Conspiracy theories in the classroom

I’m entering my last week with my lovely Advanced group, the first class at this level I’ve taught for quite some time, and the whole experience has given me plenty to reflect on. One thing that’s become clearer in my mind is the fact that you really cannot progress that far beyond a certain level without a fairly broad range of interests, plenty of awareness of current affairs, topics that are generally deemed newsworthy and a desire to learn more not only about the language, but about the world itself.

If all you’re interested in is shopping and going sightseeing, say, you can pretty much do all you’ll ever need to do in those departments by the end of Intermediate; certainly by the end of Upper-Intermediate. To properly be Advanced and to take on board the kind of language you’re likely to encounter in the Cambridge Advanced exam, you need not only to delve deeper into the lexis of topics you’ve already studied but to also delve into a wider range of topics – the law, the environment, natural disasters, hair and beauty, ethics, politics, economics, globalisation, and so on. Within each topic, there’ll be high-end language more commonly found in the written language, particularly in journalism and academia, as well as lower-end language more common in speech around each subject that’s well worth focusing on. During a recent tutorial, one of my Chinese students from this group mentioned how horizon-broadening she’d found the course. She mentioned that she hadn’t really had any grounding in areas like politics and even after having had them explained, still struggled to really grasp concepts such as HOLDING A REFERENDUM and FORMING A COALITION, for obvious reasons. She’d then gone home, Googled them, read up on them on Wikipedia and had lengthy conversations with her dad about these ideas and how they compared with the system back home. Now, if that’s not education in its fullest sense then I don’t know what is.

Anyway, none of this is really anything more than an indirect lead-in to the main meat for today, which is conspiracy theories. The tenuous link with my lead-in is simply the fact that the other day we were doing a unit from OUTCOMES Advanced called HISTORY. It was a double-page spread and the heart of the lesson was a listening where four people spoke about recent historical milestones in their country – and the outro, where the students in the class spoke about things they felt were milestones in the recent history of their own countries. As a lead-in, I put students in groups of three and they discussed the following questions:

A                  Work in groups. How much do you know about the recent historical milestones below? Discuss what you think happened– and what the causes and results were.

the fall of the Berlin Wall

the September the Eleventh attacks

the Iraq conflicts

the Asian tsunami of 2004

the creation – and subsequent expansion – of the EU

the genocides in Rwanda and Sudan

Frequently, with these kinds of activities, I’m depressed and kind of appalled by how little world knowledge many of my students have – and remember, I’m mainly teaching young people who either are already graduates in their own countries or who want to do their degrees here in the UK – and wonder what they learn in subjects like History and Geography at school, but what really surprises – and depresses – me is the frequency with which conspiracy theories emerge.

Over the years, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had students from the Arab world tell me Mossad or the CIA was behind the 9/11 bombings, or students from a wide range of countries tell me that the moon landings never happened or that Princess Di was covertly taken out by the royal family and so on. I’ve almost come to expect to hear these ramblings in certain situations – and suspect many, many other teachers must also have been on the receiving end of them. In this particular instance, I was slightly taken aback because the student rolling out the theories wasn’t one I would have suspected – a young German guy, a Business Management graduate, who, having discussed the basic factual details of the collapse of the Twin Towers as a result of airplanes being flown into them, launched into the theory (laid out by Michael Moore in his fairly tedious Fahrenheit 911 doc) that it was all somehow an inside job and that it’d been arranged to create a pretext for the Iraq war. In retrospect, I could’ve seen this coming, as earlier we’d done a vocabulary exercise focusing on language that may prove useful when talking about key historical events, and including items like CALL A TRUCE, CLAIM / GAIN INDEPENDENCE, ISSUE A FORMAL APOLOGY, CARRY OUT A SERIES OF BOMBING, BE ASSASSINATED and so on. One of the practice questions was CAN YOU THINK OF ANY HIGH-PROFILE WHO HAVE BEEN ASSASSINATED? DO YOU KNOW WHY? During the speaking around this question, there’d been considerable debate from several students about the JFK murders and what the real story. I’d dealt with this basically by reformulating what I heard and ending up with a few gapped sentences up on the board, which I then elicited the missing words for. Here’s what I ended up with (I’ve italicised the words I’d initially gapped).

After the revolution, the old dictator tried to flee the country, but was caught and executed.

According to the official version, JFK was assassinated by a lone gunman, but there are lots of conspiracy theories around the killing.

He was gunned down outside his house and died instantly.

So as I say, in retrospect, perhaps it was no surprise that we would end up heading deeper into conspiracy theory territory. Two main thoughts emerged from this for me: why are these preposterous ideas still so rife . . . and what’s the best way for us as teachers and educators to deal with them when they crop up in our classes? And it’s this I’d like to move on to explore from hereon in.

