The Value of Civic Knowledge During a Campaign of Disinformation

Dr. Timothy Passmore stands in front of a class of cadets.

Dr. Timothy Passmore teaches a class in American foreign policy.—VMI Photo by Kelly Nye.

LEXINGTON, Va., Jan. 28, 2020—Dr. Timothy Passmore, assistant professor of international studies, seems to take an interesting path to get just about anywhere. He calls it all fate or serendipity – coming to teach at VMI, attending a small college in Tennessee where he met his wife, the igniting of his interests in politics and foreign policy, and being the coach of the undefeated VMI women’s club rugby team.

“It’s really just been, ‘Here’s an open door. Walk through it,’” he says.

Passmore had an eccentric professor for his Introduction to politics course in college who took note of his quick grasp of the subject. During such an impressionable period of his life, he followed the advice to pursue it. Since then, he’s received a master’s degree in international security from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and he also received his Ph.D. in political science at the University of Colorado Boulder. From his early childhood memories of political strife in his native Britain to his continuing education, he brings his vast knowledge to cadets, with hope that they weed out the noise and become active and aware citizens.

“I think democracy dies when people aren’t paying attention,” he stated.

Passmore joined VMI’s international studies and political science faculty in August 2019, teaching American Foreign Policy, International Organization, and International Law. In his courses, he explains the background and growth of international institutions and their various functions and goals. It’s a milestone year for several of these organizations, all of which had their genesis in the aftermath of the two world wars. The founding of the League of Nations was 100 years ago, and this year is the 75th anniversary of the United Nations.

There are thousands of these international institutions, some issue-specific or regional, and some significantly more influential and well-known than others like the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and the International Monetary Fund. The purpose and function of each can morph and expand over time, playing important roles in crises around the world. These institutions are a complex web, and while they often get a bad rap or appear ineffective, Passmore says, “The bigger picture is that they get involved in difficult conflicts and make marginal gains that we’re often not aware of, including conflict resolution and civilian protection.”

While Passmore believes the League of Nations and President Woodrow Wilson’s idealist ways were before their time, he does believe the League opened the doors and eyes of the world to the benefit of these institutions. He calls them “seeds sown for the future.” He goes on to say, “It’s not always about having the biggest military or the strongest economy. It’s a system where you help write the rules, and you get other countries to buy into these rules.” These international organizations surely have their own internal conflict and financial commitment, but Passmore believes they’re effective systems that carry long-term influence and support that participating countries can rely on.

Civic responsibility is critical as our future leaders are watching and learning by example. Passmore is concerned that with the overwhelming amount of information that is available today, and with much of it being quick soundbites or even inaccurate, society becomes numb and misinformed. He says, “We are too easily distracted. We outsource the processing of information to other people, and much of it is discredited information.” He believes the capability of dialogue is also a lost art. “We thrive off division and competition. By compromising in dialogue, we show weakness.” As long as people are looking the other way, an erosion is occurring in civic culture.

VMI came at a time in Passmore’s life when he was looking for an environment that advocates for integrity.“It’s hard to come by, but I now feel like I’m at a place where my teaching has application. I tell my students that this is not just an academic exercise. The goal is that one day one of you is sitting in the White House advising the president on foreign policy. I want them to know why they’re doing what they’re doing, and be critical of it.”

- Maj. Michelle Ellwood




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