Published Online:

Mounting Concern Over Nuclear War Begins To Involve Nation's

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

In a Chicago high-school classroom, students are considering what would happen if a nuclear bomb were to hit their city. How would it affect them? "Where would we put the morgue?" one asks. "Would there be enough room for all the bodies?"

In a private-school classroom in Northfield, Mass., two dozen seniors are standing face-to-face, holding hands and looking into each other's eyes. They are imagining they are looking at a person who will die in a nuclear war. The classroom is silent.

In a Baton Rouge high-school class, students are trying to deal with this chilling moral dilemma outlined by their teacher: "The bomb goes off, but you survive unharmed. Your mother, father, brother, and sister are all dying. Would you kill them to stop their suffering?"

These students are being asked to think and talk about nuclear war--the possibility of it, its consequences, and the means of avoiding it.

Few Formal Courses

Such discussions, however, remain a relative rarity among the nation's 46 million public and private elementary and secondary students. Educators confirm that while some teachers allude to nuclear issues informally, formal instructional efforts are almost unknown; a former Princeton University researcher's four-month search in early 1981 for courses and curricula dealing with nuclear weapons turned up none.

But national and international forces are raising American's anxieties about the threat of a nuclear holocaust to their highest levels in years. At town meetings, in state legislatures, on college campuses and in the halls of Congress the debate has quickened. And a growing number of educators in both schools and colleges believe the education community must shoulder more responsibility for providing information and instruction about what many Americans believe to be, in the words of one, "The most important issue facing civilization."

A variety of factors appear to be feeding the current national alarm--from the Reagan Administration's call for an arms buildup and its assertion that a "limited nuclear war" may be possible, to anti-nuclear demonstrations in Europe, to unrest in trouble spots around the globe that raises fears of a wider conflagration. Such tensions have sparked a rapidly growing number of citizen and political activities, including a nationwide movement for a "nuclear freeze," that some educators argue are affecting schools and students whether they are prepared for them or not.

The latest Washington Post/abc poll revealed that 45 percent of the Americans surveyed believed that the chance of nuclear war had grown, underscoring an earlier Gallup poll in which 3 out of 4 voters said they wanted the U.S. and the Soviet Union to reduce their respective nuclear arsenals by half.

Activist groups opposing the nuclear-arms buildup report tenfold membership gains in the past year, and new organizations are forming. The leader of one such group has called the nuclear-arms race the "central moral issue" of the decade--an issue that will be to the 1980's what Vietnam was to the 1960's.

These groups have begun, or are planning, a number of education-related initiatives on the nuclear issue . For example:

A coalition of organizations has set the week of April 18-25 as a nationwide period for "nonpartisan, community-based discussions and events designed to educate and involve the American people on the issue of nuclear war." The plan was developed by Ground Zero, a Washington-based group that describes itself as nonpartisan and nonpolitical and says it takes no position on nuclear weapons, but advocates education on nuclear war. The effort has been endorsed by the National Education Association (nea), the United States Student Association, the American Association of University Women, the National Council of Churches, and more than a score of other national religious, labor, and public-interest organizations.

In addition, Ground Zero has developed a curriculum on nuclear issues for high schools and colleges that is also endorsed by the nea.

The Federation of American Scientists has initiated the Nuclear War Education Project "to promote the development of study groups, course modules, and entire courses on the nuclear war; to train scien-tists and others to give competent presentations on nuclear-war issues at schools, churches, and before citizen groups; to promote the development and distribution of teaching materials on nuclear war; to facilitate cooperation among individuals and organizations concerned with nuclear-war education."

Leaders of the project are seeking sponsors and funding for a conference next summer that would include secondary-school teachers on teaching nuclear issues and developing courses and curricula on the topic. They hope that this will lead to a series of regional workshops for high-school teachers and administrators.

The United Campuses to Prevent Nuclear War--recently formed by college students--is cosponsoring with the Union of Concerned Scientists a series of campus convocations on April 22. By late last month, more than 250 colleges and universities in all 50 states had joined the effort, its sponsors say.

The newly formed Educators for Social Responsibility has goals, say its founders, similar to those of such groups as Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Union of Concerned Scientists. One of those goals is to convince teachers to teach about the nuclear issue; it sponsored a meeting for 220 teachers in Cambridge, Mass., last month on the topic of "Educating for Responsibility in a Nuclear Age." (See Education Week January 26 and March 10.)

Late last month, some 200 college and university faculty members and administrators from 70 institutions met in Washington to consider "The Role of the Academy in Addressing the Issues of Nuclear War," at an invitational conference 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. (See Story on Page 12.)

