.S. history: treatment of Native Americans, the legacy of slavery, income inequality, or civilian “collateral damage” in the War on Terror. Lately, though, as I watch my students wrestle with belief, I worry that today’s political culture has undermined their ability to grasp the primary goal of history: telling the truth.
My concern crystallized when President Trump told a group of veterans in Kansas City, Mo., last month to “stick with us” and trust him that, “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” This is just the latest from an administration that gave us “fake news,” “alternative facts,” and science denial regarding climate change.
I fear this presidency’s corrosive influence on the minds of young people. Trump’s drumbeat of claims that defy all evidence—that Barack Obama was not a citizen, that his own inaugural crowd was the largest in history, that climate change is a Chinese-inspired hoax, that millions of illegal votes were cast in 2016, that Russians did not seek to influence the presidential election—have shaped my classroom zeitgeist. Students appear increasingly ambivalent about truth.
They ask questions the likes of which I haven’t heard in 30 years of teaching. Last year, they queried me about whether the 9/11 attacks were an inside job, whether the Newtown school shooting was a hoax, whether climate change was merely a shift in weather patterns “like we’ve had through history.” They questioned whether newspapers with a “liberal bias like The New York Times and The Washington Post” were any better sources than Fox News or Breitbart, and whether statistics I presented correlating high-income taxes on the wealthiest Americans with a rising middle class during the 1940s-1960s were real. They wondered whether the Civil War was “about states’ rights, not slavery,” and whether Robert E. Lee was a hero.
What I’m seeing isn’t scholarly skepticism. It’s evidence of manipulation."
These questions not only express credulity for fraud and suspicion about facts, but many of them also echo ideas traceable to far-right misinformation efforts and heightened political polarization. The 9/11 and Newtown comments suggest the influence of extremist conspiracy-theorist Alex Jones (who was recently banned from most social-media platforms for mendacity and hate-mongering) and assertions made on his “Infowars” website. The politicization of climate change, a fairly recent development, resurfaced in presidential tweets last winter that referenced a cold snap on the East Coast to dismiss global warming. Following events in Charlottesville last summer, President Trump and his chief of staff, General John F. Kelly, praised Robert E. Lee. At the time, Kelly drew a sharp rebuke from many historians for ignoring slavery when describing what caused the Civil War. Despite my efforts to set the record straight, my students seem primed to believe that anything, or nothing, might be true.
I have tried to suppose this isn’t all bad. Good scholarship demands skepticism. I coach students to consider how an issue might look from the perspective of people of different political persuasion, age, gender, ethnicity, nationality, or class. I teach lessons on spotting source bias. The best history acknowledges contingency (things could have turned out differently) and tells truths that are complex, nuanced, and subtle. It takes a long time to train teenagers to be wary of facile claims about the past. A bit of disbelief can enable careful thinking.
But what I’m seeing isn’t scholarly skepticism. It’s evidence of manipulation, and it’s politically tinged. It exemplifies what scholar Lee McIntyre describes in his recent book, Post-Truth. McIntyre writes that “what is striking about the idea of post-truth is not just that truth is being challenged, but that it is being challenged as a mechanism for asserting political dominance.” (Author’s emphasis is his own.)
Some of my students’ comments evoke McIntyre’s discussion of false equivalence. For instance, because the editorial page of The New York Times tends to cut liberal, my students equate its factual news content with the partisanship of right-wing outlets that disregard objectivity and have an overt agenda. According to McIntyre’s analysis, when Fox claims to be “fair and balanced,” it does so not through careful news gathering and factual reporting, but by offering a conservative counternarrative to mainstream “liberal bias.” There may be a counterargument to every truth claim, but not every counterclaim holds water—a notion lost on those seeking “equal time” for alternative facts.
I find more disturbing students’ willingness to believe conspiracy theories: that 9/11 or the Newtown shooting might be staged events, or that climate change is not the result of human activity. James Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, an exposé of textbook bias in U.S. history, suggests that such misbelief is due to our present, unprecedented political moment: “Our situation is far worse than it was in the past,” Loewen recently told Vox. “Our federal government, under Nixon and Johnson, lied to us about the Vietnam War, but they never made the case that facts don’t matter.” Loewen asserts that, “Trump has basically introduced the idea that there is no such thing as facts, no such thing as truth—and that is fundamentally different. He is attacking the very idea of truth and thereby giving his opponents no ground to stand on at all.” My students are being conditioned to embrace this post-truth outlook.
History, as I understand it, becomes untenable for people with such a disposition. My training and teaching align fundamentally with the late, great historian Eric Hobsbawm, who declared over 20 years ago: “I believe that without the distinction between what is and what is not, there can be no history.” As a newly-minted history Ph.D. when Hobsbawm wrote that line, I agreed with his rejection of post-modern scholarship that treated our discipline as little more than a “truth game.” But the affront to truth has moved beyond rarefied academic attempts to “deconstruct” literature or history. Instead, it emanates from the seat of power.
I am girding up to fight back this fall, assembling an arsenal of books and articles, lining up guest speakers, and considering lessons meant to loosen the hold of post-truth on my classes. A post-truth mentality is the toughest problem I’ve encountered as a teacher—because it portends the end of history, serious thought, and democracy.