The very fact that conspiracy theories have become such common currency is slightly chilling. We have a large chunk of potential new graduates who not only are ignorant about official history, but who take pride in claiming the cachet of cool that attaches itself to a proud belief in conspiracy theories.  I have students who KNOW that the moon landing never happened and that the film footage was faked, and yet they don’t actually know WHEN the supposed faked footage was from, or who the stars of the particular epic were! Forget the facts and feed the theories seems to be the modus operandi. How this then tallies with having to go on and engage in hard research, the evaluation of factual and historical data and so on is beyond me – and I’m glad I’m not the person who has to unpick the mess that must on occasion  inevitably be created as a result.

I think much of the growth of conspiracy theories is a direct result of the erosion of faith in governments and official versions of the truth, and I think it’s no coincidence that these beliefs are strongest and most common among students who come from countries where the state media is regarded with deep suspicion. Because governments lie and deny (and I’m certainly not excluding my own here, incidentally!), it leaves room for questions and doubt – and in those shadows cranks flourish.  However, to return to one of my favourite quotes, what then seems to happen is that rather than losing all faith and believing in nothing, many people instead end up believing in almost anything!

In addition to this, there’s a global fear and distrust of the CIA and their operations, a fear stoked by the teenage angst movies of Michael Moore and the parallel knee-jerk self-hating literature of the likes of Noam Chomsky and John Pilger. Being clued-up on conspiracy theories becomes part of the cool kids’ club uniform, along with Che Guevara tees and Bob Marley CDs. Knowing information that other people don’t is a kind of socially motivated desire. We know something, everyone pays attention to us, interacts with us, seeks to find out the “secret”. It is the same kind of logic by which gossip becomes a currency in offices and institutions, a way for its possessors to boost their social status. Who they tell, who they confide in, who gets to be part of the “in” and who is “out” divides the group but solidifies allies.

I think there are several other reasons why people so proudly parade their paranoias, though. Instability makes most people uncomfortable; we prefer to believe that we are living in a predictable, safe world – and conspiracy theories offer accounts of big scary events that make them feel safer and more predictable. In addition to this, we seem to be evolutionarily conditioned to connect dots that are not connected. In the same way that two animals hearing a rustling in some nearby bushes may well join the dots and conclude that a predator is close by – and therefore most likely live long enough to then teach this behavior to its offspring, so conspiracy becomes part of our psychological survival kit for trying times.

One final reason why the Muslim world in particular, I think, clings so keenly to conspiracy came to me during a recent cab ride back from Heathrow airport, where I had a Somali cab driver. he was a lovely guy and had been living in the UK for over twenty years. We talked for a long time about the situation back home now compared to when he’d left and the fortunes of Al-Shabaab, the radical Islamist group that still controls part of the country. I was struck when my cabbie claimed that Al-Shabaab were “not Muslims”, as it seemed to me to be at the very heart of what they were. After further questioning, it turned out that what he meant was that the way they acted and carried out their business was so far beyond his own – and I suspect beyond many many many normal decent peaceful Muslims’ – interpretation of Islam that he couldn’t bring himself to recognise these people are fellow believers. Their tendency towards violence placed them, in his mind, outside of the Ummah. Once you cease to believe that people carrying out horrendous acts in the name of a religion you yourself feel as part of your every atom are actually what they claim to be, it’s only a short step to believing that they could well be controlled by outside agents.

So where does all of this leave us as teachers? In a bit of a moral quandary would be my immediate reaction. Shouldn’t we be challenging this lunacy and pointing out its many flaws? Well, I’m not so sure. In a very fundamental sense, the whole point of conspiracy theories is that they can’t be disproved. Any evidence countering them can simply be taken as yet more proof of the lengths to which those REALLY behind things will go. Just as Creation Theory now claims that dinosaur skeletons don’t actually prove the world is more than 6000 years old, but rather that God has a sense of humour and placed them there to test our faith, so too the fact that Bin Laden and other al-Qaeda operatives openly boast and gloat of their killings can be interpreted as proof of the ingenuity the CIA / the Elders of Zion – and of their cunning use of film and technology. Logical argument is an impossibility in these situations.
On a more morally complex level, though, there’s also the fact that these discussions throw our OWN faith back at us. How can we tell the difference between information and disinformation? Why are we so sure that Neil Armstrong really did land on the moon? Or that Princess Diana died because of a tipsy chauffeur who wobbled whilst trying to shake off the paparazzi? On a very fundamental level, for most of these, acceptance of these truths is in itself an act of faith and very very few of us know or care enough to argue against the obsessives who resist official reality.
Given this, I’d like to think the way I handled this issue in class this week was about the best we can muster. I listened, I said “Oh, you’re one of THOSE people!” and then wrote on the board the following exchange:
There are lots / l…….. / m……….. of conspiracy theories about 9-11.
> Yes, but down that road lies m………….. .
And then elicited loads, millions and madness . . . before moving swiftly on!

