Ralph Young, March 2010
Students Use Teach-ins to Make Sense of the Post 9/11 World
In September 2002 I began teaching at Temple University a new history course—Dissent in America—that I had developed. My thesis was that dissent is central to American history, that the nation, indeed, was founded on dissent. In the 17th century, religious dissenters such as the Puritans and the Quakers established colonies in order to practice what they believed was true religion. In the 18th century, political dissenters protested against what they perceived as the tyrannical policies of the crown and in doing so fomented a revolution that established a new nation. But no sooner was the United States founded than individuals began denouncing unfair taxation, restrictions on voting rights, the continuation of slavery, and the cruel treatment of Native Americans. Throughout the 19th century, workers demanded the right to organize, women demanded the right to vote, and reformers demanded that the government step in and regulate the exploitive practices of industrialists, while in the 20th century, women gained the suffrage and civil rights protesters brought down Jim Crow. And every war in American history has had its protesters, including the Civil War (on both sides) and even the “Good War” (the Second World War).
The course was a small seminar with 20 students and it seemed from the start that the students were keen to learn about the history of dissent and investigate how it influenced the evolution of American society. Perhaps college students are simply natural-born dissenters; after all, many of them are still suffering the tribulations of adolescence and experimenting with establishing their own personal identity. During the first week, as I lectured on the European roots of dissent and the colonial period, I was very pleased how quickly students saw the connections between the past and the present. They pointed out how the arguments of a 17th-century dissenter like Roger Williams were still applicable today in the heated debates over separation of church and state or how the protests against the Alien and Sedition Acts at the end of the 18th century were echoed by those who protested against the Patriot Act in the 21st century. The discussions often turned out to be quite exciting. One Wednesday, for instance, while discussing the impact of the Transcendentalist movement I called attention to Margaret Fuller’s comment that in every man there is the feminine principle and in every woman the masculine. Somehow this struck a chord and we got into an animated discussion about gender issues and many of the students offered first-rate penetrating insights. Best of all, not only did every one of the 20 students contribute to the discussion (even those who were usually reticent), but without realizing it, we also went well beyond the appointed hour for the class. I had not experienced anything quite like it before.
That was the beginning. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, from that point on, the students stayed for 30, 60, sometimes even 90 minutes after class, discussing present-day examples of whatever topic we had been examining in class. After a couple of weeks I suggested that if they agreed we could open up the Friday post-class discussion and invite anyone who was interested to come and join us in discussing the historical background of contemporary issues. And I suggested that we call them “teach-ins” (as a child of the 1960s, I couldn’t help it). The students loved the idea. One said she’d make and distribute flyers, others volunteered to research a subject and do a presentation on it. And so they took off. From October to December 2002 we had 10 Friday-afternoon teach-ins, led by the students, on such subjects as examining the backgrounds of each member of the president’s cabinet, a comparison of the Iraq War Resolution (which Congress had just then passed) with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, the Patriot Act, why American policy toward Iraq was different from the policy toward Korea, an analysis of U.S. Army recruitment ads, the School of the Americas, and such larger issues as the meaning of patriotism. All of these topics were suggested by the students themselves.
Before the end of the semester the students voted unanimously to continue the teach-ins in the new semester even though the Dissent in America course would be over. And so they continued. And they continued to grow. As more and more students as well as other Temple University faculty learned of the teach-ins, it was not uncommon for an instructor to bring his/her entire class to one of the events. Many professors contacted me to offer their skills and expertise to lead a teach-in. Even scholars from other institutions expressed their willingness to come to Temple to lead a teach-in. Nearly every history professor at Temple (as well as many from other departments) either led a teach-in, or connected it in some way to one of the courses they were teaching at the time. A professor from Temple’s School of Communications and Theatre regularly brought in her teaching assistants with cameras, sound equipment, and lighting in order to stream the teach-ins on the internet. Because of these webcasts, we received live e-mail questions from people in other locations on campus, in other states, and even, occasionally, in places as far away as Europe and Australia.
Each teach-in usually began with a 30–45 minute presentation of the historical background of a contemporary issue and then the presenter led a discussion among the students. What seemed to work best, we discovered, is dialogue rather than a traditional question-and-answer period. Some of the best discussions have developed when a presenter, in response to a question, did not immediately answer it, but first threw it back to see if anyone else wished to respond. Dialogue gets students more actively involved in the learning process than the standard Q & A ritual.
