Blogs > Cliopatria > Promoting an Anti-war Curriculum

Feb 24, 2005 12:13 am

Promoting an Anti-war Curriculum

Acting, apparently, to lay the groundwork for its proposed illegal strike, CUNY’s faculty union, the PSC, is hosting an “Educators to Stop the War” conference. Even though New York state law prohibits public employees from striking, PSC leaders are envisioning"a political strike, in other words, something students and intellectuals have historically been good at,” to include a demand of"ending the war in Iraq which so obviously via the deficit and the right-wing racist climate it helps create drains resources from CUNY and from the whole social budget."

Virtually all of the panels confirm the perceptive observation of Emory’s Mark Bauerlein that an academy lacking in intellectual diversity contains too many members who seem “to have no idea how extreme [their] vision sounds to many ears.” So the conference features presentations with titles such as “American Fascism?” or “The Politics of Fear & Compulsory Patriotism” or “Globalization, the Permanent War Economy & the War on Terror” or “Countering Campus Right-Wing Attacks: ABOR, the David Project, HR 3077.” I hadn’t realized that being pro-Israel or opposing professors’ intimidating their students represented a “campus right-wing attack.”

Other panels seek to end the PSC’s isolation among even the left-wing world of New York unionism (“Antiwar Organizing in Locals That Have Not Yet Come out against the War”); or seem frozen in the antiwar protests of 1982 (“Organizing against Nuclear Weapons”); or posit tenuous connections between Iraq and the presenter’s actual specialty (“Imperial Connections: Iraq & Colombia”; Imperial Connections: Iraq & African Wars”) ; or are just bizarre (“Hip Hop to Stop the War”).

Most alarming, however, are the conference’s many sessions that explicitly demand curricular reform to promote the attendees’ foreign policy agenda, with sessions devoted to promoting anti-war curricula in elementary school, high school, and at the college level. Conference-goers also will learn about “Stopping Military Research & Homeland Security Programs on Campus,” even though at CUNY community colleges, establishing homeland security programs could provide students with necessary skills for jobs.

The junior high/high school session is called “Blood for Oil? Teaching about Economics-Based War.” Why classroom time should not be used to present a one-sided viewpoint on foreign policy was made perfectly clear in a story this week from New York, in which a junior high school class sent letters of “support” to a local soldier stationed in Korea and likely to be shipped out to Iraq. As the New York Postreported, “One girl wrote, ‘I strongly feel this war is pointless,’ while a classmate predicted that because Bush was re-elected, ‘only 50 or 100 [soldiers] will survive.’ A boy accused soldiers of ‘destroying holy places like mosques.’” This either is an unusually aware junior high class, or the students are reflecting the fruits of a curriculum oriented around “Blood for Oil? Teaching about Economics-Based War.” Perhaps the PSC can add a call for protecting teachers’ rights to have their students send anti-war letters to soldiers as among the demands for its illegal strike.

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Caleb McDaniel - 2/28/2005

I completely agree that a teacher should strive to deal with the strongest arguments against his or her own position, rather than straw men.

In representing the opposition's most reputable sides, though, the teacher should also be honest about whether those sides actually have the most power in the public sphere. So, for instance, if the "disreputable worst" of the opponents of Civil Rights were the most visible and powerful parts of the opposition, there's nothing wrong with spending time on them. Similarly, there are reasonable defenses of the war in Iraq, but they are not the ones advanced most often by either the administration or its supporters. So to represent support for the war accurately would therefore require both pointing out its "respectable best" while also pointing out that its "respectable best" has been marginalized.

Of course, what all of this demonstrates is that even deciding what the most reputable or disreputable arguments in favor of something are, our own perspectives and stances on that something will inevitably come into the classroom.

One other point: I don't think not-being-neutral in the classroom just means that we should feel free to let students know where our sympathies lie. If being neutral is not the same as being objective, we should also feel free to let our students know why our sympathies lie where they do. Indeed, non-neutrality wouldn't mean very much if all it meant was that we tell students what we think, without giving our reasons for thinking.

Robert KC Johnson - 2/26/2005

Agree completely with Ralph on these points.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/26/2005

Haskell's distinction between "objectivity" and "neutrality" strikes me as a useful one. If I'm not mistaken, however, I think that KC's point would be that both should oblige one to acknowledge that there are reputable and honorable people who hold positions opposed to your own. If I understand KC correctly, both in his posts about MEALAC and the Anti-War Curriculum, we have instances of programs that do not do that. When I have taught seminars on the Civil Rights Movement, for example, my students had no doubts about where my sympathies lay, both in my personal history and in my scholarship, but I felt obliged to try to represent the opposition to the movement at its most respectable best and not alone by its disreputable worst.

Caleb McDaniel - 2/25/2005

Oops ... I made a comment above, but put it out of order in the thread.

As long as I'm commenting again, though, I think Thomas Haskell's well-known review essay of Novick makes a needed distinction between "objectivity" and "neutrality." It is possible for a scholar to abide carefully by objective professional canons (cite sources, don't withhold evidence that contradicts your own views, tell the truth etc.) without being "neutral" about political and ethical questions.

We should always strive not to allow our own positions to tempt us away from the canons of professional ethics--for instance, by suppressing evidence that contradicts our views. But why does that mean we should suppress our views? Why does striving for "objectivity" mean we should strive for "neutrality"?

Caleb McDaniel - 2/25/2005

If I understand Anthony Smith's question, a "Greek" model of teaching would be one in which the teacher tries, through Socratic method, to lead a disciple to the truth. On the one hand, Prof. Johnson's model seems to reject that Socratic ideal. On the other hand, his objections to the MEALAC program seems to assume that professors have the kind of overdetermined power that the Greeks presumed they did.

Especially in his last comment, he seems to be suggesting that exposing students to a diversity of viewpoints makes it more likely that they will choose a viewpoint other than the professor's. But the converse of such an idea is that failing to expose a student to diverse viewpoints "runs the risk" (or makes it more likely) that the student will "come away from the course" with the view that "the professor wants them to have." Both of these judgments about the probability of the student's views give the professor enormous control over the formation of the disciple: if the teacher is even-handed, the student will emerge even-handed; if the teacher is ideological, the student will reproduce those ideological positions. In that sense, it's a very Greek understanding about the power of the teacher and the plasticity of the student.

Professors who take a definite position on ethical or political questions in the classroom may be more likely to provoke position-taking in their students, but I'm not convinced that they are more likely than not to force students towards the adoption of their professors' positions. That's why I originally pointed out that the New York Post article also contained a letter from a student bemoaning the extremism of liberals. Why presume that a student in an MEALAC class will necessarily emerge with an antiwar position? They may be more likely to emerge with a position on the war, but the idea that they'll simply take the only position that the professor has presented gives little credit to the independence of the student's mind from the teacher's. In that sense, this all looks Greek to me.

Robert KC Johnson - 2/25/2005

Novick is one of my favorite books, and I find its thesis persuasive. But I agree with Ralph on this point: simply because "objectivity" is a noble, but impossible, dream doesn't mean that we should not try to strive for objectivity, even while recognizing all of our biases.

There are two issues here, it seems to me, one of intent, the other of a difference between scholaship and teaching. If, like the PSC folks, I intended to structure a course on the US and the Middle East to ensure that students would end the course with an anti-war opinion, I could easily do so. Structuring a course with a "policy" intent, though, isn't my job. Just because no one can offer a truly "objective" course doesn't mean that we have to say it's OK to teach advocacy classes.

Secondly, on Novick, scholarship, and teaching: Novick argues that "objective" scholarship isn't possible (and even if it were, probably wouldn't be good, because all historians would presumably be out of a job). But in the classroom, we're supposed to be going beyond our scholarship, giving students an introduction to our fields, even to interpretations with which we disagree (as, for instance, in my coming inter-American class; I'm not a dependency theorist, as is Perez in the book we're reading next week). In my view of the profession, providing this exposure is a requirement, not an option. In the curricular view outlined by the PSC, or by the MEALAC professors, exposing students to different points of view that are nonetheless legitimate from a scholarly angle is unacceptable--because it runs the risk that students might come away from the course with a different view on contemporary issues than the professor wants them to have.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/25/2005

I, for one, confess to not having read Novick -- a professional failing for which I expect to pay both here and in eternity. Maybe I should read Novick. I, for one, concede that Ranke's notion that one can do "objective" history is an illusion. All one has to do to show that is to do a little historiographical work with texts produced by those most influenced by him. On the other hand, I don't quite understand why it is so important to overthrow "objectivity" as a legitimate value in order to pursue what we believe may be more fruitful agendas. A member of the Bancroft Prize committee that gave our highest honor to, dare I say it one more time, Michael Bellesiles, has been heard to say that she didn't mind a little fraud so long as it was done in service to an interesting thesis. I don't see how you avoid going down that slippery slope if you don't believe that objectivity is the necessary impossiblity or the impossible necessity.

Timothy James Burke - 2/25/2005

I'm curious, KC: have you read Peter Novick's That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession? I do feel a bit as if you're trying to formulate a response to current pegagogical and institutional choices that takes no notice of the historiographical and professional ground that Novick reviews fairly adroitly. There's a way to think about how some academics fail to live up to their responsibilities to allow for open-ended results in their teaching and scholarship, to create questions rather than to answer them, without having to walk quite so crudely back into the tropes of "objectivity" that Novick rightly thinks that historians worked themselves through a while back.

Anthony Paul Smith - 2/25/2005

Certainly not Greek indeed!

I, frankly, don't see how this applies to anything but history courses where everyone can pretend to be objective. If I'm teaching a course on ethics I'm not going to suggest that this war is ethical I may say something like "Some people believe it is ethical," while leading a discussion about it (and where students can say why they think it is ethical) but I don't think a prof should have to lie about their own deep convictions.

Frankly, I tire of you endless groaning over this subject with constant, "Of course I would be just as groany if there was an opposite conservative movement." It's tiring because THERE IS AN OPPOSITE CONSERVATIVE MOVEMENT! Open up your eyes, THEY RUN THE COUNTRY! There is a huge base of religious school that teach only conservative values on social and political issues (which does not come out of their religious beliefs by neccesity). When folks like yourself get your way I doubt there will even be a need for those schools, since our own state institutions will have new thought codes, new pro-war, pro-rich, pro-getting rid of student loans though codes.

Robert KC Johnson - 2/24/2005

Not really; I don't think I was clear enough in the distinction I'm trying to make. I certainly hope that a liberal arts education would give students the tools to address such questions. But that's not what I think the Educators against the War curricular initiative is doing.

To draw an example from my field: it seems to me there's an enormous difference between a diplomatic history course "US and the Middle East" (which, if taught well, would be providing a historical background to address key contemporary and controversial issues) and the kind of courses being proposed by the PSC curricular initiative, which are designed to have students complete them as opponents of the Iraq war.

And I certainly can see drawing parallels between the past and contemporary events. This semester, I'm teaching a seminar on inter-American relations. Next week we're doing the US occupation of Cuba, reading Louis Perez, and I'm planning on ending the 2-hour class with 10 minutes or so of discussion on the similarities between the Cuban occupation and some of the problems Bush is facing in Iraq. But it's not my intent that students will come away from this discussion either supporting or opposing the administration's Iraq policy, nor is directly addressing contemporary issues the primary thrust of the assignment or the course.

I don't think, however, that courses should be designed in such a way that students who enter the course with an open mind could come away from them with only one opinion on issues that are "current, controversial, unsettled."

Timothy James Burke - 2/24/2005

It seems very strange to me that you think a liberal arts education should stay away from issues that are controversial and unsettled. That seems completely alien to my sense of the connection between the liberal arts ideal and democratic citizenship. I'm suspicious of callow orthodoxies, to be sure, and I think much antiwar rhetoric among academics could be fairly characterized as such. But in that case, my complaint would be with the shrillness, shallowness, or uncritical nature of such sentiment--and yes, with the lack of interest in intellectual exploration. Your complaint seems far more fundamental and in some ways odd to me: you seem to propose that a liberal arts education should be scrupulously disconnected from the burning questions of our day, that no student should feel that his education helps him to formulate an opinion or position towards any question which is "current, controversial, unsettled".

Anthony Paul Smith - 2/24/2005

You don't have a very Greek conception of education, do you?

Robert KC Johnson - 2/24/2005

As Tim knows, I am not a fan of service learning at 4-year institutions. But community colleges, both within the CUNY system and nationally, have two goals: (1) they offer terminal degrees designed to train some students for employment; and (2) they prepare other students for enrollment in senior colleges. I have no particular problem with the fact that some community college programs will be explicitly job-related (i.e, accounting, etc.) This is one of the primary areas of difference between the purpose of a community college and 4-year schools (like Portland State).

With regard to the homeland security programs, it might be that there is a fundamental distinction between the justification for this program and the justification for criminal justice programs that exist elsewhere within CUNY community colleges (and, obviously, elsewhere). Frankly, I doubt it. As I understand it, the rationales for these programs are quite similar.

As to promoting the idea that "scholarship should always closely resemble and resonate with majoritarian opinion," virtually all of my published scholarship is on left-wing foreign policy dissenters, opponents of US wars ranging from World War I through Vietnam, people who clearly didn't at the time or even more so now resonate with majoritarian opinion. I do not believe, however, that a curricular initiative (like that of the "Educators against the War") should be designed to lead students toward adopting a position against the Iraq war, given its current, controversial, and unsettled nature. And, as its originators freely admit, this initiative has such a purpose.

