Time to Study War - or No More?

Time to Study War - or No More?

With the war in Iraq approaching its fourth week, Boston College faculty members reflected on how the conflict should - or should not - influence their roles and responsibilities as teachers of young men and women. (Some comments have been edited for space and clarity):

Assoc. Prof. Rachel Spector (CSON):

"I think that it is extremely important for faculty to engage students in discussion and that we must be responsible for helping the students confront this issue. Since Sept. 11, I have been extremely aware of the need to discuss these issues with my students and dealt with this most difficult topic in my classes. I created discussions and prodded students to express feelings and opinions. For the past 29 years I have taught a course, Culture and Health Care, both in the School of Nursing and in the University at large. Health served as the metaphor to help students confront the issues of cultural differences. Today, more than ever the content of this course is right up front."

Prof. John Heineman (History):

"There's an inherent danger in applying today's headlines to class. I'm teaching a course on the Second World War, and just finished a lecture on Stalingrad. Hitler's drastic mistake was in allowing a highly mobile German army to become bogged down in street-to-street fighting in Stalingrad. I could easily have stopped and told of the dangers and potential disasters of urban fighting. But it would be a misuse of my analytical skills to turn that into a commentary on the challenge facing the US military entering Baghdad. It is an intellectual trap that all professors - certainly historians - face.

"A legitimate role is to raise the question of the role of citizens in wartime. I teach a core course on the Cultural and Intellectual History of Modern Europe, and this week we have been studying the Holocaust. I raise the question: What do citizens in wartime know? What do they believe? We try to assess the validity of that oft-heard phrase, 'The first casualty of war is truth.'

"A historian would suggest issues are much more complex than slogans. Words used to explain things can also be used to deceive and distract.

"The function of a citizen in a free society is aided by the knowledge that all this has happened before - and can be happening in our present. We are not different from the people who fought the Punic Wars or the Peloponnesian War. This has happened in the past."

Assoc. Prof. Dennis Hale (Political Science):

"In my conversations with students I've made it clear that I support the war, and I've tried to get anti-war students - especially the 'global justice' faction - to think beyond the awful cliches they've picked up from the academic left - whose view of the world is simply incoherent. The students need to understand that there is a serious case to be made for the war: that it is not about oil, or fantasies of imperialism in the White House. We can do our students the service of helping them see what the war is about so that they can support or oppose it on its merits - and not on the basis of the latest drivel from Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore."

Asst. Prof. Seth Jacobs (History):

"It's been difficult dealing with the war as an instructor because I believe so strongly that professors should never try to force a political agenda upon a captive audience. I think that's an inexcusable abuse of authority. On the other hand, I am passionately opposed to the war in Iraq and take part in demonstrations against it on campus. So I think my students know where I stand on this issue, even though I refrain from voicing my personal views in class.

"In my seminar, which deals with the Cold War, I led a discussion about how the 'lessons' of the Cold War might guide us in the current situation; as for my lecture class on US foreign policy, I'm just sticking to my scheduled list of topics and course readings - although, obviously, students reading about the Vietnam War (which we're addressing right now) would have to be pretty dense not to note some parallels between that conflict and what's going on today."

Prof. Alan Wolfe (Political Science), director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life:

Alan Wolfe
"I believe that teachers should continue to teach their subjects and not turn over their classes to discussions of the war. But I also believe that we ought to be having college-wide symposia and forums devoted to debating the war, especially its political and moral aspects. As for demonstrators, it is important to remember that we live in a democracy and that they have every right to make their views known."

Assoc. Prof. H. John McDargh (Theology):

John McDargh
"I think that what our students need at this kairotic time is that professors 'profess,' that they acknowledge with their actions and in the context of their teaching that they like our students are together facing a momentous and life changing historical moment. We owe them the witness of our convictions and of whatever action we feel our consciences call us to...

"...I am not neutral or detached from what is going on, and to pretend this would serve my students poorly. At the same time I also need to be transparent about the ambiguity and uncertainty I feel as I try to join with others in action that is responsible and skillful, and I need to let myself be challenged by my students (even as I am by members of my parish who have a very different point of view).

"At the heart of my prayer these days I carry the faces of a BC student who was with me in the Religious Quest course and is now in Afghanistan with the army, and well as another of my students from the same course who is Palestinian Muslim living in exile in London. Serving them intelligently and compassionately defines the challenge of this moment as I make it personal."

Adj. Lect. Paul McNellis, SJ (Philosophy), former infantry officer and journalist in Vietnam:

"Unfortunately, there hasn't been much 'debate' about this war. It appears that both sides had staked out a position before it began, and no amount of evidence of any kind seems able to move either side. I am surprised about how deeply the country is divided on this - though I don't think it's a 50/50 split by any means. But it is a very deep divide, where discussion doesn't seem possible because it's not really desired...

"I don't cover it directly in class. I think there's something artificial about presuming you can somehow 'cover' this in a mere 50-minute class period. Furthermore, what we have planned on the curriculum is also important for their lives. Therefore, I reserved a room outside of class time for two meetings of up to two hours each for students who wanted to discuss it. I strongly encourage them to come, but it is optional. It's probably not an ideal situation, but it's a reasonable compromise given their schedules and the nature of the issue.

"I try to get my students to think for themselves and not merely repeat what they've heard from family, friends or teachers. I encourage them to read."

Adj. Asst. Prof. Paul Kline (GSSW):

"For students in my classes in the GSSW, the stress and challenges associated with the war have merged with those connected with the events of 9/11, the still unfolding scandals in the Catholic Church, the ongoing fear and anxious expectation of new terrorist attacks at home and abroad, and with the disturbing and more chronic social pathologies of cruel poverty, domestic and community violence and oppression. We struggle with the question of how to promote effective coping and adaptation, for ourselves and our clients, in response to each individual catastrophic experience. We also recognize that the cumulative stress produced by inescapable exposure to a series of crises may require new and creative strategies for keeping ourselves healthy and for promoting the health and well-being of our clients."

Assoc. Prof. Maureen Kenny (LSOE):

"I have spoken mostly with our doctoral students about this. Most have chosen our program because of their commitment to social justice. That commitment is an aspect of the Catholic-Jesuit perspective that has drawn many of our students to BC. As part of that tradition, it is important to critically examine our behaviors, motivations, and the effects of our actions on others from multiple perspectives. The meaning of social justice, our understanding of the complex factors that impact social justice, and our capacity as individuals and as a collective to influence processes of social justice is of great concern to our students."

Woods College of Advancing Studies faculty member James Murphy Jr. '58, Korean War veteran and author of lead essay in the anthology Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul:

James Murphy
"I teach a course at BC in the literature of war. I've always had a feeling about World War I poets - Joyce Kilmer, Rupert Brooke, Ivor Gurney, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon, David Jones, Wilfred Owen. Something like 26 of 74 British and American poets who served in World War One were killed in action. We're also doing All Quiet on the Western Front and watching "Paths of Glory."

"I tell them, 'Far be it from me to tell you how you should think. But being exposed to this material might raise your consciousness.'

"Personally, I'm against this war - I'm against all wars. My family and I support our troops the only way we know how - through prayers. Each night at dinner we say a prayer for the troops.

"I underscore: It is not my position as a teacher to tell people what to believe. I can teach them to think a little bit, but not what to believe."


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