If We Want to Teach to the Moment, Convenient Narratives Won’t Do

US Capitol has a tape in front of it with note "Caution" Photo by Andy Feliciotti on Unsplash

In the aftermath of the January 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol, which left five people dead, and nearly derailed Congressional certification of the 2020 election results, many in higher ed have been wrestling with questions around what they can do to help mitigate the cultural and political crisis we find ourselves in, and how they can ‘teach to the moment.’

Without a doubt, it can be valuable to present students with readings and resources to contextualize the present; to compare and contrast what is happening today with events in other geographical and/or historical contexts; to explore the huge difference between how police responded to the Capitol riots as compared to how they responded to the racial justice movement in the wake of George Floyd’s murder; to think through what would have happened if the insurgents were leftists, Muslims, people of color, etc.

However, a word of caution is also warranted here:

It is critical to make sure students are given a rich and nuanced understanding, rather than being provided with simplistic narratives that feel good to us but don't explain much, and that primarily serve to caricature or condemn the actors whose behavior we are ostensibly trying to understand or explain – while conveniently diverting attention away from realities we’d like to avoid.  

The whole election of Trump, his near reelection, and the blind spot to both of these prospects among people in the media and academia, the polarization around higher ed and journalism, etc. -- these all speak to a fundamental and growing disconnect between the 'professional managerial class' and other large blocks of society. A curriculum that helps bridge that divide could be genuinely useful.

Yet it is important to understand who it is within the power of scholars to act upon, and who it is not. Given significant and growing partisan divides in terms of educational attainment, whatever teaching happens with respect to the events of January 6 is unlikely to reach most who participated in or supported the mob – at least not absent significant increases in education access.

Indeed, even through public engagement, say writing in The Atlantic, Wall Street Journal, etc., scholars would still be reaching mostly others in the professional-managerial class.

Those in higher education institutions who want to ‘teach to the moment’ need to understand these realities, and to focus on the people they will most plausibly reach – namely members of the professional-managerial class or aspirants thereto.

Put another way, if higher education is going to help at all in the present moment, it won't be by reinforcing student and faculty tendencies to smugly disparage 'those people' who are not part of the professional-managerial class as stupid, ignorant, racist, sexist, whatever. Instead, it'll be by equipping the kinds of people who inhabit institutions of higher learning to have a more accurate understanding of how people like themselves contribute to the problems they condemn, and to do what they can do, concretely, to mitigate said problems.

The main thing I would encourage, then, is reflexivity: help students understand the present moment by looking at how the behaviors of themselves and people 'like them' fit into the picture; the role they play, good and bad, both in terms of contributing to the present moment, and constructively moving forward.  

This would be much more effective than helping the very people who benefit most from the prevailing order to better disparage their political and ideological opponents (who often benefit far less) as ‘privileged.’

After all, higher ed institutions are, themselves, built on privilege, and reinforce social privilege. If college students – who are disproportionately white and relatively affluent -- walk away from their lessons believing ‘privilege’ is something that primarily serves the kinds of people who stormed the Capitol on January 6 rather than themselves, then they don’t really understand the concept at all.

In fact, research in the cognitive and behavioral sciences suggests that when whites explicitly denounce racism or affirm their commitment to racial equality, they often actually grow more likely to act in ways that favor other whites; yet simultaneously, they grow more confident that said behaviors were not racially-motivated.

A similar effect holds when whites observe peers making gestures towards antiracism: it convinces them not only that their peers are egalitarians, but that their own actions and interactions are non-biased as well.

Meanwhile, blaming or criticizing ‘others’ for a particular moral failing reduces one’s own sense of guilt for that same moral failing.

Consequently, for whites who inhabit social circles where people go around denouncing racism to one another constantly — painting themselves as staunch advocates for social justice, and condemning the ‘bad whites’ — it would become almost impossible for such people to see the role that they play in perpetuating systemic inequality.

Perhaps, then, it should not be surprising that educating relatively well-off whites about racial privilege seems to do nothing to enhance attitudes towards minorities, nor to motivate anyone to change their own lifestyles or behaviors. Participants instead tend to emerge from the training convinced that struggling whites are deserving of their poverty (apparently, for failing to make good use of white privilege like they did).

This is why reflexivity is so critical when ‘teaching to the moment.’ Otherwise, discussing the January 6 riots in terms of racial privilege and white supremacy will mainly just blind those who deliver or receive such education to the much larger role that they, and people like themselves, play in reinforcing racialized inequality – and the extent to which their own lifestyles, more than almost anyone else in America, are predicated upon exploiting racialized inequality.

That is, insofar as journalists, scholars and their primary audiences neglect to include themselves, their allies, and the people they sympathize with in the picture, the narratives that get spun tend to obscure more than they elucidate about ‘white supremacy’ and how it actually operates in the world – allowing the most supreme among the whites to clutch their pearls and pretend as though if not for ‘those people’ we’d all be living in the Promised Land.

The truth, alas, is much more complicated.

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.