Increasing Local Interest

"I sense there is a groundswell--a growing interest in the arms freeze at the grassroots level," said Arnold Fege, director of governmental relations at the National Congress of Parents and Teachers. Local pta's, he said, have been calling about the proposed Congressional resolution to freeze nuclear arms and to ask what other states are doing about it.

The current attention to the nuclear arms race is "just the tip of the iceberg," he added, but the "direction the schools will take remains to be seen."

Proponents of a nuclear-issues curriculum for high-school students expect the increasing concern with the nuclear-arms race to give momentum to their efforts.

According to Roger Molander, a former member of the National Security Council through three Presidential Administrations and now the executive director of Ground Zero, "If people understand the severity of the threat [of nuclear war], they will respond to that threat. If people have some means of understanding the issues, then they will engage in doing something about it."

Ground Zero's curriculum package, offered free to teachers at the junior-high through college levels, includes 10 lesson plans that cover such topics as the evolution of nuclear weapons; the effects of economics, politics, psychology, and cultural differences on the possible triggering of a nuclear war; the proliferation of nuclear weapons; and negotiation of nuclear-arms limitations.

Described as "a self-contained learning program," the Ground Zero unit is designed to fit into most high-school curricula, said Pamela Burns, a veteran teacher and director of education for the organization. It can "fly in any class--history, current events, government, social issues, or even English."

The curriculum emphasizes "skill-development as the student is learning about the issues," she added. "The lesson plans are designed to put the teacher in the role of facilitator. [The course] recognizes that many teachers themselves are not knowledgeable enough in the issues to teach them, so it approaches the subject in a non-threatening way with the attitude: 'We're all learning this together'." (For a description of some other courses dealing with nuclear issues, see related story on page 13.)

Random Treatment

"You will find dedicated teachers in social-science courses who will bring up these issues on their own, but it is haphazard," said Sanford Gottlieb, former executive director "You will find dedicated teachers in social-science courses who will bring up these issues on their own, but it is haphazard," said Sanford Gottlieb, former executive director of sane (Citizens' Organization for a Sane World) and now co-chairman of the Washington-based Disarmament Working Group, Coalition for a New Foreign and Military Policy.

Those who favor the introduction of nuclear-disarmament issues into the traditional curricula insist that leaving the matter to individual teachers to include briefly in history or social studies courses is "just not enough."

And they argue that one-time presentations on the nuclear-war issue in films, lectures, or even a series of seminars are also inadequate and can even backfire and create problems if children are not properly prepared beforehand.

Recently, for example, a suburban Boston school system showed the film "The War Game"--a movie simulation of a nuclear attack on London--to nearly all students in grades 7 through 12, and some were badly shaken by it.

One 15-year-old told her mother, "I just saw 'The War Game,' and I wanted to throw up. I came to class and the teacher just put it on. The class ended and we all just sat there. ... Tell me the truth: Will that really happen?" The girl's mother was distressed by the incident and let the teacher know it. Said one teacher: "It can take a whole semester to put a kid back together after he's seen 'The War Game."'

Not all educators agree that high school is the place to teach about nuclear war--not just because it may be emotionally upsetting, but because, they say, it is too complex for high-school students. They would deal with the subject at the college level.

"Although there are ways to teach the subject so that it would be no more complicated than a normal civics or history class," said Mr. Gottlieb, "I think for an in-depth look at the subject it would have to be an exceptional high school."

The Rev. James Antal, chaplain at the Northfield Mt. Hermon School, disagreed. In view of the large number of high-school students who do not go on to college, he said, "if it's only for the best and the brightest, then we're all doomed. This issue can and must be addressed at all socioeconomic levels of our society--especially the lower- and middle-income groups because they are really the victims of the arms race. The economics of the arms race hurts them more than the elite who attend private schools."

'Deeply Disturbed'

John Mack, a psychiatrist at the Harvard Medical School and a member of the task force of the American Psychiatric Association on the "psychosocial impacts of nuclear advances," offered another rationale for presenting nuclear-arms issues at the high-school level. Adolescents, he said, are "deeply disturbed by the threat of nuclear war."

Citing the task force's finding that children and teen-agers are deeply aware of the nuclear threat and "are much more concerned about it than ever before recognized," he said their awareness and concern have led to a certain degree of "sadness, bitterness, and a sense of helplessness."

"At the very least," according to Dr. Mack, "these young people need an opportunity to learn about and participate in decisions on matters which affect their lives so critically."

Constance Kurz also contributed to this report.

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories

Viewed

Emailed

Recommended

Commented