Local teachers report that more and more students are thinking about Americans' military involvement in the Middle East


October 09, 1990|By Henry Scarupa

Polls may say that today's young people are woefully uninformed about current events. But when one of George McCeney's ninth-grade students admits ignorance about events in the Persian Gulf, classmates are quick to react.

"This is so god-awful important that the others will say, 'Don't you watch the 6 o'clock news? . . . Don't you read the papers?' " says the Dulaney High School social studies teacher.

Like Mr. McCeney, local teachers report that more and more students are thinking and talking about Americans' military involvement in the Middle East, while classroom discussions increasingly are centered on the crisis. Some schools have gone a step further by encouraging students to write to U.S. servicemen in Saudi Arabia.

What students have to say about events in the Gulf varies from complaints about rising gas prices to questions about the morality of U.S. actions to concern over family members now serving in the military. But world affairs certainly are on their minds, says Dulaney High School teacher David Phoebus, who has noticed a "quantum leap" in the attention his students are paying to newspapers and television coverage.

And a recent show of hands in Allan Oshrey's 10th grade social studies class at the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute confirms this observation, with a majority of the boys and girls indicating they are following the news more closely.

Mr. McCeney describes the interest as "a new kind of ethic at work here. I haven't seen it for a while, so it's nice to see again."

Even outside of social studies classes, schools are encouraging students to learn about the crisis and to express their views through writing assignments, student polls and articles in school newspapers.

At Dulaney High in Baltimore County, teachers McCeney and Phoebus are spending a full week on the Persian Gulf crisis in their interdisciplinary honors course on "Science, History, and Belief."

If the president listened in on discussions in this classroom, he would find he has not quite won the the hearts and minds of all of the nation's teen-agers. Mr. McCeney describes his students' attitude as "healthy skepticism."

In a recent classroom discussion, they draw a parallel between Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and America's past incursions into other countries. One girl brings up the U.S. takeover of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War as an example.

"Didn't the Philippines have a revolution against the Americans when we went in there?" she asks. 'We've always had the pretense that we'll civilize them or we'll give them democracy. Saddam Hussein can't say he'll civilize the Kuwaitis because they're already considered civilized."

Pointing out the limitations of that analogy, one boy notes that the United States never dealt as harshly with any nation as Iraq reportedly has done with Kuwait.

"We didn't go in there and rape the country," he says. "Maybe we set up a puppet government sometimes, but we didn't hold the people against their will."

Still the class mood remains one of skepticism, with another girl questioning the administration's policy.

"When I heard George Bush's speech on why we're sending troops over there, it seemed so self-righteous," she recalls. " 'To protect democracy' -- everything we do, like invade Panama, it's always to protect democracy. We think that's the right way. But there are economic reasons also."

Mr. Phoebus observes, "Speaking as students from the First World looking at the Third World, they've been very perceptive, even empathetic with the other side. They're wondering what is really going on in Iraq and in Kuwait. They feel there's more to it than what's in the headlines and in the party line."

Mr. Oshrey's world history class at Poly is studying the ancient civilizations of the Fertile Crescent. But the parallel between what went on in the Middle East 3,000 years ago and the hostility and turmoil there today is too obvious to ignore, and the latest news often comes up for discussion.

During a recent class period, the students speculate on how their lives are being affected by the crisis. They bring up higher gasoline prices most often, with one boy noting it now costs $25 for a full tank, a $5 jump. Another points out that increased fuel costs will eventually cause more people to take public transportation, resulting in crowded buses.

On a more personal note, the students confront the possibility that their relatives in the armed forces might be sent to the Middle East to fight the Iraqis.

Thirteen out of 31 students in the class indicate they have uncles, cousins or brothers serving in the military. However, four class members, who plan to enlist after they graduate, say they are not put off by the possibility of war. The situation for most students still seems sufficiently remote so they don't feel individually threatened, explains Mr. Oshrey.

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