I’ve been playing around with an elective idea on conspiracy theories in American history. It provides an opportunity to explore issues of epistemology in historical studies as well as the ease with which myth and outright lies can be disseminated and, in some cases, become part of our cultural lexicon. One of the projects that I’ve considered assigning would allows students to develop their own conspiracy theory using video or some other social networking program. This would allow the general public to consider it and make a decision as to its veracity or as a means to gauge some of the biases that shape those judgments. Consider the following short video that attempts to draw a connection between Lincoln, his legal activities with the railroads in the 1850s and the supposed purpose of the American Civil War. Of course, the individual who put this together believes the content of his video to be true:
It’s not a very convincing video, but please take notice of the comments that follow. It suggests that for my students to create a convincing interpretation they would have to have a sufficient command of the relevant literature. So, what would be the goal of such an exercise? Well, in a class on conspiracy theories it might provide students with some insight into the general public’s ability or interest in discerning truth from fiction. It would also reinforce one of my top priorities, which is to encourage healthy skepticism and strong analytical skills in my students. It may lead to some interesting psychological and/or cognitive observations concerning our ability to engage in critical analysis in a society that thrives on suspicion and distrust of power.
Of course, there are a number of ethical considerations involved in such a course/project. Essentially, I would be asking my students to intentionally lie to the general public. While the deception would not be carried out in the name of this school there is an obvious connection that cannot be severed or minimized. What is paramount for students to keep in mind is that the end goal is not the deception, but what we learn about the extent to which the public can be deceived. Consider a recent class at George Mason University where the students created a fictional character and utilized Wikipedia, blogs, and other social networking sites to test the ease with which their interpretations could be successfully filtered through the Web.
I am nowhere near proposing such a course, but it is an idea that I keep coming back to, which means that it is very likely that I will act on it at some point in the not too distant future. What do you think?