C. 2001


That staple of the Sixties resurfaces on college campuses, and professors and students seek answers to complex questions about terror and global politics.

October 13, 2001|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

On a crystalline October afternoon, the upper quad at Johns Hopkins University looks unusually desolate. At 4 p.m., a weary anthropology professor sorts his notes, ambles across the grass to a chemistry department lecture hall, takes his place beneath a post of the Periodic Chart and stares out at an eager audience of almost 200.

Vintage tools of the Vietnam Generation - "teach-ins" and impromptu political forums inspired by the nightly news - are back.

Ashraf Ghani held his Wednesday audience rapt for more than two hours on a topic that once would have sounded obscure, at best: "Perspectives on Afghanistan and Pakistan: Islamic Networks, Social Exclusions and State Building."

But as the obscure has now become fraught with significance, students and faculty across the country are scrambling to these informal gatherings aimed at making comprehensible the momentous events spiraling out of Sept. 11.

At the University of Maryland, College Park, the communications department designed a series on "The Rhetoric of Violence." At the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, two political science professors have called their upcoming forum "The War In Afghanistan: What Comes Next?" At Goucher College, the new president, Sanford Ungar, formed a panel of experts, which will meet Monday, to discuss everything from the Taliban and terrorism to human rights and military affairs.

"One of the immediate reactions is that we have a lot of smart people here, maybe we can figure something out," said Susan Schwab, dean for the School of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Of course, we always discover that there is no easy answer. But it has been very helpful to have people share their wisdom in an intellectual community, grappling with things collectively that we're trying to deal with individually."

But as much as these sessions are intended to help, some have created controversy.

Begun in 1965 at the University of Michigan, the first events known as "teach-ins" were held as moratorium protests by professors who canceled their regular classes to teach their students about the origins of the Vietnam conflict. As students and faculty worked through their ideas and opinions about American foreign policy, the teach-ins took on a political cast that made them appear contentious and provocative.

In the past few weeks, "working out" ideas in public about the declared "war on terrorism" has also not always been easy. At the University of North Carolina, reports about a teach-in brought calls for faculty firings. At Yale University, they spawned concerns about a renewed "culture war" on campus, pitting liberals against conservatives. Statements interpreted as anti-American or overly critical of American foreign policy, in particular, have created tensions.

Consequently, at some colleges, the need to distinguish between old-fashioned "teach-ins" and other kinds of forums is now being seriously pondered.

For example, at College Park, shortly after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Provost William Destler encouraged his deans to talk specifically about sponsoring "teach-ins." Three schools - Public Affairs, Behavioral and Social Sciences, and Education - responded within 24 hours with events that addressed national security and civil liberties, ways a democracy could rightfully address the crisis and how to explain terrorism to children.

At the time, a "teach-in" at College Park seemed appropriate.

"Why did we call them teach-ins?" asked Andrea Levy, associate vice president of academic affairs. "We were kids of the '60s."

For Levy, whose own sense of public education was partly influenced by teach-ins she attended as an undergraduate at UCLA during the Vietnam era, a teach-in was an interactive form that made history and politics less abstract. "They challenged me - not always publicly, but privately - to come to some conclusions about what was important and why."

But in recent weeks, some faculty have decided that while the teach-in form is important again, this time around, it needs to be more strictly defined.

"Seminars and discussions are helpful in getting people to share the experience and get things off their chest," said John Davies, a senior research associate at the Center for International Development and Conflict Management at College Park. "But a teach-in offers more space for people to listen and go deeper for insights into the dynamics of these events."

At a teach-in planned for Oct. 26, for example, Davies said he and other faculty will "make very clear that it's not simply an open forum but a systematic presentation from people with expertise on a range of topics." At the same time, "we expect that people who are not scheduled for presentations will also have something to teach. It's important that we don't overestimate any one person's perspective."

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