This position doesn't seem to me a 'conservative' one: I would be equally concerned about a curricular initiative designed to lead students to support the Iraq war. (In the contemporary academy, however, it's hard to imagine such an initiative being launched.) It seems to me that junior high and high school teachers have more than enough to do in terms of teaching students the basic subjects without veering into a curricular initiative to influence their students' viewpoints.

Lastly, and solely for pragmatic reasons, I do think that professors at public institutions need to be conscious of the fact that a good portion of our funding and all of our institutional support comes from taxpayers. Does this mean that we should tailor our scholarship or teaching to avoid controversial issues? Absolutely not. But it does mean that if we design curricular programs that are explicitly political in content (anti-Iraq war, the "Arts of Democracy" project teaching students that "democracy" entails fidelity to a multicultural political agenda), it is unrealistic for us to expect that legislators representing opposing political viewpoints are not going to ask hard questions about the merits of such programs, and, in all likelihood, will not be favorably inclined toward the institution as a whole. If I thought that developing curricular programs designed to shape students' opinions about contemporary political issues was fundamental to to task of a liberal arts education, I might be prepared to make the tradeoff of losing political support. But I don't have that viewpoint.

Timothy James Burke - 2/24/2005


I think in order to successfully expouse the position that you only want to ask why an anti-war curriculum never pauses thoughtfully before jumping to its viewpoint, that you only want to encourage everyone to be notionally open to debate before, during and after both their teaching and their scholarship, you yourself have to abandon some of the more tendentious rhetoric and substance of the postings you've made on these subjects. Either that or you have to make more transparent your own advocacy. If you don't mean to be an advocate, then I think you have to focus much more on modelling the process that you'd like to see academics go through. Walk me through it: what are the abstract bounds of institutional propriety, what kinds of intellectual processes should one go through to demonstrate a notional commitment to truth before making personal, pedagogical or insitutional commitments?

The reason I think you have to take a step back is so you can clarify exactly what you think scholarship and teaching should be in all cases, regardless of the political specifics. For example, here you seem to be implying that scholarship should always closely resemble and resonate with majoritarian opinion, or sound like "ordinary" public discourse. That's a legitimate argument to make if you want to make it, though it can't just be stated baldly: it carries some interesting and ultimately complex implications in its wake. You seem to be implying here that the first concern of a faculty should be for provisioning their graduates employment, with indifference about the nature of that employment. This is an unusual position to take given your general antipathy towards "service-based learning", but it is possible that you can make that argument work out.

But those are the first principles that you have to set out, before you get into specifics. Otherwise, I am left with the feeling that you cut the cloth to fit the case, that what you're really about is a kind of instrumental attack on ideological enemies. If that's what it's about, then do the harder but more responsible thing, and make the ideological argument. If that's what you're about, don't insinuate things about the professionalism of your opponents, but instead just plain old make the argument that they're wrong about this war, or war in general, or homeland security, or any number of other things. This would also be a perfectly legitimate, acceptable perspective: a principled conservatism that informs substantive arguments you wish to make.

But choose which it is. If you want to be a disinterested advocate of a particular set of norms about academic professionalism, set out the foundational arguments about what you think those professional norms are and why they should be. If you want to be a conservative making substantive arguments, do that instead. If you want to do both, at least get the cart and the horse in their proper order.

Adam Kotsko - 2/24/2005

How long into the Vietnam War did teachers have to wait before abandoning their "wait and see" attitude? Or into the civil rights movement itself?

In any case, I don't recall going home and constantly parroting what my teachers said. I don't remember many of my friends forming their worldview around what their teachers said. If you want students to get bland, inoffensive, neutral views about the Iraq War, then let them watch the TV news or read the newspaper -- as it is, it's likely that the only way these students are going to hear "extreme" views like their teachers' is precisely from their teachers. It's not like CNN has Noam Chomsky on as a panelist every three days or something.

If the teachers' views are horribly biased, then it will even out in the end when the students enter the adult world and get either the bland, boring centrist views of the mainstream media or the aggressively conservative views of Fox. In your periodic tirades against left-wing extremists in education, you seem to forget that the vast majority of people who come out of that educational environment do not end up as left-wing extremists. In fact, they usually end up as centrists who are probably indecisive to a fault.

Robert KC Johnson - 2/24/2005

Yes, definitely, the union is perfectly entitled to have as biased a conference as it wants. My concern is (a) its linkage with the rationale for the proposed strike; and (b) the curricular angle. As far as I'm concerned, they can get together every Saturday and have such a conference, as long as we don't have to reorient the curriculum around this point of view.

