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War Talk at School? No Better Location

April 06, 2003|Dana Parsons

I'm not sure that as an incoming college freshman I knew the Vietnam War had been going on for three years. At 17, I hadn't ventured much past the sports page when it came to keeping up with the world.

That all changed at the University of Nebraska, that radical hotbed of the Plains. A whole new concept lay before me: challenging the establishment. I remember an antiwar professor or two -- especially one Southern gentleman who wore a straw hat around campus and tried to explain Jay Gatsby to us -- but mostly it was the student newspaper that began turning my head and heart against the war.

From my current perch, I wouldn't necessarily advise basing lifelong political positions on college newspaper editorials and columns, but everybody's got to start somewhere.

And that's why the burgeoning Iraqi war talk on local campuses buoys me. What better place than a university to discuss something as vital as war and its inevitable global consequences? If the students are captives to proselytizing profs, it's a good place to be held hostage. And there's always a soda machine not far away.

I understand the counterarguments: Professors of one stripe or another will brainwash the students. Or, as Irvine Valley College has pointed out to faculty, war talk is appropriate only in classes where it's relevant to the subject matter. Attention, all you English lit professors!

On their face, the arguments make sense.

Except that ...

Is there anything more important nowadays than the war in the Middle East? Its potential to affect so many aspects of American life -- from the economy to the culture to our politics -- cuts across all disciplines. With the war on TV 24 hours a day, it's unrealistic to expect students not to have it on their minds.

Does that mean a week's worth of chemistry lectures should be shelved to talk Iraq? Obviously not, but let's trust our college instructors (shoot, I'd even trust our high school instructors) to know how much is too much.

Inevitably, some teachers will prove unworthy. They'll rant and rave instead of teach or lead a discussion. That's unfortunate, but the students will survive it. At day's end, they'll at least have had their minds challenged, if not their patience.

More to the point is that they'll realize down the road that they were part of a great debate of the modern age. Those discussions aren't likely to happen with Mom and Dad, and they're not likely to happen on Friday night dates.

No, they happen at college and, if I were in a more argumentative mood, I'd try to make a stronger case they should happen at high schools too.

As for brainwashing students, I suspect not -- if an opinion-writing class I teach at Cal State Fullerton is any indication.

The 35 students sounded off in print before the war started on whether the United States should invade Iraq. The class was divided somewhat evenly, pro and con. If someone brainwashed them, they got mixed results.

That brings me full circle. I well remember parents from one end of Nebraska to another fearing what professors were telling their impressionable sons and daughters about the faraway conflict in Vietnam.

Yes, maybe our brains were empty vessels into which anti-war info was poured. But many of us then, for the first time, did some independent reading and, if we had good professors urging us on, sought other opinions.

Our brains were engaged. Assumptions were challenged. Arguments had to be made and defended.

That's the essence of college life.

At a time of war, the classroom is a great place to be.

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Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821, at dana.parsons@latimes.com or at The Times' Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626.

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