8 responses

  1. Interesting post! I think your discussion of conspiracy theories is related to a wider problem that teachers in our field sometimes face in the classroom, namely, how do we deal with the situation when our students come out with some really loony statement or belief? And, basically, I think we have to do what you did: make some general comment and move on as quickly as possible!
    I think it is different if you are faced with a student (or even several) who come out with racist or homophobic statements because then I think I would definitely try to object to what they say, as tactfully and diplomatically as possible (my students are all paying customers!), but if they merely say something which is downright weird, then I think that it is necessary to ensure that the lesson or class discussion doesn’t get bogged down in something loony, unless it engages the other students, in which case, fair enough!

  2. Hi Amanda –
    Thanks for reading and for taking the time to post.

    I totally agree with you that we need to deal with sexist, racist, etc. comments in a different way – and think it’s far more OK to basically say you disagree and to use that moment to teach / go over again the concepts of homophobia or anti-Semitism or whatever again – and explain that in western academic contexts, its unacceptable and can get you expelled.

    In a sense, though, I guess that part of my doubt and concern is down to the fact that many conspiracy theories do have an anti-Semitic angle to them. I’m constantly amazed on my travels when I encounter things like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in national airport bookstores! These ideas are still out there and have common currency.

    In this instance, though, I don’t think that’s what it was. There was no way I was either capable of having a lengthy discussion about it or that the class as a whole wanted to either. I could see plenty of students either rolling their eyes or else simply looking bemused – and so felt a quick bit of language input that covertly conveyed my own feelings about the matter would suffice.

    Interested to know what the Dogme folk would do in this particular instance, though!

  3. “teenage angst” that Michael Moore needs to grow up! “knee-jerk self-hating literature” Chomsky and Pilger really need to lighten up!

    excuse me while i rofl there Hugh, am sure the CIA are cursing the above authors for giving them a bad rep which has nothing at all to do with CIA actions, perish that thought.

    you ask how can we approach issue of looking at events, that self-hating Chomsky fella gives a good example (when evaluating media reporting) of using paired-examples so for example the reporting of say protests in Syria vs protests in Bahrain, the hypothesis being media will differ systematically when talking about official enemies compared to official friends.

    conspiracy theories can be challenged by exploring much simpler explanations, idea of Occam’s razor and such like. we should take a student’s current understanding of an event and try to use that even if it involves a heated debate. am reminded of some US school students were not allowed to talk about that kid who was murdered by that street vigilante. shutting down such interest and ‘moving swiftly on’ is rarely healthy.


    1. Well, BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE notwithstanding, that’d certainly be my thoughts about Michael Moore, yes, Mura. I guess you see his body of work differently. Which you are of course entitled to! It was really the way what he’s done has been fed into the 9/11 conspiracy theory files that I was writing about, mind.

      Not saying Pilger or Chomsky need to ‘lighten up’ either. Just that that knee-jerk reaction of always seeing the worst in the USA is both overly-simple and again feeds into a certain kind of global discourse beyond the point they probably intended it to. As for the CIA, I’m certainly not saying that they’ve done nothing to deserve their bad rep. I’m no fan of much recent American foreign policy, that’s for sure. I just don’t think they ordered the 9/11 attacks. Unlike many of my students. You seem to be both saying we should do more in class on conspiracy theories whilst also either misreading my point about the CIA or else somehow continuing to play the US blame game.

      Anyway . . . the point I was trying to make, and clearly kind of failed to, given the response, was not that these issues are never worth tackling. Rather, it was about what we should best do when they suddenly rear their ugly head as on this occasion. The whole nub here was that actually this WASN’T something that was ‘healthy debate’ among the class as a whole and if it was ‘shutting down interest’, then it was really only one particular student’s interest in this instance. Had the whole class wanted to discuss something such as the US shootings, of course, I’d have been happy to roll with that up to a point.

      I’m curious to know how you feel the particular incident I described might have been differently handled, though.

      As for using comparing paired-examples of reporting, I’ve done plenty of this in the past and tend not these days, quite simply because (a) it’s often dependent on a VERY sophisticated grasp of language and (b) it only really appeals – in my experience, at least – to very specific kind of student, often one with a media and / or politics background, but tends to leave many others fairly cold.

      Anyway, thanks for the response – and for taking the time to read.

