I don’t know about you, but I’m fed up with conspiracy theories. They’re everywhere. If they continue to metastasise throughout the curriculum, it may become impossible to teach history at all. No one will need to know much about the past, or provide evidence for what they do know. No explanation will need to be even faintly plausible. Everything will be explained by referring to ‘Them’.
I say all this because [‘ironically’, as people say nowadays, ignoring the fact that it isn’t ironic at all] I was telling a class about one verifiable historical conspiracy: the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The discussion led inevitably to John F Kennedy’s murder in 1963. I was startled to learn that every single student believed that the 35th president had died as the result of a conspiracy.
To believe this you have to ignore the evidence provided by no fewer than four official investigations and – this is the point – provide some sort of evidence to demonstrate who participated in this alleged conspiracy, and how it was executed. I pointed out that the most recent examination of the assassination, Vincent Bugliosi’s aptly-named Reclaiming History, lists in its 1510 pages some 58 pieces of evidence which – to put it no more strongly – strongly suggest Oswald’s sole guilt. My students weren’t impressed. They’d seen Oliver Stone’s movie, JFK. They’d looked at ‘stuff’ on the internet.
Then we got to the moon landings. Useless to observe that, whilst it might be possible to fake one landing, it would vastly increase the likelihood of detection to fake another five. Apart from the astronauts themselves, thousands of people would have had to be in on the secret, including all the geologists who worked on the rock that was brought back, or the teams in Australia – and indeed, the Soviet Union – who monitored communications between the Earth and the Moon. The idea that all of them would keep quiet about their role in the conspiracy is frankly laughable.
I quoted the old line about only two people being able to keep a secret, and then only if one of them was dead. It did no good. Nor did pointing out that all this was supposedly done by a government that proved incapable of concealing a burglary in downtown Washington for more than twenty-four hours. ‘The flag was waving when there’s no wind on the moon’. ‘The shadows are all wrong’. ‘I saw a website…’
Students are no different from other people. The conspiracy view of history is, bizarrely, rather a comforting one. It reassures us that there are no accidents and that nothing is random. The world is run by a small but infinitely cunning group of conspirators. Their name is ‘They’. ‘They’ are the people with the power to alter the wounds on John F Kennedy’s body, or to change the geological composition of 400 pounds of moon rock. ‘They’ may be malign, but at least someone’s in charge. Perhaps this is just a student view of teachers, applied to the rest of the world. And of course there’s another reason why people love conspiracies. Believing in them is much easier than actually knowing something about the topic.
I’m off to a conference next month in Churchill College, Cambridge. It’s called Better History. We’re going to discuss the place of knowledge in the history curriculum. We are – I need hardly say – a small but infinitely cunning group. Our intentions are not necessarily benign. I’ll let you know what we conclude. More likely you’ll be able to work it out from some website or other. Because that’s how conspiracies work, nowadays.