Perhaps one of the most astonishing things about the teach-ins is that they are entirely voluntary. Even though they grew out of my first Dissent in America class, they are not attached to any class and no student is graded for attending or participating. Some professors have, it is true, offered their students extra credit for attending, but this is the exception rather than the rule. In many ways the teach-ins complement the regular history curriculum at Temple. Frequently, students e-mail me a few days after one of my colleagues has made a presentation and ask me what courses that professor teaches because they want to enroll in one of his or her courses the next semester. So in a curious way, some of the teach-ins act like a sample, or a preview, of the history department’s course offerings. There are also times when a teach-in deals with a subject that connects to a variety of courses, for example a teach-in on the assassination of El Salvador’s Archbishop Romero attracted students taking courses on American foreign policy as well as those in the Latin American studies program and the political science department.
When it is taken into consideration that the teach-ins are noncredit, ungraded, fun events that take place on a Friday afternoon from 3:30 to 5:00, at a time when most college students are eager to “chill” and begin their weekend, it is a remarkable testimony to the intellectual curiosity of those who choose to attend. The sense of satisfaction that I feel in the presence of these students is incalculable. This is, after all, why we teach.
All in all, the teach-in experience has been valuable, not only for me, or for the students, but also for Temple’s history program in general. They highlighted how important historical literacy is for all citizens. If we hope to understand the world we live in and respond to the challenges our society faces, it is imperative to cultivate a mind that thinks historically. In doing so, we achieve a deeper sense of ourselves as a nation, a people, and as individuals. It is the path to self-knowledge.
Ralph Young is associate professor (teaching) in the history department at Temple University.
The Teach-ins at Temple University: Some Examples
One of the first teach-ins was an exceptionally well-researched analysis by two students of the Patriot Act. After describing many of the provisions of the act the students led a lengthy discussion of where the Patriot Act fit into the fabric of American History, comparing it to the Alien and Sedition Acts, Lincoln’s suspension of Habeas Corpus, and the Espionage and Sabotage Acts of the Wilson Administration.
When Russian scholar Vladislav Zubok led a teach-in on the Chechnyan terrorist attacks in Russia he provided a detailed history of the Chechnyan situation going back to the days of the Soviet Union so that students could put the present-day events in historical context. American Historian David Farber led one teach-in on the Iran Hostage crisis in which he went through a step-by-step analysis of American/Iran relations since the coup that overthrew Mohammad Mossadegh, and led another teach-in this past year contrasting the 2008 presidential election with that of 1968.
Historians and scholars from other institutions, depending on the topic they chose, followed the same approach. Vietnam expert Robert Buzzanco from the University of Houston drew on his scholarship when he examined the similarities and dissimilarities between the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. His presentation emphasized the deep complexities of history and explained why it was not desirable to draw facile lessons from the past. Many of the teach-ins, however, did not deal with contemporary issues, but concentrated entirely on a past event or movement. For example, Jeremy Varon, from Drew University stayed in the 1960s and 1970s during his presentation on West Germany’s Red Army Faction and the United States’ Weather Underground. And Gerda Lerner pointed out the intricacies and pitfalls of biography when she discussed the limits of memory that historians face even when writing their own autobiographies.
Several of the teach-ins were basically “oral history” presentations. Columbia University’s Richard Garfield discussed his experience working in Iraq with civilian casualties, as did anti-war activist and Army medical specialist Patrick Resta. Michael Berg, whose son Nick was beheaded by Abu Musa’b al-Zarqawi put forward, as one might expect, an impassioned critique of American policy in Iraq. Other teach-ins featured military personnel who presented a more positive view of the war. Colonels Michael Cleary and Daniel Rubini enthusiastically discussed their role in the rebuilding of Iraq during their tours of duty there. And 1st Lt. J. David Fleming, mesmerized more than one hundred students in October 2004 with his presentation entitled “Reflections of a Marine Stationed in Iraq.” Another teach-in that got students talking for days was a panel discussion led by four Islamic scholars (Ibrahim Al-Marashi, Melani Budianta, Federico Romero, and Nur Bilge Criss) on Muslim perceptions of the United States since 9/11/2001. And just this past November so many students came to the teach-in led by Judge John E. Jones III that we had to repair to a lecture hall to accommodate the more than 275 attendees. Judge Jones, who was appointed by President George W. Bush to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, led the teach-in about the contentious 2005 Dover, Pennsylvania, “Intelligent Design” trial (Kitzmiller v. Dover Areas School District) over which he presided.