Teaching Dissent

This is a post I’ve been wanting to write for some time now. I’ve been somewhat uncomfortable in the classroom this year and I think I finally understand why. My primary goal as a history teacher is to get my students to engage in critical thinking about as much of their world as possible. We can ask our students to memorize facts and reasons, but if they can’t think for themselves about what they read than none of it is has any intrinsic worth. Of course my classes spend a great deal of time connecting events in American history to more recent events and trends, and within those discussions the war in Iraq looms large. My AP classes finished WWI last week and my two regular surveys are now getting started. In the survey classes my students work on an essay that asks them to think about the role of propaganda in a democracy. I give each student a handout that includes relevant background on George Creel and the Committee on Public Information along with copies of recruitment posters. Along with this issue we also talk about the balance between national security and the right to engage in civil disobedience and free speech. Not surprisingly, Eric Foner provides detailed coverage of this issue in his textbook, Give Me Liberty.

I am finding it more difficult this year to hold these discussions with my students, especially when it comes to the war in Iraq. For some reason they are more resistant to debates that place them in a position to question the actions of the federal government. Students not only seem less willing to question the federal government, some find my suggestion that they even consider the issue as unreasonable. It is as if the suggestion to question is somehow unpatriotic. I’ve actually made disclaimers that my attempts to cajole them into questioning is not necessarily a reflection of any specific stance on my part in relation to theses issues. I have a few students who are very close to a position that justifies or permits any act on the part of the federal government to control public speech and behavior. When asked to justify their position, they simply tout the standard line that any anti-war speech or other action may hurt the morale of the soldiers in Iraq or lead to insecurity at home. Of course I could explain this away by dismissing these students as immature or simply unable to engage in mature discussion about the complex questions surrounding this issue. So, it is no surprise that when it comes to the extreme actions on the part of the federal government during WWI there is very little critical analysis. I should point out that I have plenty of students who are engaged and are willing to step back and examine any issue with a critical eye. What I am trying to emphasize is my perception (and it is just a perception) that more of my students are having difficulty with the idea that they should engage in debate over the boundaries of legitimate government action during wartime.

I don’t know if any of you have felt the same about your classrooms. I’ve thought about how to explain this trend and I always come back to the way in which the Bush administration and the nation as a whole has framed the debate between national security and freedom of speech over the last few years. My juniors and seniors have basically come of age during this post-911 period. Many of them do not read the newspaper, but instead watch the evening news or those entertainers/political commentators such as Chris Matthews and Bill O’Reilly. These are shows that spend very little if any time actually engaged in intellectual discussion. At the beginning of the war we were told not to question the reasons surrounding the decision to go to war for fear of jeopardizing the military mission. Since victory was declared the Bush administration has done a wonderful job demonizing the press for distracting the nation from the wonderful successes we’ve enjoyed in Iraq over the last three years. Within this context it is no surprise that more of my students have matured within this entrenched fear and suspicion that our government has fostered over the last few years. It’s as if they’ve internalized the formula: “If the government is doing it, they must have a sufficient reason for doing it.” I should point out that this is not about whether one should support or not support the war, George Bush, or a specific stance on the “War on Terror”; it is about preserving the role of the people in continuing to work as an additional check on the actions of the individuals who are elected to public office.

I did not grow up during the Vietnam War, but I do know that most Americans did not seriously question the rationale for going to war following Lyndon Johnson’s Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. At some point a few years later Americans woke up and spoke out. Have we made the same mistake this time around? Why all of a sudden are Americans questioning the policies of this government? Yes, they have every right and I am pleased that finally the majority have decided to take a more critical look at the policies of this government. I sometimes wonder where we would be right now if more Americans had spoken out not simply for or against the government and the war, but just to demand more information — how about accountability for what has obviously gone very wrong?

I have no interest in seeing my students adopt any particular ideological/political viewpoint. All I care about is that whatever they believe they leave themselves open to revision and constantly push themselves to better understand their own views as well as the views of others. Democracies are like classrooms: they must be places where its citizenry understands the importance of questioning and it must create an environment that faciliatates a healthy skepticism. This begins in the classroom!

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