January 29, 2011

The closing of the conservative mind: front and center in my classroom

It isn't that I have never had conservative students before, nor that I have a problem with them. Last semester, I had several who argued with me about the role of government and socialism and those kinds of right wing issues. We got along just fine, and I have no idea if my lectures changed their minds or not. In other words, they certainly were not punished for being conservative and we had some nice conversations along the way.

But this semester, I have a guy who is really bugging me. Turns out he is ex military, for what that is worth. But I knew he was a little different on the first day when I had them do an exercise on recent history and he said that Obama had signed an executive order that gave "Cass Sunstein unprecedented power over the American people, including citizenship and stuff like that." I looked it up when I got home and the EO was about reviewing regulations to make sure that they were still useful. I have no clue where he got the conspiracy part.

Part of the other variable, I must say, is that his class is the second in a row in the same room. His is the Post-civil war, but the one before is the Pre. I don't get much room to gather my thoughts between the two, and have been, at least so far, jumping from Columbus and Cortez to Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction. That has made dealing with this student more difficult.

So earlier, I made my argument that the Civil War was about slavery. I stand by that interpretation and made that clear. I noted that for all the talk about state's rights, South Carolina was angry that Northern states had banned slavery, and even that Northern states didn't allow the Southerners to bring their slaves north. State's rights, it appears, was only for Southerners.

When I made that argument, he raised some secessionist reference to some 98 "principles" (I could have the number wrong) and "self-determination." I noted that self-determination did not extend to the people being enslaved. Duh.

Yesterday, at the beginning of class, he returned to this topic and said that he had written a paper on "nullification" and was pleased to see that 11 states had signed on to push for nullification today. I said that was a complete refutation of federalism, and further that if nullification were in place, we would not have integration and would most likely still have states with segregation. He dismissed that as "already settled" and said that John Calhoun was a brilliant man, who was only wrong on slavery. Later, driving home, I realized I should have pointed out that slavery was the entire basis for Calhoun's nullification argument.

Not sure quite how to deal with this guy. He bugs me. During our discussion, he referenced the "individual mandate" as justification for nullification, and then said (when I objected) that we couldn't afford to cover all these people. Or words to that effect. He made the analogy of the lifeboat that can only hold a limited number of people.

Fuck. By this time, I am just pissed, and can see that many in the class are rather annoyed with the discussion, so I moved on. But I was thinking about the poor thinking skills of this student. How quickly he jumped from the mandate to some discussion about what we can afford. I had just heard a story about the 700 billion that we spend each year in military spending, and remembering that these fuckwads never talk about nullification or secession over paying for that (or as it was under Bush--not paying for that). But dare to talk about finding away to give people healthcare and they want to take their ball and go home.

But in all seriousness, I am open to any suggestions about how to deal with this guy. He bugs me. I think he has a partial understanding of the past, and is a good example of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing. I have never really struggled with this before, because I have always been able to at least get them to listen to me. Not sure what to do here.


leighton said...

It sounds like a hard situation because the foundation of history consists of facts, whereas conspiracy theorists - who I don't think are mainline conservatives yet, but who are getting closer thanks to the Tea Party's mainstreaming of views held by the John Birch Society - have openly declared war on facts.

The contrarian conspiracy theorists I ran into when I worked at the immigration firm seemed to hold the beliefs they did in good part because they needed to really piss people off in order to fulfill their social needs. Liberals who actually give a shit about suffering people tend to be easy marks for provocateurs. I found that the attitude that worked best for controlling the interaction was to act bored and vaguely amused (but mostly bored), thus establishing myself as a non-target. I have no idea if that would be of any use for your lecture style, though.

steves said...

I don't get the impression that this kind of stuff is moving towards the mainstream, even among TP folks, but maybe I don't hang around enough kooks. Thanks to e-mail and the net, there is certainly no shortage of these kinds of people.

I applaud your restraint and ability to let this guy express his opinion. I remember people like this over the years and they could be frustrating, in that they took up class time with their ideas and opinions. At what point do you just shut him down and move on?

Monk-in-Training said...

Hmmm. Well I am not sure on what level you can engage him.

As a Christian, the FIRST thing I would do, is invoke the spirit of Acts 17:11 and encourage him to search the sources of his materials to prove their accuracy.

As to his "individual mandate" issue, there has been some recent discussion over the 5th Congress (containing many Founders) passing an insurance bill with an individual mandate in it. Surely the Founders themselves would have known what was in their own minds.

Ruby said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Streak said...

Wow. Ruby comes along and shows us just exactly the closed mind. Nice. Way to demonstrate reason, there, troll.

I see this guy as a true believer. He is really convinced that this is the way the world works. He mentioned the mandate and though he didn't say tyranny, he sure seems to believe that. What bothers me more than this kind of destructive political stance, is the lack of clear thought. I think Leighton's point of acting bored by the idea is a better one than engaging directly. My problem, as I noted, is that I run into him on the heels of another class and so start to see my fatigue rise and my patience ebb. It makes it hard to respond in the manner that I normally like to.

I am thinking of asking him to talk after class where we can argue about these things if he wants, but am not sure.

Bob said...

While it does not make your job any easier, the facts of history are the only weapon against this type of thought.

Therefore, you sir are our first defense and one soldier in the fight. This will be the only time he (is forced to) faces someone who disagrees with his crazy world view. The rest of the time he likely gets his information from those who he agrees and is equally factually challenged.

I think you must defend on the facts in a respectful way based on your clear understanding of a topic that he does not yet grasp. You should be respectful, but your clear undertsanding will make him look foolish among his peers and they will help weed him out.

Bob said...

You could also make sure the final exam includes items that do not fit into his world view to make sure he learns the real facts, not the Fox facts.

Streak said...

Thanks for the feedback guys. I have been reading Michael Berube's book on liberal education and am reminded that part of a liberal education means me being respectful of his ideas. That is hard in this particular situation, because I find nullification to be out of the wackjob right. But I am going to try to be a good professor to him.