Colleges react to a changing U.S. world view

Courses on Islam, terrorism, biological warfare gain popularity

February 26, 2002|By James M. O'Neill | James M. O'Neill,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - Colleges usually act more like tortoises than hares when it comes to changing curricula. It can take a year or more to approve a professor's proposal for a new course.

But many colleges resembled roadrunners after Sept. 11, scrambling to make courses on terrorism, Islam and related subjects available for the spring semester.

A week after the terrorist attacks, Ursinus College biology professor Robert Dawley started gathering data on bioterrorism. Then the anthrax scare hit. Dawley suggested to colleague Anthony Lobo that they offer a new course on bioterrorism.

"My initial reason was a gut-level patriotism," Dawley said. "What could I do to help?

"I hope the students get an idea of the complex challenge of planning against bioterrorism," Dawley said.

He also said he hoped the course might spark students to devote their careers to the issue.

Like Dawley, professors everywhere are responding to surging student interest in topics that might have been hard to find on course lists last year.

Interest in Islam

At the University of Pennsylvania, professor Stephen Gale's course on terrorism doubled to 30 slots.

At Camden County College, professor Gene Evans now has two sections of his terrorism course. And St. Joseph's University, which dropped one section of "Intro to Islam" last semester for lack of interest, has both sections oversubscribed this term.

Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School has three new courses related to Sept. 11.

Visiting lecturer Jonathan Marks, a British barrister, is teaching "Lawful Responses to Terrorism After Sept. 11: A Human Rights Perspective."

After reviewing international law, Marks expects students to research whether America's treatment of captured Taliban prisoners has been acceptable under international law and whether the law would allow for continued American military activity in the war on terrorism.

"Faculty told me that Princeton students are quite inward-looking when it comes to political issues, so I structured the course to make them more outward-looking," Marks said.

About 100 students slumped in the tiered seats of a Drexel University lecture hall the other day as biology professor Charles Haas explained that 2.2 pounds of anthrax released during a 1979 accident at a Soviet Union weapons facility caused dozens of anthrax cases.

First offering

Haas is offering a bioterrorism course for the first time. He eviscerated one myth for the students, saying it would not take a truckload of anthrax to effectively contaminate a reservoir serving 50,000 people. A quarter-pound would do.

Graduate student Russ Green, 47, who works at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, took the course to learn which organisms could pose a terrorist threat for the facility.

"I've gotten a sense of relief," Green said. "It's just a few organisms, and even these have real disadvantages."

Instead of inventing new courses, some professors made existing courses more relevant after the terrorist scares.

St. Joseph's English professor Owen Gilman added a required text for his course called "Texts and Contexts" - Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year, which describes a plague that swept through London in the 1660s.

"It's a superior story, looking at how people reacted," Gilman said. "Given the uncertainty that students lived through last fall, there's a lot of comparability."

Gilman expects that students will get a better perspective on their experience when they consider how the London plague killed thousands, and survivors fell behind burying the dead, while the anthrax scare killed a handful and still heightened American anxiety.

Like Gilman, Alan Tarr, a Rutgers-Camden professor, updated a constitutional law course to examine President Bush's executive order making military tribunals available to try those captured in the terrorism war.

Historic precedents

Students will study how President Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War, and how, after the war, the Supreme Court called his action unconstitutional. In contrast, a later Supreme Court ruling upheld President Franklin D. Roosevelt's use of a military tribunal to try German saboteurs during World War II.

"Students will analyze the implications of these cases for Bush's order," Tarr said. "This is an opportunity for them to realize that our Constitution has real-life significance."

Interest in terrorism affords some professors a chance to use material they gathered for years. After the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, sociology professor John Bridges prepared a course on terrorism. But the Maryland community college he worked for did not think it would attract students.

In 1995, after Timothy J. McVeigh's Oklahoma City bombing, Bridges again thought the college would want a terrorism course, but there was no interest. Undaunted, he collected material through the 1998 bombing of U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Last fall, he was hired by Gwynedd-Mercy College, and when he suggested a terrorism course for criminal justice students, the college told him to open it to any student.

The new courses are not aimed only at enrolled students. Jack Pesda, professor at Camden County College, switched the focus of his spring course for teachers from Franklin Roosevelt to "America In Crisis: Democracy Fights Terrorism."

He will review relations between the Islamic world and the West.

"It seemed important we educate teachers and the public about this," Pesda said. "Many were shocked by the terrorist attacks, and are intellectually curious about why it happened."

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