Teaching in the midst of history

June 3, 2002
History is replete with events so momentous they define nations, shape generations and alter forever the way we view the world. The attack on America Sept. 11, 2001, will go down in history as such an occurrence, alongside the attack on Pearl Harbor and the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
As teachers, we help our students come to know the world in which we live. Despite our best efforts to distance ourselves from our own times and to see things against the backdrop of history, our perceptions of the world also are affected by the signal events of our times. Our personal beliefs, ideas, wisdom and even prejudices affect the way we interact with our students, perhaps in no more tangible form than in the way we shape our curriculum.
This point was never clearer to me than in the days immediately following September 11. When I returned to the classroom in August 2001, I had been excited about the focus on democratization that I had scheduled for my world politics course.
I had spent a lot of time preparing the new syllabus and thinking about innovative ways of introducing my students to this area of study. After the events of September 11, however, I lost all motivation for this topic. I felt foolish focusing my discussion on
the global spread of democracy when the issues of terrorism and international conflict were so salient and relevant. I was not the only one; my students were filled with questions related to Afghanistan, Islam and terrorism, and they found it difficult to focus on the assigned topic. Although I am known for sticking to the syllabus rather faithfully, I decided to practice democracy instead of teaching about it: I put the issue of the course's focus
to a vote. Despite the fact the students already had purchased books on democratization, they voted unanimously to adjust our syllabus for the rest of the semester in order to focus on issues such as religious, ethnic and civilizational conflict -- and to buy another book.
This course turned out to be one of the most difficult I have ever taught, because, for once, I was less sure that I knew all the answers. It also was the most rewarding. As we wrestled with the issues as a class, we were able to see things from a variety of perspectives and to help each other both to grasp the enormity of the situation and to come to grips with it. The class discussion was so lively and engaging that on several occasions students even brought friends with them to class so they could listen in. Although I originally felt some guilt for drastically changing the course syllabus, I now recognize that what I did was to adjust the study of the world to the events that were actually unfolding in it.
Political science is a field that must adjust constantly to the times, but, unfortunately, this process often is slow and filled with debate. The collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe occurred more than a decade ago, yet to this day scholars debate how to group states with a history of communism, how to name scholarly journals and even how to name academic programs. We now have consensus that Eastern Europe should be joined with the rest of Europe, but we still are at a loss as to where to place the Newly Independent States of Central Asia.
America found itself squarely in the middle of this political science debate following the attacks of September 11. Many people were sure that Afghanistan was in the Middle East. It's not; it's in South Asia. Those most knowledgeable about the area were Middle East scholars with expertise in radical Islam and Central Asian scholars familiar with the regional dynamics and the Soviet war in Afghanistan.
Now that the immediate shock is over, how will the events of September 11 affect the political science curriculum? We need to pay greater attention to nonstate actors such as transnational religious movements and terrorist organizations. Political
science teaching and research focus almost entirely on governments, political parties and international organizations. We need to recognize that other actors, from terrorist networks to radical religious sects, can be just as political and their actions just as deadly.
Prior to September 11, few U.S. universities even had courses on ethnopolitical conflict or terrorism. The courses that were offered were limited in scope, often ignoring religious-based conflict and terrorism to focus primarily on state-sponsored terrorism -- not the variety of terrorism that we currently are confronting, i.e., that carried out by radical religious groups or transnational networks. These deficiencies are being addressed quickly as universities begin to offer courses on terrorism and national security, while other universities with existing expertise in these areas are offering their assistance.
In criminal justice and civil liberties courses, issues such as racial profiling, the rights of noncitizens and religious discrimination have become salient topics -- ones Americans think about now as they have not for generations. As we stand in long lines in airports and remove our shoes prior to boarding a plane, who has not thought about civil liberties and which of those we're willing to give up to gain increased security? It is not difficult in today's classrooms to get students to enthusiastically debate such important issues, but we also must be careful about how we structure such debates and what ideas we foster in students' young minds.
In religious studies, we must place greater emphasis on the study of Islam, including examination of Muslim diaspora communities and Muslim extremist beliefs. If we fail to do so, we may run the risk of grouping, at least in our students' minds, all Muslims together, and thus, perhaps, exacerbating the situation.
What about the study of the great texts? Can we focus on the Western intellectual tradition while neglecting the great texts of other civilizations? If we do, we run the risk of remaining uninformed about the values and beliefs that undergird the other civilizations with which we share this planet. Conversely, by studying non-Western texts perhaps we can understand foreign cultures better and interact with them more peaceably.
Most of us in academe have been thinking about these and related issues for quite some time, and many professors have incorporated new topics into their courses or entirely revamped their syllabi. But are these fundamental changes or only temporary adjustments? Although it may be unnecessary to totally reconfigure every course in our curriculum, we at least should reflect on these issues and consider how we might attempt to address them in the classroom. By keeping pace with the times, we can prevent the curriculum from becoming outdated and the world we teach about from becoming disconnected from the world as it actually exists.


Dr. Marsh is associate professor of political science and director of the Asian Studies Program.
Are you looking for more News?