Scholars Seek To Define Academy's Role in Atomic Debate
Washington--As students and faculty on hundreds of university campuses prepare for a day of convocations later this month on the threat of nuclear war, more than 125 administrators and scholars from many of these institutions gathered here to discuss "The Role of the Academy in Addressing the Issues of Nuclear War."
That there is and must be such a role, said Richard W. Lyman, president of the Rockefeller Foundation and a main speaker at the symposium, "I take to be indisputable."
But several of the speakers noted that the academy has virtually ignored until recently what one of them called "the central issue of our times."
Claiming that college presidents "have been reluctant to speak out on issues other than those related directly to their own institutions, such as financial aid," Adele Simmons, president of Hampshire College (Mass.), declared: "We have the responsibility to exercise leadership on our campuses, because we cannot afford the luxury of waiting for the study of peace and war to percolate up through all the layers of aca-demic respectability before it reaches the surface."
Arguing strongly that colleges and universities should become involved in teaching nuclear issues, Ms. Simmons said: "Perhaps more than any single subject, the study of war and peace in the nuclear age provides a vehicle through which to accomplish virtually all the espoused purposes of liberal education." And it is the academy's responsibility, she asserted, "to take the issues of war and peace away from the lunatic fringe and place them squarely in the center of the most respected academic institutions."
Mr. Lyman, recalling the Vietnam protest of the 1960's, urged that the task be approached with reason and caution and warned that "it would be far too easy, and tragically shortsighted, to allow such energies as we can muster to be siphoned off into promoting protest and nothing more."
Although acknowledging that mass protest "can play a useful part," Mr. Lyman said that "it is a blunt instrument and a crude one."
In a series of seminars and workshops that followed Mr. Lyman's address, professors of history, psychology, science, sociology, and political science discussed the contributions that the various disciplines could make to an understanding of nuclear issues.
Robert Jay Lifton, professor of psychiatry at Yale University, said that all academic disciplines have something to say about the nuclear issue, and he cited linguistics as an example: "'Nuclear exchange' sounds like an exchange of gifts," he said, and "window of vulnerability" sounds very minor. Dr. Lifton said that the "so-called experts" who create these terms are "paid anesthetists to our leaders."
George W. Rathjens, professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and formerly a division director of the Department of Defense's advanced-research-projects agency, questioned whether scientists could play an effective role in a campus program, claiming that scientists are "just not trusted," largely because so many of them have been advisors to and have received research and contract funds from the federal government--particularly from the defense agency.
Participants reviewed existing programs and courses on nuclear issues--such programs as Ohio State's "Experiment in Arms Control Education"; "World Crisis in the Nuclear Age: Introduction to Nuclear War" at the University of Minnesota; and "Teaching Values Through Discussion of Nuclear War" at the University of Maryland.
Noting that such courses require expertise from a number of academic disciplines and therefore are more likely to be interdisciplinary in nature, several of the participants suggested that they may not be readily accepted on many campuses.
Dr. Lifton said that such courses may meet resistance because universities are highly departmentalized, and there are few, if any, rewards to faculty members for participating in interdisciplinary courses. He also argued that teaching itself is too narrowly defined as "recasting something" that already has a great deal of research and history to support it, rather than creating a "narrative of potential extinction" that deals with a situation that must be imagined to a certain extent.
"I have occasionally heard faculty members and administrators wonder aloud whether anything they do as educators makes any real difference in the long run to the course of events in the world," Ms. Simmons said, concluding her remarks. "Here, I suggest, is a perfect opportunity for all of us to make a difference."
"The Role of the Academy in Addressing the Issues of Nuclear War" was funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and sponsored by the Association of American Colleges, the American Council on Education, and Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Edited transcripts of the speeches are scheduled to be published this summer.
Reporting for this story was provided by Tricia Furniss.