      1. i have seen those labels you used thrown many times at those writers, they contain no information and never address the issues those writers talk about.

        similarly phrases like ‘US blame game’ seek to dismiss any appraisal of US actions. claiming that “reason why the Muslim world in particular, I think, clings so keenly to conspiracy..” is dubious to say the least. not sure why you want to say that Muslims are more prone to this kind of thinking than other groups.

        as i mentioned tackling conspiracy theories as a kind of faulty thinking is one way into it, one could use articles such as this on thinking biases

        also maybe exploring how the use of claiming any anti-official analysis as a conspiracy theory may also be productive 😉

        that’s great to hear you have used paired examples in ELT, would you blog about that? i have yet to have a chance to use this for some of the reasons you have mentioned

      2. Hi again Mura –
        Well, the intention behind this post certainly wasn’t to engage in a lengthy deconstruction of the work of either Michael Moore or Noam Chomsky.
        Suffice it to say we clearly have different opinions of the merits of their insights and ideas.

        I also wasn’t claiming to have any particularly devastating new insight into the September the 11th attacks and I’m very well aware of the roots of Al-Qaeda, American actions in Afghanistan, the provocative nature of stationing of US troops in Saudi and so on. None of this justifies 9/11 (just as I’d not ever seek to justify Guatanamo, incidentally, or what happened in Abu Ghraib), though and all I’d add on this matter is that however much you may dislike the US and its actions, there are also plenty of scary and very fanatical religious and ideologically motivated groups out there that wish us both harm. Nothing new in stating that, I know. All I intended to imply initially was that there is a particular culture of blaming the US for all the world’s ills and that I think this feeds into conspiracies around 9/11. That is all.

        I’m also not claiming that Muslims are any more likely to come up with conspiracy theories than anyone else.
        In fact, I kind of resent the implication that there’s some sort of racist sub-text here.
        I’ve spent four years in a predominantly Muslim country and have many many Muslim friends from a whole range of countries, not that I need to defend myself on that front; I do, though, feel the implication is slightly off!

        It’s simply that in my experience of working with foreign students, the students I have heard who come up with 9/11 and 7/7 and Princess Di theories the most have generally tended to come from the Arab world – and it would be dishonest of me not to state that as it is. I’m very well aware of the fact that all kinds of other conspiracy theories abound all over the place – and that there are plenty of non-Muslims out there who also believe some of these ideas as well. Indeed, as I said, in this particular instance, it was a white non-religious German student who raised this!

        Thanks for the link to the New Yorker article. I’ll peruse that later on tonight.

        My question really was though how would you have dealt with the situation AS IT UNFURLED IN THE CLASSROOM – rather than as an ‘issue’ at a later time.
        What would you have said / done / written on the board / got the class to do, etc?

      3. the more i read that paragraph beginning /One final reason why the Muslim world/ the less sense it makes. i am not that familiar with Somalia but any conflict where religion/ethnicity is supposedly an explanatory force always crumbles in light of close analysis, i am thinking of Ireland, my parents country of Sri Lanka, the Balkans. also reminded of studies like Robert Papes( where nationalism explains suicide attacks.

        what feeds conspiracy theories is very debateable, i would maybe contrast them with what could be called “nobbly theories” promoted by states where any of their actions are always driven by noble aims 😉

        but speaking seriously for a bit, if a subject came up that i had strong feelings on such as you do with conspiracy theories i would try to ask pertinent questions and try to explore the students thinking (whilst boarding relevant language). in addition to trying to conceptualise such theories as faulty thinking. this of course depends on the level of trust in the class. not sure if this is adequate response to your question?!

        finally “paired-examples in ELT” would be a great blog post!

      4. All I was getting at in that paragraph Mura was that for many Muslims I think they feel so removed from the atrocities carried out in the name of Islam that they somehow cease – or refuse – to accept that those carrying out the acts could be Muslims. This isn’t just a random opinion, but is based on plenty of conversations with Muslims over time. My point was that once you no longer believe that the people carrying out terrorist attacks are actually who they claim to be, or represent what they claim to represent, then it’s just that little bit easier to believe they could be something else!

        The fact that what feeds conspiracy theories is debatable is, of course, one of the things that prompted me to try to suggest some possible reasons!

        I hear you on trying to explore the student’s thought processes, but feel personally that there’s little point for the reasons explained in the initial post: I’d be very unlikely to really change their mind on this one and the rest of the class would quite quickly lose patience. In a one-to-one, fine, but in this particular whole class situation, I’m far less sure.

        Finally, the paired examples post won’t happen, sadly, simply because the experiments I did in that department were too long ago for me to remember and detail with any real clarity.

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