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.