On March 24, 1965, thousands of people, predominately students, gathered on the University of Michigan campus to hear three faculty lectures criticizing the U.S. government's Vietnam policy. The landmark occurrence, which filled four auditoriums and lasted 12 hours, is said to be the first American teach-in and the catalyst for similar anti-war lecture formats at other universities and communities.
The teach-in derives its name from the sit-ins of the civil rights era. A sit-in, however, was an organized protest against discrimination, whereas the teach-in's goal, as the name would imply, is to educate--whether it be about the moral concerns of a war, or the implications of and alternatives to a particular foreign policy.
More than 36 year later, the teach-in, though on a less grand scale than its progenitor, has been resurrected as a tool at the Homewood campus. On Oct. 18, more than 150 members of the Hopkins community gathered in Levering's Great Hall to listen to and interact with a panel of speakers critical of the current war on terrorism.
The assembly was one of a growing number of public discussions being held university-wide related to events stemming from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, including a multidepartment-sponsored series of monthly forums on recent events. Issues being discussed include bioterrorism, humanitarian aid, religious harmony and alternatives to war.
Last week's teach-in was quickly organized by Paul Kramer, an assistant professor of history, who says he wanted to create an advocacy forum for those in opposition to the government's response to Sept. 11.
"We need to invite the community in and open up a dialogue in this time of crisis," Kramer says. "My goal was to create a public forum for debate ... to allow professors to voice some critical perspective and involve students and the community in that dialogue."
The three-hour event featured six speakers: Kramer; Neil Hertz, a professor of English and humanities; Suzanne Smith, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland; Talal Asad, a former Hopkins faculty member who is now a professor of anthropology at the City University of New York; Mohammad Azadpur, Mellon Scholar in the Center for Research on Culture and Literature; and Gyan Pandey, chairman of the Department of Anthropology. Each panelist spoke for 10 minutes or more before the discussion was opened up to the audience.
Hertz, who was the event's moderator, introduced the discussion with a note of skepticism.
"When things got started after Sept. 11," he said, "I got a feeling that it was going to be hard to say anything that seemed remotely unpatriotic or at odds with the administration's position. And for a while it seemed like that was true," said Hertz, mentioning television and radio talk-show hosts who disparaged guests who vocalized anti-war sentiments. "But now I realize that questions about how we got in the position we are in, where we are now and where we are going are likely to grow."
Kramer, who was the first to address the audience, talked of a nation leaning toward fundamentalism. He said that since the bombings of Afghanistan began there has been "a sort of closure of the public debate" as to what the response to Sept. 11 should be.
"We have heard that this is not the moment for democracy," Kramer said. "In fact, that democracy is too fragile to sustain much vigorous use at this point in time. My comments then start with a point made by Howard Zinn last week, which I will shamelessly crib for this day's lecture," said Kramer, referring to the historian's talk at the MSE Symposium. "And that is: If democracy and dissent aren't necessary precisely now, precisely during a crisis, when are they necessary?"
Kramer then rhetorically asked if everything had "really changed" after Sept. 11.
"We are often told after tragic events that we have been ushered into a sort of new world, a sharp historical break from the past, that the rules and lessons of history don't apply anymore," Kramer said. "When someone tells you that everything is new, that history has no purpose, look out. They are trying to make you forget something important."
In reference to U.S.-Middle East relations, Kramer said that what we are being asked to forget is "the primacy of oil access and willingness to tolerate, sponsor and arm authoritarian regimes in the region."
Kramer says he hopes the Oct. 28 teach-in is the first of many.
Hertz says he realized after the event how a public discussion on anti-war views is just as necessary now as it was in 1965.
"All of us were appalled by the actions of our government and are anxious to stop the destruction," Hertz says. "The reason for having this teach-in was that it's the opinion of all the speakers that this may be a war to oppose."