Robert KC Johnson - 2/24/2005

I would be equally opposed to high school/junior high curricular initiatives that, say, were organized around teaching a "pro-war" curriculum. I haven't encountered any. Adam's point comparing the Iraq war--a conflict on which public opinion is very much divided, and on which the historical judgment is very much in doubt, one way or the other--to the struggle for civil rights is a perfect demonstration of the Baeurlein thesis: this is a view that, say, the legislators who fund NYC public schools would probably consider difficult to defend.

As to Tim's point, I disagree that the position I articulated here on the possibility of establishing homeland security programs amounts to a campaign for "suppressing" viewpoints. It might be, of course, that there's no intellectual justification for establishing these programs, in the way that there is a justification for establishing other essentially job-oriented programs at public schools. (I just don't know the literature on this question.) But the PSC doesn't engage that issue: it simply says that these programs should not be established (one was proposed for Borough of Manhattan CC) because they don't like the foreign policy agenda with which homeland security programs are associated. By that standard, conservatives could argue against, say, an environmental studies program on the grounds that environmentalism is anti-business.

It seems to me that the people who lose out by such a policy are the CUNY students, who are denied the opportunity to make their own choice as to whether they want to enroll in a homeland security-training program or whether they think it's morally dubious and should be avoided. Given that one purpose of the community college program at CUNY and elsewhere is to train students for careers in law enforcement, the PSC's position on this matter strikes me as hard to defend.

Caleb McDaniel - 2/24/2005

I also notice that the Post story, ever balanced, includes this:

"Even one kid smitten with soldiers couldn't keep politics out of the picture, writing, 'I find that many extreme liberals are disrespectful to you.'"

Caleb McDaniel - 2/24/2005

My wife, who teaches high school, has a student who publicly declares her view that all Muslim extremists should simply be killed. I certainly do not draw the conclusion from this high school student's viewpoint that it was created by my wife's curricular decisions; in fact, I know it was not.

I suspect, from other anecdotal evidence (since that's what New York Post also seems to trade in) provided by my wife, that the vast majority of high school students are either pro-war or at least not anti-war. If some students at New York high schools are expressing alternative positions, it seems to me that the curriculum there is producing exactly the kind of intellectual diversity that we all should prize.

Timothy James Burke - 2/24/2005


I'm beginning to feel that you're unable to distinguish between campaigning for academic freedom--and the diversity of viewpoints that it ought to encourage or solicit--and the suppression of academic views and arguments that you dislike. Your concern for one-sidedness is, well, one-sided; your fears about bias are always couched in highly ideological language that defines *arguments* with which you disagree as "bias", which allows you to simply claim that those arguments do not belong within academic settings.

On homeland security, for example, many (certainly not all ) of those who criticize the Administration's efforts have very clearly developed arguments about their objections to the Administration's approach, arguments which identify that approach as anything but value-neutral, as a "bias" all its own, and one which is quite inimical to free inquiry and communication. You're absolutely permitted to suggest that you don't see it that way, and that you even think homeland security should be encouraged to have a campus presence as a job procurement program. But that is an argument, a set of claims that obligates you to stop hiding behind the cloak of defending objectivity or the lack of bias: it requires you to make an assertion and enter into a field of debate.

I think that's what you are obliged to do in this case and some others that you have taken positions on.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/24/2005

It seems to me more likely that the students you cite were influenced by what they heard at home -- from parents and from the ubiquitous media sources -- than by their teachers. Maybe I'm just overcautious myself (says the blogger...) but I would think that a classroom teacher would be wary of making statements of too partisan a nature for fear that there might be a Republican parent or two involved. There are Republicans in NY, still, right?

As far as the faculty union's conference, my immediate reaction is that it is a union event, not a University event, and as such is entitled to be as biased as the union membership allows. I'm not disagreeing with you about the impression that it makes, but perhaps it speaks as much about unions as it does about faculty.

Adam Kotsko - 2/24/2005

I remember that in my school, we were taught a lot about the environment, about pollution, etc. In some cases, we were actually required to collect items for recycling. It's disgusting, in retrospect, that my teachers were presenting such a one-sided view of the issue.

There was also an explicit anti-racist tinge to the English curriculum -- in a nearly all-white high school, we were continually reading literature by black authors, often emphasizing the struggles they experienced. Not once were we ever given a book that presented the perspective that blacks were poor because they were lazy or that blacks tended to commit crimes more often. The close-minded approach here was simply intellectually unconsciable.

And now we have teachers who are unified in teaching children that it's wrong to go to war on false pretenses against a nation that has never attacked us!

Oh, the horror!