After Charlottesville: Having Tough Conversations in an Age of Extremism
"Mr. Bowling, I think I want to be a mujahid and go fight in Syria."
You really don't forget a conversation that starts like that.
Following the recent act of white-supremacist racial terrorism in Charlottesville, Va., a local newspaper reporter reached out to me via Twitter. He wanted to know how I would handle a student who'd shown signs of radicalization. Specifically, he was asking about James Fields, the misguided 20-year-old who killed Heather Heyer and injured 19 other people during protests in the city.
His question gave me pause. Fields easily could have been one of my students. He graduated high school in 2015. He's old enough to drive, not old enough to legally drink, but there were signals of his turn toward Nazism when he was in high school. The second I saw Fields' tragic mugshot on the news I thought about a series of conversations I had with a former student.
One day while discussing career options with this former student I said, "With your intellect and multilingualism you'd make a great intelligence officer." U.S. intelligence agencies have a habitual shortage of speakers of languages of Southwest and Central Asia. His response was brief: "I'd never work for the U.S. government." He went on to say that he wanted to fight in Syria. And so began a several-month-long series of conversations. He talked. I listened. I asked probing questions, trying to get to the root of his feelings. He began by regurgitating talking points and misinformation, fed to him by the internet's limitless supply of conspiracy websites. Bit-by-bit we researched past events, discussed historical context, and learned from each other. This went on throughout the winter and into the spring. By the end of the school year, our conversations had veered away from radicalism. He's in college now, doing well, and in the end I probably learned more from him about his life and worldview than he learned from me.
Terrorism, both foreign and domestic, is seductive to young men. It has its roots in the politics of scapegoating and resentment. These are the same wells that fuel our current political division and strife.
Both my student and Fields were frustrated young men, susceptible to the simplistic lure of radicalism and violence. One of the leading forces that drives young men toward radicalization is the sense that they aren't heard or valued. Isolated young men often find a safe-space in radical circles. This is a problem society has yet to get its collective head around, and given the proliferation of closed social media networks and internet-connected devices, I don't see it getting better in the near-term. That said, my experience with my student taught me several brief but essential lessons in helping to combat radicalization:
Unlearning is hard, help students avoid propaganda: When students are exposed to propaganda, misinformation, and fake news, it becomes difficult for them to unlearn. This is by design. Extremists prey on our deepest fears about others, and adolescents are especially susceptible to their messages. This school year one of my classroom goals is to create and disseminate student-generated lists of reputable media sources for students and to intentionally teach strategies to identify and avoid propaganda and fake news.
Probe, don't preach: The least impactful tactic with my student was getting on my political soapbox. There's an old axiom in teaching: "Whoever is doing the talking is doing the thinking." If I'm talking, I'm searching for historical analogies and counterexamples. I'm pondering; they're not. With my student, I got the most traction with simple, genuine inquiries: "How do you know that?" "Why did that happen?" "How do you know that's true?" "What led you to think that?" Push students to question their assumptions.
Suggest alternative communities: In my school we find that the students who struggle the most are those lacking an affinity group. These are also the students most susceptible to radicalization. Skaters skate; shop kids build stuff together; drama kids create community; athletes are a part of teams; Honor Society and Key Club kids make connections through community service. However, students who lack community in and around our schools will find it elsewhere, and sometimes that includes online hate groups.
This isn't rocket science, but there are also no magic bullets.
We live in uncertain times. Nevertheless, this is the work ahead of all of us. In our schools there are thousands of students who spend hours staring at screens, consuming everything from Hamilton-inspired rap videos to racist Nazi propaganda. We as teachers have a responsibility, whether we want it or not, to identify and intervene in the lives of students we think are drifting toward radicalization. There are thousands of other potential James Fields in our schools, but thankfully every one of them has a teacher.
Nate Bowling is the 2016 Washington State Teacher of the Year, a Finalist for National Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY.) He cofounded Teachers United and teaches social studies at Lincoln High School in Tacoma, Wash. Nate publishes a regular blog, "A Teacher's Evolving Mind" and is the host of the "Nerd Farmer Podcast."
Photo courtesy of the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail