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Citadel News Service

 

Tuesday, February 5, 2002
Reprinted with permission

Teaching the tragedy

The events of Sept. 11 changed history. Colleges and universities not only seek to give students perspective on the attacks, but they also hope students' new interest in other cultures will fuel academic achievement.

BY CATHERINE LAWRENCE
Of The Post and Courier

    
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the final part of a two-part look at how Sept. 11 has affected our schools. Today's installment focuses on colleges and universities.
    
     The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 pushed colleges and universities across the country to create classes dealing with topics suddenly at the forefront of students' minds: fear, war, religion, politics, privacy and grief.

     Students not only wanted to understand and try to make sense of what happened on Sept. 11, but faculty members in many schools also wanted to help define the event and give it perspective.

     But understanding and perspective can be elusive when an event is still unfolding, and the tragedy posed a rare challenge for those in higher education: The war is unfolding on television, and research and critical study are available at the Internet's break-neck speed.

     Retired CIA agents, Defense Department specialists and public policy experts have been invited into college classrooms as guest teachers.

     Colleges from Charleston to Los Angeles have responded with all sorts of new classes. Some have been invented from scratch, while others evolved from existing courses.

     Within higher education circles, these are called "9-11 Courses."

     An event like Sept. 11 can put a strain on college professors and university leaders as they feel driven to create or restructure classes that address such a major, unfolding event, but it also gives those in academic circles the opportunity to adapt to new student interest in courses outside the mainstream.
    
AN EXPERT'S VIEW

     Until this year, Gardel Feurtado's course on ter-rorism and public policy at The Citadel drew about 28 students - just the right number for a heated group discussion.

     This year, students poured into the course, forcing the college to lift its class size cap. Sixty-three eventually signed up.

     The students came searching for a better understanding of terrorism politics, tactics and what drives an organization to believe in violence as an answer to problems. Some of The Citadel's students who are planning military careers came for a more personal reason - they could be fighting this war in the near future.

     Junior Joshua Jammito, 20, is one such student. He hopes to pursue a career in the intelligence branch of the Air Force, and he believes Feurtado's course may be a tool for life.

     Aside from the grade of A that Jammito wants from the class, he hopes to gain an edge by understanding more about other cultures and political agendas.

     He is in good hands. Feurtado, a Panama native and former Army officer who speaks five languages, rose to the height of his career during the Cold War. He did intelligence work for the CIA and handled diplomatic missions for the State Department. News organizations have sought out his thoughts and opinions about Sept. 11 and the new war.

     But inside the small auditorium in Bonds Hall, Feurtado is a world away from that time in his life. He has made the transition from diplomat to teacher.

     In a gruff voice tinged with a subtle blend of accents from multiple cultures, Feurtado speaks passionately about the modern world and America's place in it. He pushes his students to think about alternative politics and religion by stretching their concept of reality and life.

     In one brief 55-minute class period, recently, Feurtado paced the floor as he flooded his students, who come from all The Citadel's classes and majors, with questions: Is political violence a means to an end? Do we as a nation have the emotional, psychological and financial determination to fight the war long-term? How do you collect intelligence information in a nation that protects privacy?

     The class covers all terrorism types, including religious, secular and political, and the costs of terrorism - human life, security, time, money and individual rights.

     He wants his students to recognize the human side of terrorism and learn to think through the events in the world around them. Feurtado talks of challenges facing the United States, the hatred many feel for its superpower status and its need to gain support for its cause worldwide.

     He is an analytical storyteller, and he tries to bring public policy down to a level where students can make sense of it. He compared the war against terrorism to the legendary fight between Muhammad Ali and George Forman. "You have to change the rules of the game," he said.

     Feurtado challenges his students to think beyond American politics and avoid defining a culture or political stance as good or bad. He encourages them to think critically of the motives behind a war.

     "This is not a class on patriotism," he told a recent auditorium full of cadets. "You have to ask your government the hard questions ... It is your job as a student and a citizen.

     "You have to be skeptical."
    
A NATIONAL TREND

     Two weeks after the passengers jets crashed into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, the University of California at Los Angeles began offering classes about the event.

     It currently has 50 new courses that deal with terrorism. These range from history and English to psychology, politics and religion. The war on terrorism has raised issues in nearly every corner of the liberal arts realm.

