Institution after institution condemned the attack on the U.S. Capitol last Jan. 6 as “incomprehensible,” “odious” and threatening to “the future of our Republic.”
Colleges and universities also affirmed their commitment to promoting civic engagement, civil dialogue and other democratic values amid the assault.
Yet a year later, the memory of Jan. 6 has become hazy or receded altogether on many campuses.
Nancy MacLean, William H. Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University, said she’s been “stunned and saddened, frankly, at how relatively little attention higher education has paid to the events of Jan. 6 between the week after the attack, when there were many grave public statements, and now.”
Certain professional associations are holding events to commemorate the anniversary, including one online today by the Organization of American Historians, where MacLean is speaking. But “I’m not seeing anything near the attention the crisis calls for from college and university administrations,” she said.
Colleges and universities do face other urgent challenges, of which COVID-19 is only one. But MacLean said she also suspected that many institutions see growing authoritarianism on the political right as a “partisan matter” to be avoided, lest they upset governing boards and donors.
Even if institutions aren’t speaking out about Jan. 6 anymore, scholars including MacLean say their work was profoundly affected by the insurrection and that they’re determined to keep the lessons of that day alive.
Teaching and Writing About Jan. 6
MacLean, who is currently a National Humanities Center fellow, for instance, said she’s writing a book about the constitutional tradition that informed Jan. 6 actors’ “sense of legitimacy.”
Brian Campion, director of public policy programs at Bennington College’s Elizabeth Coleman Center for the Advancement of Public Action, said he’s also found that, “in some ways, higher education puts these kinds of things at arm’s length. But higher education, with its incredible resources, really needs to play a role in protecting our democracy.”
Following discussions with center colleagues about how to respond to Jan. 6, Campion helped launch the January 6 Project, examining historical, cultural and political events leading up to the Capitol siege. The project held six symposia over the fall semester, including sessions on Congress’s response to the insurrection, religion and race in U.S. politics, and teaching about Jan. 6.
The latter topic relates to another part of the project: offering Bennington students a pop-up course in which they learn about Jan. 6 and then work with educators and policy makers to develop tool kits and curricula for K-12 teachers teaching their own students about Jan. 6.
Campion said this ongoing part of the project aligns with the center’s action-oriented mission. It also has the practical effect of helping K-12 teachers navigate teaching about democracy amid increasing political polarization and pressures. “I’m really eager to have students connect more and more with the [National Education Association], with groups like the principals’ association, superintendents’ association and even my own committee, so that their work does begin to infiltrate, if you will, into the classroom,” added Campion, who is a member of the Vermont General Assembly and chair of the Senate Committee on Education.
Center staff members are now thinking about how to continue the January 6 Project into the spring semester and beyond. They’re also hoping to work with educators outside Vermont.
‘In Defense of Democracy’
“I think we would be making a big mistake if we didn’t give a really robust look at, and a robust response to, this issue at this moment,” Campion said.
Some ongoing work about Jan. 6 started on social media. Michael Altman, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa and a liaison to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, said he noticed Smithsonian curator Peter Manseau’s tweets about the religious symbolism seen during the attack under the hashtag #CapitolSiegeReligion (think posters of Jesus wearing a red “Make America Great Again” cap). This inspired Altman to revise his spring 2021 class on religion, politics and law’s syllabus around the events of Jan. 6.
Around the same time, aided by his department chair and Manseau, Altman founded a digital project called Uncivil Religion: January 6, 2021, with Jerome Copulsky, a consulting scholar at the Smithsonian. The project, which describes Jan. 6 as a “religious, yet religiously incoherent event,” includes media galleries and contributed essays on Christian nationalism and other topics, plus other resources. Students in Altman’s course on religious studies and public humanities worked on the digital project this fall, as well.
“We’d love for instructors across disciplines to use the essays on their syllabi and find examples in the galleries that they can teach in the classroom,” Altman said. “But we’ve also tried to make sure the essays are accessible enough to interest a broader general audience. People should share these essays and galleries with their friends and families. We all need to reckon with what happened that day.”
Hakeem Jefferson, an assistant professor of political science at Stanford University who studies identity and political attitudes, said he completely changed the way he teaches his introduction to American politics course since Jan. 6, theming it “In Defense of Democracy.” He said he’s also encouraged colleagues at other institutions to do the same.
“At this moment of democratic crisis, we have an obligation to speak plainly and tell the truth, and an obligation to clarify for our students and the broader public what is happening and what is at stake,” he said. “I tell my students at the start of the course that I do have a bias. I am pro-democracy.”
It’s “professional malpractice to teach American politics as though we live in normal times,” he added.
Turning ‘Terrible Events’ Into an ‘Educational Moment’
Jefferson, who has long engaged in public conversations about race and justice, received racist threats and hateful messages after he wrote an essay linking the storming of the Capitol to a “stubborn commitment to white dominance.” While the backlash has been deeply unpleasant, Jefferson said that the moment “calls for all of us to do what we can in response, and if I can help folks make sense of what is happening while also stirring them to action, all the extra work and headache doing public-facing work requires will have been worth it.”
Julian Zelizer, Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941 Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University, said he’s included Jan. 6 on his course that covers the U.S. since 1974.
“In many ways, it fits with an important theme of the course—the radicalization of the Republican Party that we saw as polarization took hold over the decade,” Zelizer said of the Capitol attack. “It was an ugly, dangerous and extreme moment that grew out of developments which had been taking place for some time.”
Asked if academe has responded strongly enough to Jan. 6, Zelizer said some groups have, including those political historians and political scientists who’d been studying polarization for years prior.
Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, said that Jan. 6 created a new sense of urgency about the organization’s mission, which is “rooted in a fundamental commitment to the democratic purposes of higher education.” The group’s upcoming annual meeting is themed “Educating for Democracy” and will begin with a symposium exploring higher education’s response to “polarization, partisanship and disinformation,” for example. A recent AAC&U Presidents’ Trust town hall (in partnership with James Madison University) focused on cultivating a just and inclusive democracy.
In September, the AAC&U, along with Complete College America, College Promise and the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, also formed the Civic Learning and Democracy Engagement Coalition. The coalition will work to “ensure that civic learning is both expected and experienced equitably across postsecondary education,” Pasquerella said.
Jeremi Suri, Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs and professor of history and public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, said Jan. 6 had an “immediate and fundamental impact on my teaching.” In his 200-person course on U.S. history since the Civil War, for example, he extended units on paramilitary violence and electoral repression to show continuities from the era after the Civil War to today and otherwise highlighted connections between the past and the events of Jan. 6.
As a whole, however, Suri said he doesn’t think universities have risen to the “civics challenge” posed by the insurrection, and that campus leaders are “running scared from any charges of political bias.”
Suri said he’d like to see prominent teach-ins, symposia and collective discussions about “what fair elections in a democracy mean, how we transfer power peacefully and why violent insurrectionary behavior violates our constitutional foundations when practiced or advocated by anyone.”
He added, “We need to turn the terrible events of Jan. 6, 2021, into an educational moment and reaffirm, as university communities, our commitment to never allow anything like that again.”