In a similar vein, a group of Homewood graduate students have organized a public discussion also intended to generate dialogue about the current war and give voice to positions of opposition. The event will be held in front of the Milton S. Eisenhower Library on Wednesday, Oct. 31, between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.
Public discussions at Hopkins reach beyond anti-war teach-ins, however.
Homewood Campus Ministries recently hosted a talk on how one thinks about religion in the wake of the tragic events of Sept. 11. Titled "Is Positive Pluralism Possible?" the conversation featured five members of the Campus Ministries advisory board, representing three major faith traditions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
University chaplain Sharon Kugler, who moderated the conversation, told the more than 40 who gathered in the Bunting-Meyerhoff Interfaith and Community Service Center that the evening was an opportunity for them to "eavesdrop" on expert practitioners of faith. The panel included Rabbi Joe Menashe, director of Hopkins Hillel, Rabbi Joseph Katz, the Homewood rabbi; Rev. Wayne Boulton, of the Roland Park Presbyterian Church; Iman Bashar Arafat, the Muslim campus minister; and Rev. Don Burggraf, of the First English Evangelical Lutheran Church.
The consensus of the conversation was that positive pluralism, while possible, has many obstacles to overcome before it can be achieved. Complicating that task, many of the panelists said, were extremists who commit horrendous acts in the name of religion.
Arafat, representing the Islamic faith, said those who misinterpret holy texts do so more for political reasons than issues of faith.
"When the masses understand the pure teachings of their religion and represent their religion properly, only then can we live together peacefully," Arafat said.
In light of the country's anthrax scare, community discussions have moved beyond politics and religion to the realm of public health.
To respond to some concerns, the Student Outbreak Response Team, a group at the Bloomberg School of Public Health that works with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, has organized a bioterrorism lecture series for the week of Nov. 5, with the purpose of providing a forum on bioterrorism preparedness at Hopkins and in the state. Featured speakers will include experts from the Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies and other faculty at the Bloomberg School, The Johns Hopkins Hospital, UMBC and the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Also desiring public discussions, Erica Schoenberger, a professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, and several of her Homewood colleagues have put together a series of forums intended to provide an opportunity for consideration of recent events, including their context and consequences.
The series, titled "A Hopkins Community Conversation," kicked off on Oct. 10 with a talk by Ashraf Ghani, an adjunct professor of anthropology, who offered an insider's view of the political climate in his native Afghanistan and in Pakistan. The event packed the auditorium in Remsen Hall, and Schoenberger says the discussion was nothing short of "stunning."
"The audience was really engaged and asked very good questions," Schoenberger says. "I felt the night was very meaningful."
The next talk in the series is titled "The Nature of Humanitarian Crises and the Limits of Humanitarian Aid" and will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 1, in 1 Remsen Hall. The featured speakers are Les Roberts, of the International Rescue Committee, and Gilbert Burnham, associate professor in community health and health systems at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Schoenberger says she and her colleagues intend to organize one community conversation a month for "as long as it takes."
"What we thought was important was trying to create a safe place on campus where people can come together and find out more about issues that matter so deeply to all of us ... to explore different ideas and arguments," says Schoenberger, who hopes future talks will draw experts and participants from other Hopkins campuses.
A pleasant surprise for Schoenberger has been the overwhelming support from the administration and faculty. The Nov. 1 discussion on the humanitarian crises is being sponsored by 16 departments.
"This series has the broadest and most diverse set of department sponsors probably in the entire history of Johns Hopkins," Schoenberger says. "When else will you see Physics and Astronomy co-sponsoring a talk with Near Eastern Studies? Or the English Department co-sponsoring something with Civil Engineering? Everyone I've spoken with said even if it didn't have anything to do with their work, they were willing to put their names behind it."
To suggest ideas and/or speakers for future discussions in "A Hopkins Community Conversation," or to volunteer for the events, Schoenberger asks you to contact her at 410-516-6158 or firstname.lastname@example.org.