     The events have sparked a greater curiosity among young people in foreign thinking and distant cultures. Professors have asked students to create their own national security plans, and journalism schools have studied how newspapers, magazines and television are covering the war.

     Health and psychology classes look at the reactions, the grieving process and the recovery, while religion classes delve into the Islamic faith and its place in the Middle East.

     These new offerings are proving popular: Students have flocked to them, and more schools have opened their doors to professionals, housewives and elderly residents interested in gaining a greater understanding.

     Existing classes on public policy and the politics of the presidency are seeing a newfound popularity, which is encouraging more professors to work together in a single class. Professors of political science, business and psychology are sharing time to give students a richer experience.

     Feurtado is not alone. A handful of political science professors at the College of Charleston have altered their courses to deal with current events. Class discussions at Charleston Southern University shift impulsively at times from English, religion and history to terrorism and national safety as connections are made between the past and present.

     Jay Hetherington, a former CIA program manager and visiting instructor at Clemson University, leads a stream of professors teaching "The United States in an Era of Terror."

     Professors are incorporating more alternative sources such as magazine articles, newspapers, the Internet and other supplemental materials.
    
BALANCING THOUGHT AND SPEED

     The response to Sept. 11 is a new phenomenon, said Charlie FitzSimons, spokesman for the state Commission on Higher Education.

     Information and technology is readily available so it has become demanded by society. That is what spurs the courses related to terrorism, he said.

     That was not the case in the past.

     During the Vietnam War, the student response was to take to the streets in protest, FitzSimons said. When Pearl Harbor was hit, people heard about it only through the radio or newspaper. This time, the world watched the battle begin on television.

     How difficult is it for a college professor to create a course from scratch or reconfigure a course that adequately deals with an event like the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center?

     "They (colleges and universities) need to be responsive, but they also need to be thoughtful and responsible provides of information and perspective. That is the role of academia: Take explosive issues, provide information and help folks work through the problems," FitzSimons said.

     There are risks in creating and adapting a course to deal with today's headlines, but the academic atmosphere at most colleges and universities safeguard against quick-draw lectures and ill-conceived class schedules.

     "One of the great things about the academic community is while it often moves at a snail's pace, there is a lot of thought and research that goes into the job," FitzSimons said.

     It is also an opportunity for colleges to draw upon the expertise of guest lecturers.

     The result is a group of academic leaders who work together to encourage students to learn more about the world outside their backyard, which is the point of the college experience, FitzSimons said.
    
HOW IT HAPPENS

     John Creed, a political science professor at the College of Charleston, was on sabbatical and preparing for a trip to the Middle East on Sept. 11.

     The event postponed his visit to an American research center in Jordan, and that gave him time to read a large collection of books, articles and academic studies about Afghanistan, the Taliban and the events leading up to the attacks.

     Those included Larry Goodson's "Afghanistan's Endless War" and "How Did This Happen? Terrorism and the New War" by editors James Hoge and Gideon Rose. Some of the things he read were far above the typical college student's intellectual abilities. The challenge was finding the materials that his students could draw real meaning from. He also spent time carefully incorporating those materials into his international relations courses, freshmen to senior level.

     "I am not afraid and not reluctant to tear apart what I teach and do something new," he said. "I think for me, the big challenge is that I've got to get materials that students can get their heads around. I have read a lot of stuff looking for something that fits."

     That is the way political science should be - driven by what is going on in the world, Creed said.

     "It is really important for us to do this at some level because it is what students are thinking about," he said. "It is important to make some sense of what is going on today."

     He is now trying to get his students to think about America's relationship with the rest of the world, the rise of the Taliban and how things fell apart in Afghanistan.

     Creed also pushes his students to look at the world ahead. He feels an obligation to help students find perspective through class discussion, films, documentaries and writing exercises.

     "I'm learning right along with the students," he said. "The students help me make sense of things as I help them make sense of things as well."

     This isn't the first time Creed has altered his class to address a current event.

     "When the Gulf War took place, I felt some need to help the student in my class come to term with that ... I knew within an hour of what happened on Sept. 11 that this was going to shape what was happening in my classes."
    
     Catherine Lawrence covers education. Contact her at 745-5854 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .